The Story of a New Zealand River
it will take me two weeks, perhaps three. I've told Bruce to look in. He will be down to-night. Now, there's no necessity for you to be nervous. He or Bob Hargraves can sleep here. Everybody will know why they're doing it, and nobody is going to gossip about you, and if they do they can't hurt you.”
Roland sat on his horse prepared to start for Auckland. He had been called away by telegram the next afternoon. As he spoke he went through his leather satchel to see that he had not forgotten anything.
“Oh, my cheque-book; I must have left it in the brown coat pocket,” he said, fidgeting.
Alice hurried in to get it. He was thinking of something else when she handed it to him, so he forgot to thank her.
“Well, bye-bye,” he said lightly, stooping to kiss her perfunctorily; and waving his hand to Asia at the kitchen window, he rode off.
An hour later Alice stood in front of what she called her wardrobe, wondering which of two dresses she should put on. She flushed guiltily, knowing this hesitancy was due to the fact that she wanted to look as nice as she could. She knew she had no business to dress for any man but her husband. Then she told herself she was silly, and that there was no question of dressing up. She wore the navy blue cloth dress and the grey cashmere dress alternately. They were both plain, and they both suited her. But still, there was something to choose between them. There were times when she looked better in the grey—if she had a good colour, for example. And she had a good colour now, and she knew she was likely to have it all the evening.
She tried to quiet her rising excitement as she put on the page 141 grey dress. It had long loose lines of the utmost simplicity, through which her figure showed soft and rounded. It had no collar, but there was only the suggestion of a V in the neck. After some hesitancy Alice arranged her best bit of old lace round her throat, and pinned it with a sapphire brooch, the finest bit of old jewellery that she possessed. Then she was afraid that Asia might ask her why she did not wear these things oftener. The thought worried her. She unpinned the brooch and removed the lace. But finally she put them on again, thinking that as the child knew nothing of Bruce's possible visit she would not connect the two events.
When she had finished, Alice looked at herself in the glass. She knew she was attractive, even beautiful, but for years now she had taken little comfort from the knowledge. Her fine grey eyes, whose expression had always been somewhat remote from the humanity at her feet, had grown harder, and still more unresponsive. She saw the suggestion of lines about her straight features, which the girls in the select school she had attended in her youth had called statuesque and Grecian. But her skin was as fine and as clear as ever, and her chestnut hair was full of dancing lights.
She drew back startled as she realized where her thoughts were leading her. The worst thing that could happen would be for David Bruce to see that she was beautiful, and to proceed as most men proceeded under the stress of that knowledge. She wanted his friendship, and she knew she needed it very badly, but if it were not forthcoming simply because she was a woman she must not bargain for it with her looks. Then she remembered that his helpfulness had not ceased because he had seen her in the most unbecoming of clothes and in the most unattractive of domestic settings. As a matter of fact, he had never given a sign that he was conscious of her looks. He had been exactly what she pretended she wanted. Then why was she dressing up for him now?page 142
She was considering this when Asia called to tell her that the children's tea was ready.
After the babies were put to bed, Alice and Asia sat down to their own meal. They had had some further talk that morning, when Alice had told the child that she really did want a baby boy, and that that was the reason why she was going to have another baby, but that it was only their business and that other people ought not to talk about it, and she said Mrs. Jones could not know it, but that she had only guessed it. She was relieved to see that Asia was diverted by the idea of the baby's being a boy, and that she started at once to find names for him, and to plan out the fun she would have with him, oblivious of the fact that he would not be able to play in her fashion for a long time to come.
It was after eight o'clock, and they were both sitting by the front room fire, when Alice sat up suddenly, hearing steps outside.
“Asia, there's somebody coming. You stay here.” She got up as she spoke, and as the knock sounded on the back door she went out to the kitchen, trying to calm the sudden leap of her heart into her throat.
“It's David Bruce, Mrs. Roland,” he called at once.
“Please come in,” she answered as she lit the candle. Her nervousness mysteriously left her as she looked at him. What it was about him that took charge of her and made her feel like a child she did not know.
Bruce had on his old tailored suit, a soft white shirt with a low collar, and a plain long navy tie. He looked easy and comfortable, and he entered the kitchen as if he had left it only the hour before.
“Well, how are your nerves?” he asked, smiling down upon her.
This simple question, so much to the point, surprised her. She did not know what she had expected him to say. She had wondered, reviewing the past, what he would say, and page 143 she had been afraid of the humiliation and embarrassment she was sure she would feel.
“I—I don't know,” she confessed, wondering if he would just naturally stay, or whether she had to ask him to stay, and exactly what her husband had said to him.
“Well, are you starting at every sound, and looking for faces at the window?”
Alice found herself actually smiling back at him.
“Oh, no, I don't think—no, I'm not as bad as that.”
Then she remembered that if she did not appear to be nervous he might not stay. That confused her. But she was saved by Asia, who bounded out from the sitting-room.
“It's only Mr. Bruce, Mother,” she pleaded, catching Alice's forbidding look.
“And, of course, he's nobody to notice,” he said mischievously, his eyes twinkling.
Alice could not help laughing nervously; and, laughing, her eyes met his. She knew she could not resist his boyish lightness. Asia seized his hand.
“Oh, you are cold,” she said. “Can't he get warm, Mother?”
Bruce turned his dancing eyes upon Alice.
“You don't have to say ‘yes’ unless you want to.”
But a quick light flashed across her eyes.
“Please come to the fire,” she stammered awkwardly, not seeing how absurdly she was putting it.
Boisterously dragged by Asia, he followed Alice into the front room, and sat down opposite her in the glow of the logs.
“This is lovely,” cried Asia joyously, as she flopped on to the mat between them. “Now you tell us stories, Mr. Bruce. Tell us about Julius Cæsar. I love him.”
“My dear,” gasped Alice, “do be quiet. Mr. Bruce may not want to tell stories. And, besides, it's time you went to bed.” Although Alice was growing excited now at the thought of being alone with him, she knew it had to come, and she wanted it over as soon as possible.page 144
“Oh, no, Mother, it's quite early.” Asia drooped to the verge of tears.
Alice did not wish to show that she wanted to be alone with him. She had hoped that would come about naturally.
“Can't I hear one story?” pleaded the child.
“Look here, young lady,” broke in Bruce, “I have come here to see how your mother is getting along, and I can tell you stories some other time. I want to talk to her tonight.”
“Oh, dear!” she said sadly. Then a gay thought struck her. “Are you going to stay all night? You can sleep in my bed. I won't mind.”
She did not understand why he laughed suddenly or why her mother turned to look into the fire.
“Why should I stay all night?” he asked, returning to gravity.
“Why”—she thought a minute—“we must have a man to take care of us, and Father has gone away.”
“Yes, but you know it might not be convenient to your mother to have me to stay. You should have found that out before you asked me. There might not be enough for breakfast.”
“Oh, but I know there's plenty. There's porridge—and we can make lots—and there's bread and butter—” She stopped, for now Bruce had dropped his head in his hands, and her mother was laughing helplessly. “Why are you laughing?” she demanded.
Bruce raised his face. Alice looked at him and away again, leaving him to deal with the situation.
“Look here. You don't see that perhaps your mother does not want me to stay at all. There could be lots of reasons why she does not, but now that you have asked me you make it very hard for her not to ask me to stay because she would not want to hurt my feelings by showing me that she does not want me. And so, before you asked me you should have found out whether she would like me to stay or page 145 not. A strange man in a house is a lot of trouble; he's not like a member of the family. Your mother might want to stay in bed in the morning, but if I were here she would feel she would have to get up. Do you see?”
Though she kept her face turned to the fire, Alice listened breathlessly.
“I see,” said Asia slowly. “But you are not a strange man. And I can look after you. And you get your own breakfast, and make your own bed, you told me.”
At last Alice turned to speak, but Bruce waved his hand at her with a smile.
“Wait a bit,” he said, just as if he had been assisting her to deal with Asia all his life. “I'm going to make her see it if I can.”
“Listen,” he took one of Asia's hands. “You want me to stay, and because you want me to stay you think your mother wants me to stay, and you also think I want to stay. But you are thinking only of yourself. You are not really being unselfish. And this is your mother's house, not yours. Now, don't you see that you can't decide for us. You don't really know what we want to do. And that is why children should wait for older people to say what they want to do.”
“Oh, dear,” she said pathetically, “mustn't I ever want you to do anything?”
“Oh, yes,” he smiled, “but you had better whisper it in our ears first to see if it is all right.”
She turned instantly to Alice to take him literally, and seeing it coming they both collapsed.
“Oh, Lord!” he groaned. “I congratulate you on having remained sane.”
Whether it was because she had laughed little for months, or because the relief from strain was so relaxing, Alice laughed out as she had not done that winter. Feeling that they were making fun of her, Asia was deeply hurt.
“I think you are nasty,” she choked.
Then her mother turned to her.
“My dear, I wish you would remember what Mr. Bruce page 146 has said. But it is all right for him to stay to-night if he wants to—” she looked at him, blushing, and adding quickly—“and if he can spare the time to look after us.”
“Certainly,” interrupted Bruce promptly.
“But I wish you would remember that this is not your house, and that Father and I are the ones to ask people to come. She is always asking people to come and stay,” she looked explainingly at Bruce.
“Naturally,” he smiled. “Children are so interested in everybody and everything. And exclusiveness isn't an instinct; it's a cultivated precaution.”
“Oh, but”—she wanted him to uphold her—“it's impossible to have them.”
“Well, they all understand that, don't they? Did any of them ever come?”
She looked rather uncomfortably into his amused eyes, seeing that she was foolish.
“Asia, you must really go to bed now. Say good night to Mr. Bruce.”
Piteously disappointed, the child held out her hand.
“May I kiss Mr. Bruce, mother?” she whispered, her face lighting up as this idea came to her.
“You certainly may,” answered Alice hoarsely.
Asia fastened herself upon him as if she meant to stay there for ever, and he was about to disentangle her when she jumped up, struck by another idea.
“Mother, I haven't any uncle. Couldn't Mr. Bruce be my uncle?”
“My dear,” Alice laughed suddenly, meeting his quizzical eyes, “perhaps Mr. Bruce would not like that.”
“Oh, dear! There I am again,” she exclaimed mournfully, seeing that she had forgotten the teaching of the evening. “I can't remember. It's too hard.”
“Why would you like me to be your uncle?” he asked solemnly.
“Oh, it would be so nice. And then, you see, if you were my uncle, you would be a member of the family, and you page 147 could come often and stay, and you wouldn't be a bother. Oh, do, please.”
Asia did not know that her simple proposal was to create an attitude of mind that would extend beyond the house on the cliffs, and be accepted as a matter of course in the years to come as a relation that went unquestioned. How far it affected the consciousness of either Bruce or Alice at that moment neither could have said; but they both had a “feeling” about it.
“Well,” answered Bruce, as if he were considering a weighty proposition, “it's a responsibility, but perhaps I can live up to it. Uncle David—it sounds benevolent, domestic, respectable. By all means let me be Uncle David. It will be good for me. But”—he remembered Alice—“your mother?”
“Oh, please, yes,” she interrupted him, half-way between laughter and tears.
“All right,” he smiled at Asia, “I will be your Uncle David.”
“Oh, how lovely!” And she fell upon him vigorously.
“To bed,” he whispered, disengaging her arms.
Regretfully she went out, and for some time they heard her fussing about in the back before she returned to be waved abruptly by her mother into the front bedroom.
Erratic flames from the log fire spurted short-lived lights over Alice's piano, along the floor, and about the furniture. Apart from the sounds made by Asia there was nothing to break the silence of the night outside. It was a heavy silence threatening rain, and it brought the hills and the forest nearer, but it also added to the cheerfulness of the fire and the security of the little room.
Alice sat up a little straighter in her rocker, outwardly composed, and determined to behave naturally. Her anticipatory feelings now seemed absurd to her as she looked at David Bruce's face turning towards her.
He had come to her that evening with a knowledge of her difficulties that would have astonished her. Though he did page 148 not pretend to understand her or any woman in detail, he knew that to her inbred mental deviousness, the knots of the feminine mind, were added the deadly ramifications of Puritanism and the Scotch temperament.
Since seeing her the night of Asia's disappearance his thoughts had turned seriously to her, for he saw he would now have to deal with her in a more personal way. He had wandered about the bush one night considering the elements in the situation. He remembered the look of fear and fascination on her face the night he had walked into her room to put some kick into her, the fact that she never met him naturally even though he had ignored the inconvenient past, and he considered the something that had arrested him at their last meeting when her reserves had broken down.
Bruce knew without vanity that as a doctor he appealed to the emotional side of women. He knew that as a man he attracted them. He knew that in any situation where he had to deal intimately with a woman he had to reckon with these two possibilities. He was something of a sex psychologist, and he had learned how to minimise emotionalism in others, but he knew that in order to treat them successfully he had to remain dispassionate himself.
The unknown quantity in this situation he saw to be himself. He knew Alice attracted and interested him. But he felt sure he would know how to deal with any situation that was likely to arise. The fact that he had not been in love with any woman for ten years had rather dimmed his impressions of the devastations of that kind of fever.
But even while Asia dominated the scene between them, Bruce had been conscious of Alice's heightened colour, of her aliveness, of the softness and delicacy of her renewed maternity. He had noticed the lace and the brooch as things he had not seen her wear before, and he had wondered if they had any significance beyond that of the ordinary feminine desire to dress up for a man.
His eyes were smiling as they turned from Asia's retreating form to Alice.page 149
“What a child!” he said lightly. “But she is a bit of a responsibility, isn't she?”
“Yes, indeed.” She was grateful to him for this easy opening. “I'm afraid I don't quite know what to do with her”—she looked humbly into the fire—“she's grown so old, and she seems to me to be too precocious. Isn't it unhealthy?” She looked at him appealingly.
“Unhealthy!” His eyes twinkled at her. “Why, she's the healthiest child I ever saw. She actually thinks! I know that's often inconvenient and embarrassing; but it's perfectly healthy.”
She could not help smiling. In spite of what she thought she ought to be feeling her spirits were rising to respond to the magnetism of his presence.
“Well, she may amuse other people, but at times she is a trial to me.” This was a good deal of a confession, as he saw. “Perhaps you can help me,” she added.
“I think I can.” He leaned forward a little, talking half to the fire and half to her. “You know, if you will pardon my saying it, God and the angels are not enough for an intelligent child like that. They are too abstract, and they feed only the emotions. And then, they are rather troublesome when it comes to being exact, don't you think? And children demand exactness, things they can see and handle. Does she know anything about arithmetic?”
“But,” she interrupted breathlessly, “wouldn't you teach children about God?”
“Why, certainly, more or less as a fairy tale. And I would give them arithmetic as an antidote. A child like Asia needs arithmetic and other things that are useful on this earth. Are you going to send her to school?”
“To Kaiwaka? Oh, no. It is too far, and”—she paused, ashamed to add what was in her mind about the country children not being good enough for her child to associate with—“I teach her a little. She can read very well, and she practises music an hour every day.”
He looked at her as she sat up primly in her chair, and page 150 wondered if she really thought that that was enough to fit Asia to grow up and meet the New Zealand world.
“What do you mean her to be?” he asked curiously.
“Why,” she looked worried by this question, “I don't know. But it is too soon to think about it.”
“You are wrong,” he said quietly. “That's the mistake that has always been made about girls. But it won't do for this age, or this country. Do you really think that child can grow up to meet life on adventure stories false to life, on religious tract stories false to life, on the Bible, a collection of legends with no more revelation in them than those of the Maoris, compiled like every other story and rumour—that's true, you don't really live by them yourself—none of these things will teach your child to meet a real situation, any more than they have taught you. Blind faith does stimulate emotion, and there is a place for emotion,” he smiled at his own preachiness, “but it has contributed nothing to self-preservation, which is the strongest law that rules this world.”
He did not know that she was startled because he was putting into words the things that had disturbed her most that very week.
“I don't mean any disrespect to your faith,” he went on, “but we need more than faith to deal with this world. We need knowledge. And we cannot begin too soon to give knowledge to our children. We have given it to our boys, but we have left our girls to traditional notions about religion and love with disastrous results.” Seeing that these last words disturbed her, he went on, “I could teach Asia some things, if you will allow me—geography, arithmetic, history, perhaps some French. Mrs. Brayton has hosts of old books that would do, and it would not take much time to set the lessons. She would do the work with very little incentive, and she would soon cease to be a problem. I should like to do it.”
Alice looked dumbly into his face, and in a minute emotion had her by the throat.page 151
“But I can't trouble you,” she stammered, “after all you've done—” Her voice broke and he saw her lips begin to quiver. Then she plunged. “Oh, Mr. Bruce, I don't know what to say to you, I can't explain, I have been all wrong, I don't know what you must think of me—it was a dreadful mistake.” She paused, for in the face of his smile words seemed so foolish.
“Let's be thankful it was a mistake,” he said cheerfully. “It would have been so much worse if I had really deserved all those things you were thinking of me.”
She could only stare at him, amazed that the past could be eliminated because he laughed at it. She wondered what it was that gave him the power to dominate a situation, to take the difficult stuff of hard words and elusive human currents and make of them an atmosphere of ease and simplicity.
“Don't you mind that I was rude to you?” she asked, surprised into asking the thing she wanted most to know at that minute.
Bruce drew himself up, dropping his bantering manner. He knew quite well that they could not go on without a frank straightening out of the difficulties between them.
“If people are rude to me,” he said gravely, “I ask myself some questions. First, do they know what rudeness is; second, are they deliberately rude; third, why are they rude to me in particular? Now I know that you know what rudeness is, therefore I can't excuse you on the score of ignorance or lack of sensibility”—he smiled, seeing she was listening in astonishment to this dispassionate analysis—“but I do not believe you were deliberately rude; that is, I believe you were trapped by an unfamiliar situation into a wrong beginning, and, unfortunately, wrong beginnings have a sad tendency to perpetuate themselves; their vitality is distressing. Behind you I saw British pride, with which I am familiar. I admit I was annoyed with you sometimes, especially when you brought needless suffering on yourself, but I was never really hurt by you.”
She looked at him, unable to say anything. Nobody had page 152 ever talked to her with this directness before. She did not know how to meet it. Bruce knew he had not offended her.
“Well?” he smiled.
She was fascinated by his leisurely manner.
“Mr. Bruce, I don't know what to say to you. I have never met any one like you before.”
He liked this simple statement.
“In what way am I unique?” he asked mischievously.
“Why,”—she thought a moment—“you don't seem to notice anything. You don't seem to be hurt.”
“Why should one be hurt? It's a great mistake to let people hurt us. We put a terrible power into their hands. Why should we give them that power? What right have they to it? And they would never have it if we did not give it to them.”
She remembered these words as one of the philosophical landmarks of her life.
“Oh, if I could only feel that,” she burst out. “Everything hurts me.” Then she flushed at this confession.
“I know,” he said gently, “and it's one of the first things I want to help you to get over.”
He drew himself up in Tom Roland's arm chair again, for his body had a habit of sliding down and seeking comfort that was not to be had in that cushionless article. His informal movements arrested Alice.
“You are not comfortable,” she said.
He smiled at her, hesitating between the truth and the polite lie.
“May I smoke?” he asked, realizing what it was he really wanted.
“Oh, certainly. Pardon me for not thinking of it.”
She watched him take out his pipe and tobacco-pouch. There had been a time when she thought smoking disgusting, but she had become accustomed to the habit to the extent that she tolerated it. She had felt up to this moment, however, that no gentleman would smoke a pipe in her presence, but she realized, as she watched him take the to-page 153bacco out of his pouch and roll it, that she might have to reconstruct her ideas of what a gentleman might do.
Bruce had been so accustomed to smoking with Mrs. Brayton, who smoked with him, that he had his pipe filled before he remembered that Roland smoked only mild cigarettes, and that but seldom.
“Oh, pardon me”—he looked quickly at her—“I forgot for the moment that your husband does not smoke a pipe—”
“That does not matter. I don't mind; I wish you would, please.”
But he felt the suggestion of concession in her manner.
“Now, now,” he shook his finger at her as if she were a child, “are you speaking the truth?”
She blushed furiously.
“I thought not.” His eyes twinkled again. “Now, look here”—Bruce had acquired many colonial informalities of speech—“now that I am Uncle David, and a member of the family, I'm going to scold you, so sit up and take it like a man. I shall smoke, since you are willing to allow me, for then I shall lecture you much more pleasantly.”
She had to smile at him, though a little surge of excitement thrilled up in her.
Bruce lit his pipe and puffed for a few seconds, careful to keep the smoke away from her.
“Mrs. Roland,” he began, with more gravity, “I wish you always to speak the truth to me. I don't allow people to lie to me.”
“Why, Mr. Bruce,” she exclaimed, astonished.
“Now, you are going to tell me that you always do speak the truth. And I am going to tell you that you don't. You lie every day of your life in manner, in thought, in action, if not in actual words. We all do. We deny the facts of life. We refuse to see them, to believe them if they are pointed out to us. And even if we see them, we say we don't. We say what we think is advisable, not what we suspect may be true. In fact, Mrs. Roland, you, and all women page 154 of your type, are the most frequent liars in the world, and I will prove it to you in the course of time. But all I want you to begin with is that you must not lie to me. It is unnecessary, because I know you are lying. I have heard just the same kind of lies over and over again. Every doctor has.”
He saw that she was more startled than hurt by his words; that, in fact, she was not hurt at all.
“Well,” he said, smiling again.
A spark of controversial fire flickered in her eyes.
“Will you always speak the truth to me?” she asked.
“Why?” she demanded.
“Because you could not bear it.”
She drew herself up in her chair.
“What do you mean? She was stung into a determination to show that she could bear it.
But he continued to smile at her.
“Just what I say. You could not bear it. Few people can bear the truth. What they always take to be the truth is that which concerns other people, some remote abstraction. But bring the truth about themselves, their own families, their own friends, to their notice, and they will not believe it, or believing it, they will go to pieces, fall ill, become hysterical, go mad, commit suicide, deny their gods, and all the good in life.”
“Mr. Bruce, in what way cannot I bear the truth? What is there you know?”
She broke off, flushing, thinking of Mrs. Lyman. He thought of her too, but he deliberately ignored it.
“Oh, now, don't be alarmed. But you see, you are alarmed. Now you don't like the truth that your child, Asia, doesn't believe the things you tell her to believe—there, wasn't I right?” He knew he had caught her. “You were taught that children must believe what they are told. You have never tried to find out if children really do believe what they are told, why they ought to believe what they are page 155 told, when they ought to leave off believing what they are told, or anything about it. You think that because your child thinks for herself she is unhealthy. You think that what is true for you must be true for her. How do you know it has to be?”
Alice stared at him, startled by the truth of his words and the revelation of his knowledge of her.
“I don't know,” she answered helplessly, looking away from him into the fire. Then she looked back. “But there must be something true. I must teach her what I think true.”
“Certainly. But don't be alarmed because she begins to find truth for herself.” He puffed on contentedly.
“But,” she persisted, “there's only one thing true about anything—”
“Ah, there we have it again,” he interrupted. “The old bogy, the truth absolute. Of course it troubles you. But, you see, who is to decide what is true? A grey day is depressing to you and restful to me. What is a grey day? It is two things. It is one thing to you, another to me. There is no absolute truth about it.”
He pulled himself up in his chair again.
“Then how can one decide about anything?”
“We decide as we feel.” He smiled at her. “You think not? Perhaps not always at once, but finally, yes. And our feelings train our beliefs. We have a nice example to hand. Have you always approved of smoking?”
She could not help smiling.
“No,” she replied.
“Do you approve it now?”
“I don't mind it,” she evaded.
“Do you like men to smoke a pipe in your presence?” he went on.
“I—I haven't thought—”
“Oh, yes, you have. You have had decided opinions about it. Now you can't deceive me. Out with it.”page 156
She looked into his laughing eyes, her submerged sense of humour rising to respond.
“I have thought that no gentleman would do it,” she said.
Bruce threw up his head, laughing delightedly.
“Do you think so now?” he demanded She blushed, looking at him and away again. “Do you?” he repeated.
“No,” she answered very low.
Bruce saw that she had suddenly plunged into emotion, but intent on conveying his idea, he ignored it for the moment.
“There,” he exclaimed triumphantly. “In ten minutes you have modified, if not changed, a belief you have held for years. Why? Simply because your feeling suddenly told you to reject the old belief. You will allow me to smoke, you will actually begin to approve my smoking, you will insist on my smoking, because you like me, because you think you have been horrid to me, because you feel you have to be nice to me. And, because you feel these things about me, smoking will cease to be a sin or a bad habit to you. Now what is the truth about smoking? Is it what you used to feel, or what you feel now, or what you are going to feel?”
Again she brought her eyes back to his face. She had been carried on by his words from the emotional reason for her change to its intellectual significance. The revelation in his last words was something of a shock to her.
“Why, I never thought of it that way,” she said slowly.
“It's a good thing to think of everything that way,” he answered.
There was silence for some seconds while he smoked and she looked into the fire, which had begun to die down. Alice leaned down to take up a piece of wood.
“Don't make it up for me,” said Bruce, leaning to take the block from her. “I must get to bed when I've finished my pipe. I'll have to start pretty early in the morning.”
His sudden change to the affairs of daily life made her more conscious of their bodily nearness and their common isolation from the world outside.page 157
“What time would you like breakfast?” she asked hurriedly.
“You needn't think about breakfast,” he smiled, remembering Asia's words. “I'll go to the kitchen.”
“You will do nothing of the kind.”
“Pardon me, but I will. We will begin as we are likely to go on. This is a business arrangement, not a social pastime. If it is going to be any trouble to you it will defeat some of its own ends. I have to go up to the bush tomorrow, and I must leave here about five o'clock. Now, you know, I'm not going to have you get up at that hour to get my breakfast, especially when I can get it at the kitchen. You are not going to stand on ceremony with me, now that I am Uncle David.”
Alice thought that she had never seen eyes that smiled as his did.
Bruce knocked the ashes out of his pipe, put it away in his pocket, and leaned towards her. He had to raise his face, as she was sitting up very straight.
“You are not going to be afraid of me any more, are you?” he asked simply.
She was instantly startled into lying.
“Why, Mr. Bruce, I—” But she stopped, seeing where she was going. Her face fell in confusion.
“See that,” he said quietly. “Your first impulse is to lie. Now, you have been afraid of me. I don't quite know why, and you need not tell me why. But there is no reason why you should keep it up.”
He sat up again, leaning back in his chair, while she sat nervously twitching her hands and looking into the coals.
“Mrs. Roland, I think that before anything else I am a doctor, and I see most people as children. I can't help it. I have looked so often into the helpless and frightened and appealing eyes of the sick and the dying that my whole attitude to people is coloured with the knowledge I have seen there—the general loneliness, the common fears, they are all the same. They differ only in degree. And when I see page 158 people I see first their troubles. I often ignore them, but I see them. And I have learned that troubles can be marvellously minimized by taking them out and looking at them. It's the first thing I set out to teach people. I want you to learn to talk to me. You won't do it easily at first, because you don't know how to. But you will learn. Here are you and I. We shall be much thrown together in this place. I shall have to be your doctor, because Mount won't come here now that I am here. Because I can help, I shall have to help you in many ways. It is inevitable in a place like this. It will be accepted by everybody without question. There is no reason why you should not accept it. I want you to know that you can send for me at any hour of the day or night, for any reason whatsoever, nervousness, loneliness, anything at all, and be sure that I shall understand, and that I shall never misunderstand.”
Bruce knew that for some seconds she had been crying silently. He leaned down again, talking into the fire.
“Now I know that a good many things are troubling you, because a good many things trouble everybody. We are all worried about religion, about our children, about fears of poverty or illness, about the behaviour of the people we care about. But if we shut these things up within ourselves we add fuel to their fire, and in the end they burn us up. If we can compare notes with some one else, it is often a help. We find out that we have no monopoly over sorrow. You would be surprised if you knew the tragedies that there are here within a radius of twenty miles of you, while you think yourself the most ill-used person in the place.”
He stopped. His voice had grown a little tired towards the end.
Alice turned towards him, not caring now whether he saw her cry.
“Oh,” she choked, “I don't know what is the matter with me.”
“Why, there is nothing the matter with you,” he said lightly, “but your absurd tendency to make trouble for your-page 159self. Nobody else wants to make it for you. There is no conspiracy of evil around you. Most people will do their best for you if you will let them. Their results may not always please you, but, at least, they will mean well. Nothing can hurt you but your own attitude of mind. You have good health, good looks, you can make people like you. What else matters? But if you don't take care you can wreck your health, you can poison your mind, you can make yourself everlastingly miserable quite easily. Now, you will have to choose sooner or later, as the evangelists say, why not now?”
He smiled at her, seeing that her eyes were shining with a mixture of emotions. He had deliberately ignored several elements in her situation, giving her what he thought most useful. He knew he had talked like a Christian Scientist, or an ism of some kind, but he knew she would depend for a long time to come on some ism or other.
“Well, will you think over what I've said to you?” he asked. “You'll find it useful.” He stood up.
Mechanically Alice got to her feet, her eyes dry again.
“I will think about it—you have helped me more than I can say.”
She looked into his face, and for a second all that she felt about him flashed from her eyes.
“That's good. And now, Mrs. Roland, you cease to worry about anything, even about the child that's coming—now don't blush, and don't look away from me. What is the matter with you women? You each act as if you were the only person who ever had a child, who knew how a child was born or why it was born. You each act as if no man could possibly know that children are born, or as if it were a disgraceful thing for them to know. You each act as if it really were a shameful thing to have a child, or as if nature were disgusting in her processes, neither of which things is true. It may be tragic to have a child, it may be unfortunate, it may be unwise, but it is never disgraceful. page 160 And for you to blush about it to me, who have already nursed you—why, don't you see how silly it is?”
In spite of her confusion she had to look at him, and the real impatience in his eyes cured her. His look was so impersonal that she saw that she was to him in that moment only a “case,” and that her emotionalism was ridiculous.
“Mr. Bruce, I will try, but I can't be different all at once,” she said rather pathetically.
Instantly his face and manner changed, and his eyes lit up.
“It's too bad of me to scold you,” he said in tones that were like a caress, “but I do want you to see that you cannot be foolish with me. I don't allow it. Now I shall be down about the same time to-morrow night, and if you want any help during the day send for Bob Hargraves. He's a decent chap; you can trust him.”
He moved from the fireplace, Alice following him. She was less certain of herself when he was not talking to her, more vividly conscious of him the more she was aware of their being there alone. But she noticed that he seemed oblivious of it.
“I must get you a candle,” she said. “And you would like some supper.”
“I would like a glass of milk, thank you, if you have it to spare.” He stood by the door while she found a candle in the kitchen and lit it. While she got a glass and poured out some milk for him his eyes roved round the room, but he was fully aware that she was making of the simple service something in the nature of a reverential ceremony. “Does the roof leak there?” he asked, his eyes on a corner.
“Yes.” She looked up at it.
“Well, I'll fix that some evening. You remind me. You see, as Uncle David, I can be made use of in all sorts of ways.”
Their eyes met, and for once hers responded spontaneously to the mischief in his. He, too, thought that if page 161 she only knew how attractive she looked when she smiled she would do so oftener.
“I shall certainly make use of you,” she said.
“Do. That's what I'm for. And I'm presuming you'll stay nervous, Mrs. Roland. If you developed Amazonian courage my presence here would be superfluous.”
He meant nothing by that observation, but it raised a quick excitement in her, and she thought more of it afterwards than of anything else he had said. But at the time she replied with a nervous little laugh, that she was only too likely to stay as she was.
He drank the milk and took the candle from her, looking as he did so to the fireplace.
“You have wood in. Is there anything I can do?”
“Nothing more, thank you,” she said, with eloquent emphasis.
But he ignored her warmer manner.
“All right. Good night. I hope you will sleep well.”
He held out his hand, gave hers a quick, strong grip, with no suggestion of lingering, and turned from her into Asia's room, where he was to sleep, and shut the door.
Alice closed the centre door behind her as she returned to the front room, leaving him shut off in the back of the house. She could not go to bed at once. She knew she would not sleep. She sat down to think over the things he had said, and of how he had looked as he said them. She knew it was the most extraordinary talk she had ever had with any one, and not at all what she had expected. She knew it had been managed by him, and that he had taken her in hand, and cut out her emotionalism. But the thing she wanted most to know was whether he understood the cause of her emotionalism. But she could not tell from his manner whether it meant anything special to him to sit there with her. She did not know if he had noticed what she had on or what she looked like. And yet she had been vividly aware of every line on his tanned face, of the thickness of the black brows over his deep set eyes that lit up page 162 and twinkled like those of a child, of his straight nose and mouth, his thin cheeks and chin, of his fine black hair, and of the droop of his head when at rest. She had been conscious, but less clearly so, of his movements, his easy strength, the sweep of his big limbs.
As she went over what he had said she found no disturbing suggestion in it, save in the one light remark about her Amazonian courage, but after turning that over for some time she decided there was no barb of innuendo in it. He had offered her the one thing she told herself she wanted, a prop. And it did not seem to matter to her whether she grew to love him in secret or not, if only they could go on like that. And she believed they could go on like that because he looked like it. She told herself that if she could just love him it would be a relief; she would want no return. It would be a delicious joy just to have him stand by her, to be always there, her friend, and yet—mingled with her new peace of mind was a curious regret, an insistent curiosity to know whether he thought of her at all. She finally went to bed and fell asleep thinking more of this than of his advice and philosophy.
When he had heard her close the centre door, Bruce noiselessly stole out to pick up the small bag he had left in the yard, and in again. He stopped in the course of undressing to stare at nothing on the floor.
“God! She's going to fall in love with me! Will that help her, or will it not? How the devil am I to know? Ought I to go away? She will have to have somebody. Might as well be me.” Then he knew he did not want to go away.
He took up the whole of the next evening mending the kitchen ceiling, with Asia in a flurry of helpfulness handing him tools. He also fixed a loose handle on the cupboard door, and promised to put up another shelf in the porch when Asia said they needed it badly.
In a week's time Bruce had established several precedents and had reduced Alice to a simplicity that she would have page 163 thought incredible a month before. He ignored the way she looked at him, and treated her one or two expressions of feeling in such a matter-of-fact manner that she was well on the way to a calm acceptance of their friendship—outwardly, at least. He refused to be drawn into lengthy soul explorations, amazing her by his indifference to a future life, or to the great subject of right and wrong.
“Mr. Bruce, how do you get on without God?” she had asked him one night.
“Well, as you see,” he said, stretching his feet comfortably towards the fire.
She looked into his amused eyes for some minutes, considering this answer.
By the time the boss returned David Bruce had given her a good deal to think about, but he realized that she had not got much further than an exchange of gods.page 164page 165