The Story of a New Zealand River
damnation! I wish they would hurry up.” David Bruce stamped his numbed feet upon one of the few reliable planks in the landing-stage, which threatened to collapse under his vigour, and blew upon his hands, rough and contracted by the cold. The only person within hearing, Sonny Shoreman, a lanky youth whose manhood was not yet under way, hung shivering over the side of the black punt that was moored to the rotting piles of the little wharf. His hands were tucked under his armpits. His bottle-green eyes glared miserably up at the horizon, now tinged with a weak glow from the rising sun.
“Are you sure you told them seven o'clock?” demanded Bruce, kicking at a piece of lichen.
“Yes, certain,” mumbled Sonny.
The tide, running out fast, made little wakes round the square ends of the punt, which was a huge coffin-like craft full of furniture and boxes partly hidden under a new tarpaulin cover. The creek, here little more than twice the width of the boat, ran deep between lines of mangroves, the dull green of their stiff leaves relieved but little by the flat yellow berries, which seemed to continue the colour scheme of the clay in solution in the river, recently flooded by the spring rains. Walled up to a high horizon on either side was virgin forest from which a mist, getting lighter every minute, was slowly lifting.
The wharf, the punt, and the two men looked as if they had been dropped from the clouds into the depths of that remote ravine. There seemed to be no way in and no way page 10 out. But as the fog shifted they could see, about half a mile along another gully, a small white school and teacher's house, set on the side of a hill.
The eyes of both Bruce and Sonny Shoreman now gazed with fierce interrogation upon those humble buildings. As they looked, the forms of a man, two women carrying babies, and a child—all laden with packages—took shape in the mist. Only occasionally as they came on were they seen by the impatient watchers by the punt, for the road, which was carved round the spurs of the range, lay mostly under cover, and it seemed to Bruce that there passed eternities of biting cold before the welcome sound of voices and the squelching of thin mud made music for his urgent ears.
Indifferent as to the personality of the boss's wife and children, who were to be his passengers, Bruce began to loosen the ropes. When the party finally appeared round a ti-tree clump, and reached the creaking wharf, he turned, raising his cap to Roy Harding, the schoolmaster, and his wife, whom he knew well. Then he looked casually at Mrs. Roland.
He was instantly conscious of his deficiencies.
“The devil! Why didn't I shave?” he growled inwardly.
As they moved on towards him he suspected that Alice Roland was what the washerwomen called a “real lydy,” and he saw that in spite of a hard black hat, and a rather ugly brown cloak, she was a young and very good-looking one too. He saw that she was tall, and that though she carried a baby and a basket hung over her arm she moved gracefully. He had time to notice her good colour, her straight features, and the coils of chestnut hair upon her neck before the party stopped before him.
As Alice turned her grey, day-of-judgment eyes upon him, with a look that instantly judged him and dismissed him from her consciousness, he realized how much she resented being formally introduced to him as to an equal. He did not know that never before had she been presented to any page 11 one who looked as unprepossessing as he did at that moment.
He was only too conscious of the marks of his recent short but reckless whisky drinking. His fine brown eyes were strained and blood-shot, his hands red and dirty, his dark hair uncombed, his hat guilty of indescribable disreputableness, his battered dungarees smelling of river mud, tar and stale tobacco.
It would have taken a connoisseur in types to have realized his possibilities. It was not remarkable that on that particular morning Alice Roland failed to perceive them. She saw only the dirty clothes, the unshaven face, the bloodshot eyes, the shrinking manner, all that she had been taught to connect with the name of pariah; and, forgetting for the moment that she was to be dependent on him on an unknown river journey, she barely acknowledged his presence.
Bruce had scarcely time to flush before Mrs. Harding turned to him, trying to ignore the unfortunate manner of the woman she had introduced.
“We have not seen you for three weeks. How is that?” she asked.
Bruce smiled gratefully at her.
“I've been helping Mr. Roland with the house,” he answered quietly.
“Why didn't you come up last night?” she went on.
“We got up late, and it took me till midnight to get the things aboard. We shall have to hurry now. It will take us all our time to get down on the tide.”
He turned as he spoke, and as he did so the child of the party, who had been watching him, stepped up to him. Her eight-year-old dignity was offended at having been ignored.
“How do you do?” she said ceremoniously, holding out a hand that was lost in a dark blue mitten.
Bruce stopped short to look down at her. All he could see of her face was a pair of mischievous and inquiring blue eyes, haloed by a voluminous and floppy bonnet. Before he thought, he had taken that friendly little hand.page 12
“Asia,” said her mother coldly, “Mr. Harding will help you into the boat.”
Absurdly hurt, David Bruce turned quickly away from her. But the child looked after him.
“I will get in myself, thank you,” she said to Roy, with a comical dignity.
As Bruce undid the ropes he was vividly conscious of the little scene of embarkation. Helped by the Hardings. Alice Roland finally got herself, her children, and her packages all safely into the punt. Bruce felt sorry for her when he saw by her awkwardness and her uncertainty how utterly unfamiliar she was with travelling of that primitive kind; and, looking ahead for her, he wondered how she would stand the rest of it. In spite of her behaviour to him, he liked the way she thanked the Hardings for their fortnight's hospitality. Something about her attitude, as she stood with her face upturned to them, attracted him to a second glance as he began to shove the punt away from the piles. Then he walked round the side of it, at the back of the family group, and slid down into the tow-boat, where Sonny had the bow seat.
“Good-bye, Mr. Bruce,” called the Hardings together. “Come along soon.”
“Thanks, I will.” He waved his cap back at them.
Then with sweeping strokes, which Sonny Shoreman ached to rival, Bruce swept the tow-boat ahead, and the punt drew away from the landing.
The Hardings stood till the last vestige of Asia's waving handkerchief disappeared round the first bend. Then they looked at each other. Roy shrugged his shoulders.
“Poor thing,” said Dorrie. “However will she stand it?”
“The Lord knows. She was rotten to Bruce. She'll have to learn sense.”
“She'll alter when she's had a few weeks of that loneliness. And then David will shine beside Roland, once he is clean and shaved.” She spoke significantly.
He looked at her.page 13
“Hm! I hadn't thought of that.”
She laughed with feminine suggestiveness.
“Well, I have.”
They walked back, turning several times to watch the passage of the punt between the mangroves. Tears glistened in Dorrie's eyes. She read into Alice Roland's future things her husband did not think of.
Meantime, in the punt, Alice occupied herself with the immediate problem of coping with the cold, which was to be considered before the remoter issues of this dreaded excursion into unknown wilds. Betty, who was three years old, and the baby, who had just had her first birthday, both chose the occasion to howl piteously at this dislocation of accustomed ways. Alice, who could not bear that anything belonging to her should misbehave in public, exerted all her forces of comfort and cajolery.
Asia heroically helped her mother with “the children,” as she always called them. But she burned to investigate this wonderful adventure. Presently, when the baby was soothed to sleep on an improvised bed in a bath-tin, and when Betty was pacified, she felt she was free. Then she darted with the spasmodic rapidity of a squeezed wet bean from one part of the punt to the other, scrambling over the tarpaulin, and calling every few minutes in gasping whispers to her mother to look. Her life, spent so far only in cities, had contained no hints of the wonders of silence and space, of the mysteries of forest depths and rustling trees, of the strange ways of the free creatures of the air and earth. She clasped her hands, electrified and speechless, as startled wild duck rose from hidden places, or ungainly shags flapped an erratic course down stream, or gawgaws croaked from the heights.
Then Alice stood up. The only thing that seemed to belong to her, in that incongruous setting of boxes and mattresses and common furniture, was a piano which was packed in a heavy case. It had cost Bruce an anxious hour the night before, till with the help of chance riders he had got it safely aboard. Against the end of it she now leaned, page 14 her proud profile clearly visible to Bruce, who kept looking away from it and back again. He wondered if the scenery was getting her as it had got him the first time he came down that magic river.
He vividly remembered the morning when he had piloted the boss to the kauri forest at Pukekaroro. It had been a case of the blind leading the blind down that winding channel; but, in spite of strandings in the mud and the boss's temper, Bruce had felt the call of the wild, and had accepted the offer to stay. He wondered once, as he saw Alice's face turned towards a gorge in the mountains, if she felt about it all as he had done. He knew that one might well forget the petty facts of life in the midst of that tremendous scenery.
The river was a mere thread at the bottom of the narrow valley, which was walled up on either side by precipitous hills that kept the sunlight out till midday. From the mangrove banks to the sky a great variety of trees in fifty shades of evergreen covered every yard of space. There was a riotous spring colour in the forest, voluptuous gold and red in the clumps of yellow kowhai and the crimson rata, and there were masses of greeny white clematis and bowers of pale tree ferns to rest the satiated eye. Stiff laurel-like puriris stood beside the drooping fringe of the lacy rimu; hard blackish kahikateas brooded over the oaklike ti-toki with its lovely scarlet berry.
Nowhere in the world is there more variety. Here nature hated the very beginnings of monotony. So she scattered a little of everything about those wonderful hills. Towering arrogantly above all else, on the crests and down the spurs, stood groups of the kauri, the giant timber tree of New Zealand, whose great grey trunks, like the pillars in the ancient halls of Karnak, shot up seventy and eighty feet without a knot or branch, and whose colossal heads, swelling up into the sky, made a cipher of every tree near.
Round each bend there was a fresh gully, a new and stimulating vista. And everywhere there was a vibrating page 15 silence, a terribly lonely silence, but rarely broken by the note of a singing bird.
In springtime it was a cold, windy, rain-washed land. It lacked the fierce blues and flame colours of Australia. Its days never palpitated with the exciting hum of that tropical land. Its nights were chaste and chilly. No “soft lascivious stars” caressed its rare wandering lovers. Its winds growled harshly or sighed mournfully, blowing ever over dead men's bones. For the river and the hills were one of the gateways to the land of the lost.
The first thing that struck Alice about it all was its appalling isolation. Every mile of it meant a mile farther from even such limited civilization as she had just left behind. Every hour of it meant so much more of life cut off from the only things she knew and loved. Every bend in the river meant another fearful look forward, and another yearning look back. It was just eight o'clock now, and they were to go on like this hour after hour, until two, or perhaps three in the afternoon.
For the last fortnight she had been alternately shirking it and facing it. Each day had further intensified her fear. Once, as she turned, Bruce saw the expression on her face. All sense of hurt left him as he realized that she was horribly afraid.
Only once had her grey eyes rested, carefully expressionless, upon his muscular frame, as it swung backwards and forwards with the ease of a well-oiled machine. She did not appreciate the fact that he was giving a magnificent exhibition of physical strength as he rowed desperately to keep ahead of the tide. To her he was a bushman, one of the lawless oddments of humanity who had either fled from civilization, as the result of evil deeds, or was drifting shiftlessly towards a wretched end. And, as a servant of her husband, and a sometimes drunken one at that, he was outside her speculations.
Each time that Asia, fascinated by the steady sweep of page 16 the oars, stopped at the front of the punt to watch them, she was called back.
“You must not stare at them,” Alice said.
“Don't they get tired, mother?” asked the child.
“No, they are used to it.”
“They must be very strong.”
“Oh, yes, men are.”
Presently the children woke up, and had to be fed, kept warm, and played with. When Alice next had time to look around, the face of the world had changed. There were no mountains on the western bank of the river now, and the eastern ones had dwarfed. The river, too, had widened out, swelled at intervals by smelly creeks, sneaking from remote sources away among the hills. They passed fire-swept wastes, and blackened ranges and valleys, where denuded kauri trees, now often standing alone like giant spectres, held up their bleached heads imploringly to the sky. Once a gully opened out upon a dark level wall of stiff kahikateas, and once a break in the ranges revealed, on a distant green hill, a solitary house beside a clump of friendly pines.
Alice and Asia both saw it at the same instant.
“Is that ours?” asked the child.
“I don't know.”
Asia bounded to the front of the punt.
“Is that our house?” she called to Bruce.
“Asia!” exclaimed her mother angrily.
Bruce saw that the child had spoken, but he had not heard what she said. He stopped rowing.
“I beg your pardon,” he answered.
Upset by her mother's tone, Asia hesitated.
“Go on, you must ask him now,” said Alice very low.
“Is that our house?” asked Asia, in a crestfallen voice.
“No, not yet. I'm afraid you won't see it for some hours.” He spoke naturally, but he had perfectly understood the significance of the little scene.
He and Sonny Shoreman rowed on without stopping for two more hours. Then they came suddenly upon a broad page 17 bay and beach, with a Maori settlement nestled against the low hills behind. Canoes were drawn up on the sand, and the sun shone on fields of young corn and freshly ploughed land.
They had now reached a channel that was permanently deep, and there was no longer any danger of being stuck.
Bruce stopped rowing, backed the tow-boat, put his hands on the front of the punt, and vaulted up on it.
“I have to go ashore here for half an hour or so, Mrs. Roland. I shall anchor the punt here. You will be perfectly safe,” as he saw her fearful glance at the shore. “The Maoris are quite harmless. They won't come out to you. They may call, but that would only be friendly.”
“Yes,” she replied rather stupidly. For the first time she noticed his voice.
He swung out a heavy anchor, Asia watching him, absorbed. Then he jumped back into the tow-boat, and he and Sonny rowed ashore.
Maori children playing on the beach ran up to him, and women, brilliant spots of colour, waved their hands at him from the fields. Alice, interested in spite of herself, and Asia, in another ecstasy, both looked on at the unfamiliar scene.
“We'll get something to eat, Sonny, and have a spell,” said Bruce.
Seeing by her watch that it was twelve o'clock, Alice unpacked Mrs. Harding's kit of luncheon. The children, who had nibbled at intervals, said they were still starving, so Alice spread out the sandwiches and the bottles of milk to look like a meal. Warm now under the sunshine of a glorious day, she recovered a measure of cheerfulness, and in an effort to make her children gay she learnt for the first time in her life the delights of a meal out of doors.
They had scarcely finished when Bruce and Sonny returned. Without a word the men got the boats under way again.
Acting on one of her sudden impulses, Asia took up a page 18 packet of sandwiches, and as Alice turned to the baby, who had seized a knife, she scrambled to the front of the punt, and with friendly glee in her eyes she signalled with it to Bruce.
Alice moved round just as she lost her balance, clutched vainly at the taut connecting rope, and went down.
Before she could utter a sound Bruce, who had seen it coming, shot over the stern of the tow-boat, and dived at the sinking blue bonnet. There was an eternal moment of silence when Alice knew they were both somewhere underneath the punt. Then she heard a splash towards the rear.
“All right,” called Bruce.
She heard him, but she could not move. She heard the swift strokes through the water beside the punt. She saw Sonny Shoreman haul Asia into the little boat.
Breathing hard and dripping streams of water from his pockets, Bruce struggled in, pulled the rope, and handed Asia, who was spluttering and coughing, but otherwise unhurt and unafraid, over the end of the punt.
Livid and speechless, Alice seized her and looked dumbly at Bruce. He was moved to swift sympathy at the agony in her eyes.
“She is all right, Mrs. Roland. Just change her clothes at once and she will be none the worse.” Then he jumped back and went on rowing.
All Alice could feel was the sickening weakness that follows a sudden shock. She stared at Asia dripping before her as at some incredible thing. The first thing to come back to her consciousness was a realization of fresh fears bound up with this new future—new dangers to her children.
The victim of this misadventure, who even at that age had a great sense of the dramatic, coughed energetically, and exclaimed with the air of a tragedy queen:
“Oh, my nice new bonnet! It's just ruined.” Then she saw her mother's face. “What is it, mother? Never mind about my bonnet. I'll make the old one do.” She did not page 19 understand why she was suddenly seized and passionately kissed.
“What were you doing to fall in?” gasped her mother, as she opened a portmanteau full of dry clothes.
Asia looked guilty.
“I was going to give him some sandwiches, Mother. He didn't have any dinner.”
Alice stood accused. It had not occurred to her. She flushed.
“Get your clothes off,” she said.
As she stood to form a shield round the child she seriously wondered how she was to treat a workman who had performed such service as Bruce had. She was kind rather with the trained consideration incidental to habits of good breeding than with a natural spontaneity that rushed forth to meet human beings. And as a woman born in the ruling class she was inclined to take a good deal for granted in the serving class. She would not have put baldly into words that it was Bruce's duty to save her child, but she unconsciously minimised the value of his action because he was her husband's servant.
Also, in action it always took her some time to decide how far precedent should act as a guide. Faced with a new situation her first sensations were those of indecision and helplessness. After some minutes' thought she took up the remaining packet of sandwiches and moved with it to the bow. She was furious to find herself flushing.
“Will you have some sandwiches?” she asked, looking down into Bruce's steaming face.
He at once stopped rowing and stood up, while Sonny Shoreman kept the little boat end on and steady.
“I beg your pardon, Mrs. Roland.” Bruce's fine eyes were as expressionless as he could make them.
She repeated her question.
“Thanks, we shall be glad to,” he answered, taking the package. Then he saw that she wanted to say something more.page 20
“I thank you—I hope you won't catch cold,” she stammered, looking at his wet clothes.
He wondered why it cost her such an effort to say that simple thing.
“Oh, there's no fear of that, thank you. I'm used to it.” Then, as if she could not possibly have any more to say to him, he dropped back into his seat. “Here, Sonny,” he whispered, handing him the sandwiches, “eat one whether you want it or not.” He helped himself to the other and then took up the oars again.
Alice sat down in the punt feeling that the incident had somehow put her in the wrong.
Sometime over an hour later the punt crawled round a [gap — reason: unclear] point on the right, and down a long length of rippling river there stood out, at the end of a line of white cliffs, the outline of a small house against a splendid wall of bush.
The irrepressible Asia rushed to the bow.
“Is that it?” she called, and this time went unreproved.
“It is,” smiled Bruce.
“That's it, Mother, that's it!” she cried, whirling about in the limited space.
She grabbed up Betty, who saw all sorts of things, but not the thing she was supposed to see.
With the baby in her arms Alice stood up again. On the right bank she saw hills and gullies, hills and gullies without end, and on the left she saw the waste of low scrub land, brown in patches from last autumn's fires.
Startled wild duck rose from hidden lagoons. Hundreds of curlew, just arrived from Siberia, fed upon the shimmering mud flats. Lines of mangroves marked the course of sluggish creeks. Nowhere was there a sign of habitation; not a clump of pines, not even the yellow line of a road.
As the punt passed in deep water close beside the bank Alice saw peeping out of the fern on a mound above two small enclosures with rough unpainted crosses falling against the rotting palings. Those unknown graves were page 21 the last straw. Bruce saw her lips quiver. He saw the look of desperation and despair in her eyes as she sank down out of his sight. And her helplessness put him on her side for ever.
When, at last, Alice raised her head again, she caught her breath. She found herself looking up a slope of grass-land at a solid pack of Scotch firs, horizon high. They evidently hid a house, for there were outbuildings, and cattle and sheep grazing in the field. They had come suddenly upon it all round an eastern headland.
Alice tried to calculate the distance between that friendly thicket and the small house at the end of the cliffs. It did not look more than three miles, but by road it might be four or five. And there would be a woman there, perhaps some impossible, rough, farm-house drudge, but still, a woman. Alice thought of babies to come, the worst nightmare of this future life, and thanked God from the depths of her orthodox soul for that clump of pines and that suggestion of home and neighbour.
As they moved on, they saw that the river turned at right angles into the west. Instead of landing immediately below the house the rowers made a detour to avoid a mud flat, round which the channel ran. This carried them over against the wall of bush to the end of a sand-spit that stretched from the bank below the cottage almost across the river, and that left only a narrow channel to carry the tide into a little bay that formed the heel of the bend.
As they approached the spit, whose rocky end made a fine landing-place, a short thick-set man with a bristly moustache, reddish hair, and a skin tanned to the toughness of leather, left the house, and walked rapidly down the bank and along the spit, where two men waited with a sledge.
Bruce observed that no handkerchiefs were waved at this end of the journey, that the babies were not held up and told to greet their father, and that even Asia displayed little enthusiasm.
When the punt finally grounded against the shells there page 22 were no signs of eager greeting on either side, but only an obvious “Well, you're here” from the boss, and a composed acquiescence from his wife.
Tom Roland at once led the way along the spit and up the hill. He did not offer to carry anything, nor did he walk beside his wife, but sprang nimbly up the slippery grass slope in front of her, and waited impatiently now and then till she caught him up.
Asia trudged on behind, holding tightly the hand of the cross and tired Betty, who was not equal to the bumps and stumbles, at which she wailed miserably.
“What's up, you baby?” roared Roland from the top.
Bruce, following, dropped some of his load, picked up the tired child, and carried her to the door.
Crimson with humiliation, Alice gave him a short look meant to convey the appropriate amount of gratitude.
Too mentally sick to be interested, she mounted the rough block steps and entered what was to be her home. Only the two front rooms were finished sufficiently to be used. The front door opened straight into the “sitting-room,” which led directly into the front bedroom. The kitchen and Asia's room at the back had yet to be boarded in and lined. Then there was to be a lean-to to contain a scullery and a small porch.
The house stood well off the ground on wooden blocks through which the wind could blow what tune it pleased. There was no question of painting it or finishing it in any way. Of course the boss had visions of something more later on. But this would have to do, perhaps for years. It was to be a makeshift, something in the nature of a picnic. Tom Roland, who had lived most of his life in the open air, had acquired the picnic spirit. It had never occurred to him that it had to be acquired. He expected his wife to produce it immediately.
Alice dropped on to a box, realizing nothing but the cross baby in her arms and Betty crying miserably over her knee.page 23
“Oh, Mother,” began Asia consolingly, “look at that lovely fire, all that wood, and that funny kettle.”
Alice looked into the glowing log fire in the crude brick fireplace, and at the iron kettle hung from some invisible bar up the chimney. The comfort of it did mean a good deal in that tragic moment. She remembered it afterwards as one of the few inspiring memories of that first day. It steeled her to look round the room.
She saw that it had but one window to its three doors, which cut up its space and shrank it till its walls seemed to be closing in upon her. It was lined, but unpapered. Bags of sugar, oatmeal and flour, and boxes of tinned groceries were piled up in one corner of it. There was nothing but a sack on the bare floor. It all looked just about as hopeless and as near the end of everything as it could.
“Here, cheer up,” said Tom Roland briskly. “It will be all right when it's fixed up. Kettle's boiling. We'll have some tea.”
He produced the thick cups he had been using, a tin of condensed milk, sugar and tea, and in a manner that was meant to be helpful and reassuring he made it and poured it out.
Forcing back tears, Alice drank it, while Asia reduced Betty to good humour by rolling about a tin of meat.
A shadow darkened the doorway.
“Oh, come and have a cup of tea,” called the boss to Bruce.
“No, thanks,” he answered promptly, dropping inside the door the baskets he had carried up. He did not wait to be urged, but hurried down the slope.
For the rest of the afternoon Alice had no time to feel sorry for herself. There was too much to do.
By six o'clock the furniture was all placed and the beds set up. Then Alice put the two tired children to sleep while Asia laid the tea. Alice was deeply grateful to Mrs. Harding for a stock of cooked food, enough to last for a day or two. When she came out of her room she found Asia danc-page 24ing round a table neatly spread with cold chicken and home-made bread and butter and honey and cake.
It amazed Alice to see how the child responded to this new and strange environment.
“Oh, Mother, I love this place!” she cried.
The sight of the table in the glow of the fire, and her piano in the corner, and the sun setting upon the river, and the lights upon the forest wall opposite, and the great silence everywhere made up a mass of impressions so arresting that Alice stood still for a few minutes to try to realize it all. Then she called her husband, who with Bruce was taking the last load off the sledge.
“Come along and have a snack,” he said at once to Bruce.
“Thanks, but I don't think I will. They're having dinner at the camp.”
“That don't matter. Come along.”
“I'm not presentable,” protested Bruce. “I would have to change my clothes.”
“Very well, we'll wait.”
Bruce knew the boss loathed waiting for anything. He felt uncomfortable, but he had no adequate excuse. He and the boss had eaten together all along. He hurried to the camp at the head of the bay, shaved, and flung himself into a suit that still bore the stamp of a tailored past. It was the beginning of a new self-respect. Never under any circumstances did Alice Roland see him unshaved again.
Alice spent the minutes waiting for him in absurd unhappiness. She was exasperated at her husband for asking him to the meal, and she felt Bruce ought not to have accepted the invitation. She knew it would be all she could do to get through without some exhibition of feeling. She thought at first of pleading, as well she might, a headache or fatigue, but she felt that would only be delaying the evil moment. She saw she would have to meet Bruce again and again, and the sooner she got used to it the better. She could not get away from him or any other people the boss might have about. In those two little rooms there would be no privacy page 25 for her. Lack of it would be one of the worst things she would have to face.
When Bruce walked into the front room at the boss's answer to his knock he was in nowise conscious of the magnitude of the transformation in himself. After his long day in the open his eyes were clearer, his nerves more steady. The minute Alice looked at him she realized the enormity of her mistake. But it seemed just then only one misery more added to a day of horrors. She dare not let herself think about it.
“Oh, you do look nice; doesn't he, Mother?” cried Asia, jumping up from a chair beside the fire and beaming upon him.
Bruce's sad eyes lit up delightfully as he looked down at her, and then he shot a swift glance at Alice, hoping to see some glimmer of response. But the day had been too much for her. She did not look at him, and he knew by the change in Asia's face that she had been sobered by one look from her mother. But he understood.
The boss saved the situation by laughing. Asia's impulsiveness, a source of woe to her mother, was to him a constant stimulus to huge amusement.
“So, youngster,” he said, “you've got an eye for a man already. Sit down, Bruce,” indicating a chair by the table.
They all sat down, and the boss began to carve the chicken as if he were charging an enemy. All through the meal he dispensed what hospitality there was with a flourish, showed himself absolutely ignorant of the subtleties of social intercourse, excluded Alice from the conversation by talking fast to Bruce of timber measurements, sucked chicken bones with audible approval, whistled when he was not talking, and generally destroyed the slightest chance for moments of reflection.
At any other time Alice would have been humiliated by his behaviour, but now she was grateful to him for saving her from any obligation to say a word. All she did was to ask Bruce if his tea was right and if he would have any page 26 more. He had turned to her more than once trying as naturally as he could to include her in the conversation. But when he saw that she could not or would not respond he gave it up.
Immediately after the meal, to Alice's dismay, they started to weather-board the kitchen. But the tired children slept on. Asia, too, worn out at last, fell half dressed upon her mattress and so remained.
Craving to get away from the hammering and from them, Alice slipped out through the front door. She dared not go far away lest she be wanted, and for the same reason she determined not to cry. But when she had walked a few yards over the shaving-littered grass she broke down suddenly. She sank to her feet beside a bush at the top of the rise, and burst into drenching tears.
How long she had cried she did not know when something in the night arrested her. She dried her eyes, and, sobbing at intervals, looked around her.
At her feet the tide crept lazily up the little bay which rounded off the angle of the river. At low tide it was merely a circular mud flat, swarming with little crabs, and with a few small channels like ditches branched across it, and dotted with shallow pools that reflected the sunlight or the moon and stars. To her left, three miles down the river, steep ploughshare cliffs on either side of it made a gap that seemed to cleave the fore ground from something always misty that lay beyond. The river turned again on the far side of it to run on between low hills to the Kaipara harbour. That harbour, Alice knew, opened into the Tasman Sea, and through it came many a timber ship from Australia and the world far away.
To the east of her, a mile from the curve of the bay, and towering into the stars, a double-coned mountain stretched forth its velvety shadow to meet the tide. Alice had been only vaguely aware of it that afternoon, but now she stopped sobbing as she looked at its sombre dominance. The rising moon made silver-trellised bowers upon its crest page 27 while yet the river below lay plunged in gloom. The Maoris called it Pukekaroro, the seabird's hill, because before the storms great flocks of the friendly gulls, gathering inland, wheeled for days about it, screaming into the peace of its deep ravines.
Immediately to the left of it there was another wonderful gap, like a colossal doorway, opening into a veiled vista beyond. Through it one bright star, defying extinction by the moon, still twinkled. Tom Roland had told her that behind that gap, in the biggest kauri forest of the north, lay his dreams of wealth and future glory.
Alice looked from it into the wall of bush opposite her, listening to the strange cries of the morepork and the melancholy shrieks of the wekas. From a swamp somewhere down the river came the low weird boom of a sort of bittern. All round her there was a stimulating tang in the air, and now and again a salt whiff from the open sea.
Something she had never suspected in herself rose up to respond to it all. She had nothing of the gipsy in her, but she loved beauty, more especially the beauty that was created—as she would have put it—by the hand of God. And it was the hand of God that she saw in that night, in that mountain, that bush and that river. For the moment she forgot the world that lay so far away, the familiar ways of living, the things she knew and wanted, the kinds of people who mattered to her. She looked up at the stars, and she felt that God was there, and that his protecting arm was about her.
She turned her head quickly, hearing steps beside the house. She saw Bruce coming along the beginnings of a path that had been worn in her direction. She was instantly a prey to conflicting emotions. She had not the faintest notion how to bring ease into a situation in which she had been the first to put embarrassment. All she could see was the hideous mistake and no way out of it. Never simple and direct, she could not apologize, or see that frankness might undo the tangle.page 28
As she was partly hidden by the shrub Bruce did not see her till he was almost up to her. He made no attempt to stop, but raised his cap, said good night, and passed on. Alice looked after him as he walked on towards the camp.
Then the front door opened, and Tom Roland looked out.
“Alice, where are you?” he called. “Come to bed.”
She clenched her hands. She had been away from him for a month. She knew he had been thinking all the afternoon of this hour. She knew that he would not consider the fact that she was tired to death. She knew he would simply feel injured because her vitality was not equal to his own. And she knew that if, later on, the children woke up and cried she would have to get up and look after them, and that he would blame her for the disturbance. In his eyes she would not be equal to her job.
She gave one hopeless look, like that of a trapped creature, round the mountain, the bush and the river.
Then she went in.