The Story of a New Zealand River
one afternoon, a fortnight later, Alice sat in her rocker by the sitting-room fire, with Asia reading the inevitable Boys' Own on the sacking mat beside her. She was now able to be up most of the day, and was so much better that Mrs. King had left to go to another case. Mrs. Harding had gone this evening to have dinner with Mrs. Brayton, leaving Asia in charge of her mother. Roland had been all day in the bush, but was expected back for tea, which Dorrie had left prepared in the kitchen.
Alice had not recuperated as well as Bruce thought she ought to, considering the great care and attention she had received, and he wondered what it was that was holding her back. He knew that she had asked many questions about her illness, but he gathered that Mrs. Harding had successfully kept the real facts from her. He thought it hardly likely that she was grieving over the baby to the extent that her nerves indicated.
With that inconvenient insight that so many introspective women possess, Alice suspected that she had not been given the true facts of her illness. As she grew better she began to wonder what they were hiding from her. She knew now that David Bruce had been at the house a good deal, even though she had no clear memory of him. She knew that he still came, for she heard his voice in the kitchen in the evenings. But she had never seen him, and she was appalled to find out how much she wanted to see him.
In those two weeks, as she sat at the sitting-room window, she had looked for him about the spit and the tramway. Once when she had seen him near the store, she had felt the quick fever in her veins painting itself upon her page 96 face and neck. She sternly fought these relapses. She told herself she must not allow any sentimental feeling about his connection with her illness to drive her into thinking of him. Again and again she repeated her little formula about not beginning. Then she would get angry with him for ignoring her now that she was well. As a matter of common courtesy, she argued, if not as a doctor, he should have come to see her. Her illness should have brought about a natural acquaintance between them. He should have seen that, and should not have held her to her mistake. It was his opportunity to ignore it. The natural antagonism between these two views wore on her nerves.
As she sat by the fire with Asia, it occurred to her that she had not had an opportunity of talking to her. The more she thought of it the more she saw significance in the fact that she had been alone very little with her. Of course the child had been very useful, and had worked unceasingly. Emotion stirred her as she looked down at her. Was she imagining, or did Asia look different? Had she been able to enter into the atmosphere of serious illness to any degree? Alice remembered the curious expression on her face as she had stood beside her bed. Suspicion entered her mind. She determined to find out what she knew.
“Asia, how long was Dr. Mount here when I was ill?” she asked suddenly.
She saw the child hesitate, and answer without looking up:
“I don't know, Mother; I didn't see him come.”
“Did you see him at all?” demanded Alice.
“No—I—they didn't let me in.” Asia began to feel uncomfortable. She did hope her mother was not going to ask her any questions. She was not quite sure now what they had told her to say. And it was one thing to be told to say it, and another to look into her mother's eyes and lie to her.
“Were you asleep when I got ill?” pursued her mother.page 97
“I heard you fall, Mother, and I ran for Mr. Bruce.” That was both safe and true.
“Go on,” said Alice.
“Oh, Mother, don't ask me questions. I don't remember,” she burst out, torn between the desire to keep the secret faithfully, and not to deceive her mother.
Alice drew herself up, an unreasoning rage taking possession of her.
“Asia,” and she charged the word with ominous solemnity, “you must tell me all you know. Who has dared to tell you that you were not to talk to your own mother? Tell me that.”
Asia sprang to her feet in dire distress.
“Mother, you will be ill again. Nobody told me,” she lied bravely, “but every one says you mustn't be worried, and now you are getting worried.”
Alice saw her advantage. She calmed herself.
“I am not worried. I am quite well now, and you must answer my questions. It will worry me if you don't. Now don't be afraid. You are my child, and nobody has any right to tell you what to do with me. Would you let anything come between you and your mother?” Alice felt this was perfectly fair, but she was inwardly furious to see that Asia did not seem convinced. It was the first time in her life that any influence had worked against her own with regard to her. She deliberately ignored the possibility that it had been done to save her. The fact that it had been done was enough to make her blind. “Answer myquestions. After you got Mr. Bruce you took a message to Bob Hargraves, and he went for Mrs. King.”
“Did you go back to bed then?”
“I got some hot water for Mr. Bruce, and then I went to bed.”
“Asia,” cried her mother furiously, “you are telling me lies. You did not go back to bed. Who told you to tell this story to me?”page 98
The child drew away frightened and miserable, feeling herself trapped in a tangle of things she could say and things she must not say. And she did not know now what her mother had been told, or what she knew.
“Oh, dear!” she said pitifully, half to herself.
That convinced Alice.
“Did Mr. Bruce tell you that you were not to say anything?” Her voice hardened, and in that moment she believed she hated him.
“Oh, Mother,” Asia was trembling, “don't be angry with us. I don't understand it a bit, but it was all to make you well. I will tell you if you are well—I was awake.”
Alice tried once more to calm herself.
“Yes, and you helped Mr. Bruce. Now go on, tell me about it. When did Mrs. King come?”
“Well, it seemed a long time: I'd got everything ready. Oh, Mother, I can't tell you anything if you look like that. What is the matter with you? Are you ill?”
Alice realized that Asia was afraid of her, but she was not in a mood to think of her. She was fast getting to the borderland where accumulated anger becomes blind passion.
“Come here,” she cried furiously. But Asia hardly moved. “Do you hear me?”
“Oh, Mother, do sit down or I shall run away. I don't like you when you look like that. You are not like my mother.” Asia continued to sob.
Alice stood still, wondering if she heard her aright. What had happened to her worshipping, obedient child? The thought that something had come between them drove her to a frenzy of rage.
“You won't obey me! Oh, this is outrageous! I forbid you ever to talk to Mr. Bruce again. You are never to go near him again. You are never to speak to him again, never for any reason at all. Do you hear me?”
Asia stared at her, fierce rebellion choking her. Passionately as she reverenced her mother she knew she could not page 99 yield to her in this. She had rarely defied her even in a small way, and she had never before flatly disobeyed her, but as she stood there distracted by the inexplicableness of it all, something in her rose up to fight.
“I will talk to Mr. Bruce,” she cried, and then, turning from her mother's terrible eyes, she fled outside. But even in that volcanic moment she remembered that she was supposed to be taking care of Alice. She stopped sobbing by the cliffs. She was sick with fright and bewilderment. It was horrible that things could be so sudden and so stupid. What had she done, what had Mr. Bruce done to cause her mother to act like that? She saw only one explanation. Her mother must still be ill, and now she had made her worse again. As she stood there she saw Bruce leave the store. Impulsively she rushed down to him.
“What's the matter?” he asked sharply, as she ran towards him.
“Mother is so angry with us,” she gasped, tears dripping from her cheeks. “She says I'm never to talk to you again.”
Bruce looked sternly at her.
“What has happened? What have you been telling her?”
“I didn't tell her. I mean I tried not to, but she would ask me questions. And she seemed to know—she said she knew I was not in bed. I didn't know what to say, and she said I must tell her.”
“Oh, Lord!” exclaimed Bruce.
Asia burst into fresh tears.
“Oh, I couldn't help it. Don't you be angry——”
“Sh! child.” He put his hands on her shoulders. “Don't worry any more. It can't be helped. Mrs. Harding was going to tell her all about it in a day or two. I understand why she is angry. But never mind, she will understand when she is told. It will come out all right.”
“But she looked so awful. She will be ill again—she is ill, isn't she?”
“Yes,” he said gently, “she is still ill, and sick people page 100 often get angry at what seems to be nothing. But don't worry about her. Who is with her now?”
“Nobody. Mrs. Harding went up to Mrs. Brayton for dinner. We thought Mother was well enough.”
“I see. Well, I'm going to talk to her. You stay outside till I go.” He turned up the bank.
Alice stood frozen for some minutes after Asia ran out. Then she sank choking into her rocker, those last defiant words ringing like a death knell in her ears.
Asia had been one of her eternal verities. She had never allowed herself to think of a day when the child might combat her opinions, or question her beliefs, or dispute her commands. Much of her suppressed emotionalism had found vent in the affection between them. To her the bond had been more than human. She had been sure of her right and of her power to dominate her own child. In spite of Mrs. Brayton's hint she was still sure of her right, for her feelings died hard, fighting to the last ditch. But her sense of power had now received its first stunning shock. In that mad moment she did not stop to think or analyze. She saw only that Bruce was a rival influence.
As she sat lashing herself into a fever, the front door opened, and Bruce walked in and closed it behind him. For a moment she was so taken aback that she could not move. She felt a wave of helplessness closing down upon her. Then she remembered, her nerves snapped, and she sprang to her feet.
“How dare you enter my house like that? Leave it at once,” she cried.
But he moved towards her. He saw she was in a white heat, and on the border of hysteria.
“Please sit down, Mrs. Roland. I want to talk to you.”
His calm inattention made her want to scream at him. She had never been in such a state in her life.
“I will not sit down. Leave my house,” she almost shouted.
He was vividly conscious of her dramatic appearance. At page 101 last she had come to life. Her blue-grey eyes blazed with unsuspected passion. Her face, thin and whitened by her illness, was flushed to a deep crimson. Her tall and graceful figure was terribly alive with the fire of maternal rage. But Bruce looked anxiously at her, at a loss how to quieten her.
“Do sit down, Mrs. Roland. I can explain——”
“Explain—nothing could ever explain. You talked to my child—you told her not to tell me. You took advantage of a situation. I don't care what happened. It could have been avoided—it was outrageous. You presumed disgracefully. You had no business in this house in my husband's absence—you should have got a doctor to stay. Nothing can explain—there could be no excuse. To teach a child to lie—to lie to her mother. Will you go out of this house?” She gasped for breath.
Bruce kept his eyes steady against hers, hoping to dominate her.
“You will understand when you hear——” he began quietly.
But she was beyond reason.
“I shall tell my husband that I ordered you out of this house, and that you refused to go,” she choked, and sweeping past him, she entered her room and locked the door behind her.
Even though he knew that she did not know what she was saying Bruce was hurt, and he was annoyed to think that he could not manage her. He understood her anger, and he was sure that when the inevitable explanation was fully made she would be ashamed of her outburst. But he knew that her shame would not improve the strained relations between them, that, in fact, it would only make them more difficult. And it hurt him to be at variance with any human being.
He stood for a few minutes outside to think how it could now be straightened out.
Spun from a gold and crimson sunset a wavering fringe page 102 of colour undulated upon the cold ripple of the river. The chill of winter put a sting into the evening air. Down below him, along the tramway and on the spit, the men were gathering up their tools. He saw Roland riding along the edge of the bay. He had a curious feeling of being utterly apart from this nest of people whose affairs dovetailed, and whose motives and reactions, often inexplicable to themselves, were an open book to him. He went down to tell Roland what it was advisable for him to know of the incident just past, and to tell Asia how to treat her mother.
For some time after she fell upon her bed Alice lay sobbing weakly, conscious only of the physical results of her outburst. If she moved she felt dizzy. Her head ached abominably, her feet grew cold. She lay in a delirium of misery till Asia tapped at her door.
“I'm bringing your tea, Mother,” she called, in matter-of-fact tones.
Alice remembered that her door was locked.
“Put it down,” she called thickly.
She forced herself to get up, bring in the tray, and drink a little of the hot milk. Then she undressed and got into bed. She drew the sheet half over her face as she heard some one come to the door. But Asia did not speak to her as she put two hot water bottles into the bed, and drew the blinds, and left the front window open at the bottom. Somehow Alice knew that David Bruce had been telling her just what to do.
If she could possibly have grown any more miserable as the evening advanced she would have, but even her capacity for misery was limited. She tried to still her uncomfortable questions by telling herself that her anger was justified, that what she had said was true, that nothing could ever excuse Bruce. Then she remembered that she did not yet know whether the lies that they had told her might not hide a situation that had not before occurred to her because page 103 it was so unthinkable—a situation that she shrank from now, and refused to think about.
She was still refusing to think about it when Dorrie Harding stole into her room. Alice pretended to be asleep. Dorrie renewed the hot water bottles, put milk and biscuits on the table beside her, raised the window a little, and went out. Nobody came near her again. But she heard voices in the kitchen till midnight. She knew they were discussing her. She knew they were excusing her because she was ill. She remembered the anxiety in Bruce's eyes that evening while she was raving at him. But this conspiracy of carefulness and understanding only threw into greater relief her own ignominious position as the person to be excused. She spent a wretched night, wondering how she was ever to look any of them in the face again, and craving to get away from every one of them.
“It's going to be damned difficult,” Bruce had said to Mrs. Harding and Mrs. Brayton, “but it ought to be done now as soon as possible, to-morrow, if you can.”
He had gone up to bring Mrs. Harding home because he wanted to talk to her apart from Roland. They sat in the library before a comforting fire.
“Oh, I can't do it,” groaned Mrs. Harding. “She's an awful person to tell anything to. What is the matter with her?”
“Pride and Puritanism, those monumental bulwarks of the British character,” growled Bruce.
The two women laughed.
“Your explanations are simple, but they don't help,” said Mrs. Harding. “Can't you imagine her face when she is told that you were alone with her when the baby was born?”
“Poor thing,” he said gently, “yes, that will be an awful dose, and she will never be able to endure the sight of me again. Really, it's a devil of a situation, and yet it is so human and natural. Oh, Lord!”
“I'll tell her,” broke in Mrs. Brayton. “I'll go down in page 104 the morning. I'm not belittling your talents”—she smiled at Dorrie—“but I think she will take it better from me.”
“Oh, you are a brick!” cried Dorrie, “I've never dreaded anything so much in my life. And I'm afraid I'd lose patience with her. She is so stupid.”
“My dear, think of her upbringing. Father a Presbyterian minister of the old school, wouldn't even allow Scott's novels in the house. Mother died when she was a child. One brother a missionary. A daily round of prayer meetings. No wonder she ran off and got married. And, then, I'm sure there was something funny about the marriage too.”
“Oh, I know there are excuses for her. But lots of us have had a Puritan upbringing and we are not as bad as she is.”
“The great trouble with her is that she can't be inconsistent,” said Bruce gloomily. “She can't forget this week what she felt like last week. She began wrong with me, and she can't forget it. Ten years hence she will remember that she was rude to me this afternoon, and she will want to apologize for it all over again.”
“Come on, Mrs. Harding. We must get back. I told Roland not to go near her, he's a blunderer, but there's no telling what he may do. And that poor child. She will have brain fever if anything more happens.”
“I'll be down about ten,” Mrs. Brayton called from the veranda as they went through the garden.
It was with some misgivings that the old lady walked into Alice's room the next morning. She saw at once that Alice knew why she had come, and so she began without any preliminaries.
“My dear,” she said as she sat down beside her, “perhaps we have all made a mistake, but we did it for the best, and you must forgive us.”
Then Alice saw that whatever the conspiracy had been they were all in it. Not that that added to her peace of page 105 mind. She knew that she was going to hear something dreadful, and she braced herself to get it over without any exhibition of feeling. Her head was aching badly, for she had hardly slept, but she was glad of it, because it distracted her attention, and helped her to keep aloof.
Mrs. Brayton found it very difficult to talk to her because she asked no questions, and only twice repeated a word or two, as if she had not heard aright. Mrs. Brayton was careful to put no emphasis on the things she knew Alice would emphasize; she lightened the details and she treated the whole situation as a thing common in that environment; and, by assuming that Alice would see it in a certain light once she was told, she planted a seed that after something of a struggle vitalized into a plant, a feeble one, indeed, but still a plant.
Mrs. Harding dropped in twice to break up the impression that this was a solemn conclave. She brought in chicken jelly and biscuits and refilled the hot water bottle. She, too, took the attitude that they were the people who had blundered.
“We did it for the best,” she said, echoing Mrs. Brayton.
The whole story beat upon Alice's brain as a string of words that merely added to her misery without helping her to think. She wondered if she would ever be able to think again. When it was over, and Mrs. Brayton had gone softly out, after squeezing her hand, and telling her she must get well, she lay stupidly holding her head. She felt as if the sap had been bled out of her, leaving only a physical shell that ached because of the void inside it.
As she lay with her eyes closed Asia brought in her lunch.
“Mother, dear, you will get well quick now, won't you?” The child beamed at her. But a look of disappointment killed her smile as she saw her mother's eyes. “Oh, Mother, have you a headache?”
Alice nodded. She could not trust herself to speak.
“Let me bathe it.”
Alice nodded again.page 106
That headache was one of the worst she had ever had. At nine o'clock that night Bruce told Mrs. Harding to give her morphine. She was stupid the next day from the effects of the drug and dozed uneasily, taking little notice of anybody.
“How has she been to-day?” Bruce asked on the second evening.
“Awfully listless,” answered Dorrie. “She wouldn't get up. Poor thing, she has tried dreadfully hard all day to be pleasant. But she has hardly looked at any of us.”
“Hm! I'll see what I can do with her.” He smiled.
Dorrie wondered what would happen as she saw him disappear into the front bedroom.
Alice lay with her eyes closed, her face shaded from the one candlelight by two empty cannisters that had been placed round it. Her masses of chestnut hair tumbled about her head. Her cheeks were tinged with colour.
Her eyes opened, dilated and blazed as Bruce without any announcement walked in, closed the door behind him, and drew a chair beside her. As he sat down he was conscious that he had electrified her. She was looking at him like a bird fascinated by a snake. He realized, too, that when she looked alive she was beautiful. But it was merely as a doctor, a psychologist, that he leaned over her.
“Mrs. Roland,” he began gravely, “do you enjoy being ill?”
She looked helplessly into his steady eyes, feeling that they knew everything about her. She made no attempt to reply.
“There is nothing wrong with you now but your mind, and you have made it sick, and you are keeping it sick. You can get well as soon as you please. Now, why don't you? What good do you think you are doing yourself or your children, or anybody else? You are thinking only of yourself.”
She was startled by this unexpected plainness. He was making no excuses for her. He was speaking with the dis-page 107passionateness of a stranger, making no effort to be soft or kind.
“Do you know what you are doing? You are making a luxury of misery. It's a common disease, but you ought to be above it. Now exert your will power. You can get well at once. Health is too fine a thing to be fooled as you are fooling it. If you don't like the past, forget it. Forget everything you don't like.” He stood up. “You get up to-morrow, and walk round the house twice every hour if it is fine, and breathe all the fresh air you can, and above all things,” with slow emphasis, “give that inconvenient memory of yours a rest. Good night.”
Before she knew what she was doing she had put her hot weak hand into his cool firm one that closed round it with a grip she felt for hours, and then he was gone, leaving her aflame from head to foot.
“She is afraid of me! Now why the devil—” he said to himself as he went out.
Bruce's words did not help Alice to get to sleep. But before she began to think of them she held in her memory the picture of his face as it had looked down at her, the patience, the tiredness, the tragedy of his eyes. And she admitted that it was to her one of the most beautiful faces she had ever seen. She wondered why it did not seem to matter that he had done for her supremely intimate things, even that she had been rude to him. He seemed remote from such personal matters, so much bigger than any of the things she worried about. His presence had blotted out the past, his words carried her into the future.
His curt sentences came back one by one into her mind, and one by one she said them over to herself until she had them all set out in a row, as it were, for inspection. The mere repetition of them fired her with energy and determination. She saw that though life had beaten her into the dust she had to get up and face it again. Though she hardly slept, she got up after she had had her breakfast and began the walks. Through the morning she still lived on his men-page 108tality, but as the day wore on she began to get back to her own.
She craved to be alone to think, for she knew that when the excitement died down in her she would begin to think. She wished Dorrie Harding would go home. It was so hard to meet her eyes impersonally. The only person she could bear to see was Asia, Asia who was so easily diverted from the unpleasant, who so soon forgot the yesterdays, who did not look at her with eyes that veiled remembrance.
When she was not walking round the house she sat at the sitting-room window. She told herself that she needed all the sunlight she could get. And it was not the sun's fault that she was disappointed when the evening came. She had to admit to herself that the afternoon had been a failure because she had not caught a glimpse of David Bruce. As she went to bed she knew she wanted him to come to see her again.
But, hearing from Mrs. Harding that she was much better, Bruce did not enter the house. Instead, Alice had a short visit from her husband, who said that now that she was well he would come home the next day, and the following morning he mentioned that instead of going away himself on business he was sending Bruce.
All day Alice wondered when he was going and if he would come to see her before he left. She was hurt and then angry that he did not. When she heard Roland tell some one at the front door that he would be away a month she was frightened to find that it was a shock to her. She saw again what she was coming to, and that she must discipline her mind in order to fight her impulses.
In the course of the following weeks, free from the excitement of possible visits by Bruce, increasingly occupied with the return to her normal life, the departure of Mrs. Harding and the return of the children, Alice fought out once more the disagreeably active waywardness of her feelings, and defined again her duty as a Christian wife and mother. She realized that the situation was a complicated page 109 one. Instead of feeling embarrassed that Bruce had been her doctor, she was now particularly drawn to him on that account. Instead of hating him and disliking to see him because she had shamefully misunderstood him, she longed to humiliate herself in an orgy of submission to him. Instead of blaming him, she now felt Asia's love for him to be a further bond.
She admitted to herself that if she did not actually love him, she was on the borderland. And she knew that she would have to go on seeing him, that he might have to doctor her again, that there was no question of his going away. She knew that she could not be rude to him any longer. She knew that Mrs. Brayton and Dorrie Harding had made allowance for her up to the present, but that they would condemn her for any further stupidity. And she knew that she could not bear their condemnation. At the same time she dreaded to think what might be the outcome of intimacy between her and David Bruce. She still believed in the inviolability of the marriage bond, even in thought, as the first plank of morality.
It was a week or more before it occurred to her to wonder if Bruce cared, or might care for her. She went over all that he had done for her. She thought long over the exciting fact that he, unknown to her, had guarded her and her children those nights before her accident. She thought over everything he had said and done, but nowhere could she find the sign that she both hoped and feared to find. She knew that if he ever grew to care for her and told her so she would be helpless against any advances he might make. It was bad enough, she told herself, that she be in danger of loving him. She must prevent by every means in her power his caring for her. In a clear-sighted moment she admitted that, owing to her past behaviour, the latter might be the least difficult of her tasks.
She decided that it rested entirely with herself. But this decision was not as comforting as she felt it should have been. She prayed long and earnestly that God would rein-page 110force her feeble will with some of that mysterious strength she had been taught to believe was available for those who desired truly to help themselves. She wavered between strong moments when she knew Providence was on her side and weak moments when she saw no evidence that He was.
David Bruce was away five weeks, first up the Wairoa, arranging for future timber shipments, and then in Auckland hunting up men for bush work, and buying machinery. In a weak moment he had succumbed to drinking whisky with the secretary of the Kauri Timber Company, and had been dead to the world for days afterwards. He bore little outward sign of this relapse on his return to the bay, but it was the reason why he did not go near the boss's house for a fortnight.
Then, on a wet Sunday afternoon, he appeared at the back door with a brace of pheasants. Alice was in the kitchen getting the tea when she heard the knock. As she had not heard any footsteps, she opened the door quite unprepared. Bruce ignored her start and her flush.
“I bagged these this morning, Mrs. Roland. The first I've had time to shoot this season. I would like you to have them.” He held out the birds.
“Oh, thank you—I—it's very kind—” she stammered, taking them mechanically.
“Don't mention it. I had fun getting them. I am glad to see you are better.” And lifting his cap, he turned away, seeing that she was uncomfortable at the sight of him. But he made up his mind that she should get used to the sight of him, and that he would find some excuse for calling two or three times a week.