The Story of a New Zealand River
alice started back from the kitchen fireplace. The dusk was closing a late autumn day. When the sounds outside became more clearly defined she turned towards the door with a breath of relief. She knew the footsteps very well.
“You sent for me, Mrs. Roland?” Bruce's form filled up the small doorway.
Alice stood back in the shadow. It was apparent that in a month or two she would have another child, and, as the attitude of mind that had been imposed upon her demanded that women be ashamed of motherhood or of its signs before the event, and blissfully idiotic about it immediately afterwards, she blushed whenever a man came near enough to see her. Bruce, who had seen previous blushes, guessed that she was blushing now.
“There were two men here this afternoon, looking for my husband,” she went on. “I didn't tell them how long he would be away. Did you see them?”
Bruce felt that she was frightened. He knew something unusual had driven her to send for him. It was the first time she had ever done so.
“Yes, I did,” he replied. “They went off some time ago. That's all right.”
Just then his eye rested on a heavy iron camp oven set on the hearth. When he had seen it that morning it had stood in the woodshed.
“Mrs. Roland,” he said sharply, “are you lifting that oven about?”
Alice was so amazed at his tone that she answered meekly “Yes.”page 71
Bruce took a step into the kitchen, anger in his eyes.
“Mrs. Roland, do I have to tell you that you are committing a crime against yourself; a most unnecessary crime? I came here this morning to know what I could do for you, and you could have asked me to bring it in.”
She felt condemned.
“I'm used to lifting it,” she said weakly, in justification of herself, and without thinking what her words implied.
“Used to lifting it!” repeated Bruce.
“I mean, when my husband is away,” with a return to dignity. But that was a lie, and she knew that he knew it.
“Then in future, Mrs. Roland, when your husband is away, you will please let me know when you want it moved. You will not lift that oven again. Your doing so is an insult to any decent man on the place. Do you want it put out now?”
“Yes, please,” she said helplessly. She stood as void of volition as a straining post as he swung to the fireplace, and grasped the oven by its semi-circular handle.
“The woodshed?” he asked.
Hot and cold by turns she watched him swing it out. Then he came back to the door.
“Is there anything else I can do for you, Mrs. Roland?”
“No, I'm sure, thank you.”
“You have enough cut wood?”
“Yes, plenty for a day or two.”
“Oh, do you know where Asia is?” she asked.
“I haven't seen her since she brought me your message, but I'll hunt her up.”
“Thank you,” she answered.
Bruce got as far as the kitchen window when he turned and retraced his steps.
But he was no longer the doctor. He had become the foreman again.
“Mrs. Roland, if that money is worrying you, perhaps you page 72 would like me to take charge of it till Bob Jones comes for it. He mayn't be here for a week, and it's a big responsibility. It would be quite safe with me.”
“Oh, I don't think that is necessary,” she said nervously, but striving to be calm. “It ought to be quite safe with me. And besides, my husband left it in my charge.”
He saw it was hopeless. She was too proud to show how frightened she really was. Knowing the likely effect upon her of fear and responsibility, he was angry at her stupidity. There was nothing to do, however, but to accept her decision. He turned away again, leaving her more wrought up than ever.
He guessed that she imagined that every man about the place knew of the plant of money at the boss's cottage, awaiting the arrival of the bush contractor. He knew she would think that the desperate-looking tramps who had applied for work that day had come to take stock of the house with a view to robbery. He was sure her nights were one long agony of fear. But against her impenetrable barrier of reserve he was as impotent as a jellyfish. It made him furious.
Bruce had gone warily with her in the past eight months. He had never forced a moment with her, but he had given her chances, not too obvious, which she never took. He knew that she avoided him, and he could not understand why. She had become courteous. She had managed to smooth down the bald uneasiness of her beginning into a routine of indifferent pleasantness. But she never sat in the front room while he and Roland worked if she could possibly avoid it.
In the last two months, since the completion of the store and the arrival of Bob Hargraves, who was to be bookkeeper and storeman, they had done most of their night work in the store, and Bruce had been only rarely to the boss's house. He knew Alice had employed Sonny Shoreman to milk the cow, to cut wood, and to run what errands there were. But Sonny had now gone to work in the bush. page 73 and so, since Roland's departure three days before, Bruce had called morning and evening, as a matter of course, to ask Alice what he could do. He found that the boss had arranged with Bob Hargraves, who was a cheerful and obliging soul, to milk the cow. Of his own accord Bob had also seen to the wood, so that it did not leave Bruce much of an excuse to call.
He was the more surprised, therefore, when Alice sent for him. And as he walked away from her he wondered exactly what she had wanted of him. He felt it was more than the assurance that the tramps had gone.
At times he felt badly about her attitude towards him. She attracted him, and he could see no reason why he should appear disagreeable to her. He could not believe that pride alone was responsible for her continued aloofness. He did not ask that she should treat him as an intimate friend. He knew that sort of thing was not to be had for the asking. But he felt that he had a right to demand that she should get off the defensive with him, that she at least should treat him as if he were the decent man he knew himself to be. And this last he was determined to make her do.
He thought savagely now, as he strode on down the slope towards the sandspit, of his one lapse in that eight months, when he had ridden away to Hakaru, the place that boasted the best public house for miles around, where he had whiskied himself dead to the world for a week. For two weeks after his return he had not gone to the boss's house, and when he did, and had first met Alice's eye, he had felt, with terrible sensitiveness, that he saw in it, veiled with Christian pity, a deep condemnation and disgust. It made him hot to think of it.
He paused on the path. Just below him, set in the low rushes on the bank, loomed the framework of the new blacksmith's shop, with a corner of the store projecting beyond. Down from the head of the bay, across the mud flat, over the spit in front of the store, ran the elevation page 74 for the tramway to deep water, still in process of construction.
A shapeless black cloud curled over the northern range, bringing premature darkness upon the river. An erratic wind, now wheezy, now snorting, rustled and clicked through the cuttigrass bushes. Bruce stood awhile, enjoying the sadness in the moaning of the wind and the gloom in the shades about him. He was mostly too busy to enjoy such luxuries as reactions to the atmosphere, but when he did take time to respond to the voice of nature he got something that he remembered.
He heard footsteps crunching on the shells. Asia came running round the end of the cliffs, a chain or so away. She panted towards him. When she reached him he saw by her eyes that she, too, had been caught by something in the night.
“What do you think?” she began mysteriously. “There are two men round in the old boatshed. They came to the house this afternoon and frightened Mother. Now they're there. I saw them. I played Red Indian, and followed them. They shouldn't be there, should they?” Her eyes were alight with the spirit of adventure.
“They should not. But I'll settle them. Now, don't tell your mother about it, will you? Let her think they went away this afternoon.” He put his hands on her shoulders.
She looked up puzzled.
“That's lies,” she said.
“You needn't tell any lies,” he smiled. “Don't say anything at all.”
She still looked puzzled.
“Why is Mother so frightened?” she asked.
“Is she frightened?”
“Yes, she's often frightened, and yet she says God takes care of us. And she's been worse lately, and it makes me afraid too.” She looked up at him with a worried expression in her eyes.
“Oh, don't you worry about it,” he said reassuringly. page 75 “Your mother is not very well, that is why she is nervous. But she will be better soon.”
“Do you believe we are quite safe? Do you know God takes care of us?” she asked abruptly.
“Yes, I know that you are quite safe,” he answered firmly.
“Then, why have you been up the last three nights sitting in our woodshed?”
Startled, he looked down into her face.
“You saw me?” he demanded.
“Did your mother see me?”
“I don't know. But I didn't tell her, because I thought you did not want us to know.”
“Thank God for that!” he exclaimed, forgetting he was talking to a child. “Do not tell her that, either, will you?”
“What were you doing? Were you taking care of us?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said frankly.
“Then God doesn't take care of us?” she cried, tartled.
“We have to take care of ourselves as well,” he began, “and not do foolish things. Now, listen while I explain to you. Your father left a lot of money in your house when he went away. That was foolish, because somebody might try to steal it. Your mother knows that, and so she is frightened. And that is why I came to take care of you.”
But she was not satisfied.
“Then why didn't you come in and stay with us?” she demanded.
Bruce groaned inwardly.
“But your mother would not like us to know she is afraid,” he replied.
“That is silly!” She stamped her foot. “When I tell her you sat out in the cold she won't mind, I am sure she won't——”
“You must not tell her,” said Bruce firmly. “Now, page 76 please, remember. There is a reason why I do not want her to know. And I am all right outside. And I will take care of you. Don't be afraid any more. Nothing can hurt you or come near you. Now, to please me, you just keep it all a secret.”
Her eyes glowed with importance. She felt it was wonderful to have a real secret with him. She seized his hands.
“Oh, Mr. Bruce, you are lovely,” she cried. “I just love you, lots.”
He laughed, ignoring her fervour.
“Go home, Red Indian,” he said, “and think it is all a story, and don't be afraid.”
She ran joyously up the hill. Bruce stood for a moment watching her; then he walked on towards the kitchen.
The big zinc building near the head of the bay was now the scene of its second daily scrimmage. Some forty men, in all stages of crude cleaning up, stood about outside, washing at basins set on boxes, rubbing down soapy faces, or diving into boxes underneath their bunks for garments that seemed no cleaner than the ones they were discarding.
There were old men and young men; men of finished and unassuming blackguardism, and crude youngsters swaggering with first knowledge. There were men who had decency still healthy, but not obtruded upon an unsympathetic world; men who remembered their mothers. There were men who did not know what decency was, and who, to use the current phrase, would have robbed their mother's coffins.
There were strange social inequalities in that gang. English university men bunked next to the colonial born sons of pioneer traders. The men who still got literary reviews and scented letters read side by side with those who revelled in Deadwood Dicks and got no letters at all.
Individual eccentricities were lightly taken and sometimes curiously respected, provided they were not paraded as a virtue. The one thing the motley group would not stand, individually or collectively, the one thing its members could detect instantly was “side,” and any man who arrived with page 77 affectations soon had them as effectually knocked out of him as he would in a big public school. The nomad of the bushes is a grim realist. He has no use for the trimmings.
But he does cherish a secret admiration for those men who, being superior, do not parade the fact. Every man in that crowd liked the boss. He worked with them. He ate with them. He swore with them. He was extraordinarily fair with them. He had a way all his own of being familiar, and yet, at the same time, commanding their respect.
And every man liked David Bruce for quite different reasons. They would have found it much harder to say why. The fact that he was a doctor had a good deal to do with a never-mentioned sentimental regard that entered into the feeling of many of them. But they would have liked him whatever he had been. His fine physique and athletic training were assets to be reckoned with, but it was his simplicity and straightness in all his dealings with them that commanded their attention most.
As he strode into the kitchen now, men near his bunk made way for him.
“Going to shoot somebody, doctor?” asked Shiny, catching the expression on his face.
“Probably,” replied Bruce calmly, hauling, to their surprise, a revolver out of the box beneath his bunk. “I want a volunteer,” he added.
“Me,” snapped Shiny.
“Come on, then. Bring your rifle.”
Bruce turned to the cook, who was putting what he called the finishing touches to the long, bare table, laden with tin basins of potatoes and cabbage, and dishes of tinned meat. The steam rising off them dimmed the glasses of the kerosene lamps hanging from the beams above.
“I'm after those tramps, Jim. They've been hanging round all day. Did they come here?”
“No,” replied the cook.
“All right. We'll give them a meal. Then they'll have to get out. We'll be back in about half an hour.”page 78
Bruce lit a lantern, and was followed out by Shiny, who was as jolly as a boy at the prospect of a diversion.
When they heard the cautious steps upon the sand, the two tramps drew back into a corner of the boatshed. But the light of a lantern turned suddenly upon them revealed them clearly to their captors, and showed them Shiny's rifle pointed inconveniently straight in their direction.
“Hands up!” he roared.
As they knew they had no hope in a fight they obeyed.
“Come here,” commanded Bruce. “I ordered you off hours ago. I told you you could go to the kitchen and get some food. And I told you you hadn't a chance of getting work with us. You couldn't last a day at our job. And the trouble with you is that you don't look as if you wanted work. I don't wonder the farms turned you down. Now, before we do anything for you we'll see what you've got. Go through them, Shiny.”
Bruce covered them with his revolver while Shiny turned out their pockets, and overhauled them carefully. A few pence and a couple of knives was all he found. The wretched wasters, sick, hungry and desperate, made no attempt at protest. They had honestly tried to get work, but for weeks every man's hand had been against them. They had heard two men say the night before at the Hakuru public house that Tom Roland was a fool to leave money where it could so easily be got at, and they had been drawn as by a magnet to the bay that day to see if there was any chance for them. Under the guise of asking for work they had taken stock of distances, and their short interview with Alice had shown them that she might easily be frightened into silence. They had not had anything so desperate as murder in their minds. All they wanted was money.
“Hm!” grunted Bruce, as he saw all that they possessed. “That looks pretty hopeless. Come on. We'll feed you first.”
Bruce could not show how badly he felt about the wretchedness of life for such as they. But he showed more sym-page 79pathy than they expected as he asked them where they had tried to get work.
Back at the kitchen the tramps were seated at the end of the table, where they ate silently, their heads down, and refused to be drawn into conversation. When they did not answer the more friendly questions the crowd began to bait them mercilessly, to ask them about their love affairs, and what hotels they preferred, and the brands of wine they would recommend. David Bruce listened for some time in silence. Then he stood up.
“Here, shut up, you fellows,” he said good-humouredly, “and pay for your fun. These poor devils haven't a bob between them. Now you wouldn't find starvation interesting, even as a new experience. Come on, you've all got something you'll waste in the course of the next week or two.” He put half a sovereign on the table.
After every man had found something he could spare Bruce handed nearly six pounds over to the tramps, who became obsequiously and pitifully grateful.
“Now, I'll see you down the road to Point Curtis,” said Bruce.
He lit the lantern, and they followed him out to the accompaniment of a bombardment of coarse suggestions as to how not to waste the windfall. As they went round the head of the bay Bruce told them they could get a gum outfit at the Point Curtis pub, three and a half miles down the river, and that they would be shown the way to the gumfield where they could easily make a living digging gum. When they had gone half a mile down the Great North road he stopped. The moon was just coming over the top of Pukekaroro behind them.
“Now, listen to me,” began Bruce, peering into their faces, “don't you come back here. We have done all we'll do for the present, and if you make yourself a nuisance look out! British law hasn't arrived here yet, and some of us aren't particular how we do up corpses for the Almighty. But if you go on that gum-field and keep straight, and get page 80 some strength up, you can apply for a job later on. Go on, no thanks necessary.”
He stood looking after them till the sound of their footsteps died away on the road. He knew they were pretty hopeless, but he had to give them the chance. He heard two weeks later that one of them was drowned while drunk in the river by Point Curtis. He never heard of the other again.
Returning to the kitchen, he sat down outside and smoked till some one came out to ask him to play.
Bruce always enjoyed the incongruity of music in that kitchen, walled with its rows of narrow bunks, with its bright nickel lamps hung from the central beams, its colossal fires in the open zinc chimney, and the limp figures of the men smoking or reading on their beds, or playing poker at the corners of the table. Later on, Bruce and many other men built shanties and houses for themselves, but at present the whole force of workers about the bay was crammed into that one building, with as little room as the sailors have in the fo'c'sle of a battle-ship.
Bruce didn't play down to his audience unless they asked him to. Sometimes the crowd would hum to an air they knew, but mostly they listened in silence. When he was in the mood—as he was this night—some men would drop books, and with their hands over their eyes be carried back to something they had valued. Bruce's music was the one thing they were not ashamed to show feeling about.
When he had played for an hour, he put away his violin, and went out, not to meditate on his past, as some of them supposed, but to play watch-dog to the boss's wife.