The Story of a New Zealand River
the next day, having purposely postponed her packing, Asia was busy till the last moment. Betty and Mabel went about the house all the morning with hushed voices and scared eyes. As this was the first domestic crisis into which they had entered it assumed the terrifying proportions of a world break-down. Bunty played outside, and the baby, Elsie, after being once severely slapped by Alice, retired to break her childish heart among the runner beans in a corner of the garden.
But there were no signs of emotional upheaval about Alice. There were dark rings of sleeplessness about her eyes, but she went about as usual, shirking none of the little things she did when she was well. And with her there moved an atmosphere that froze everybody who came near her.
Asia was to leave at one o'clock. She did not attempt to sit down to lunch. Instead, she choked over slices of bread and butter as she finished her packing. Alice and the children sat down to a sad meal, where the two girls sobbed at intervals, and held each other's hands under the table, and where Bunty was the only one who ate.
After lunch two men came to carry Asia's trunk down to the sailing boat where David Bruce stood waiting for her.
At last, with a flushed face, Asia came out of her room. Alice immediately left the kitchen and walked to the front of the house. Asia kissed Bunty and Elsie, telling them that if they were very good she would send them something nice. Betty and Mabel sobbed openly upon her shoulder, as she begged them to be kind and helpful.
“Take the children out and down to the boat,” she whispered, as she turned out into the hall.page 238
Alice stood by the door of her room.
“Good-bye, Mother.” Asia looked straight at her, holding out her hand.
But Alice could not meet her eye and ignored the hand.
“Good-bye,” she answered coldly.
They leaned towards each other, and with averted eyes their cheeks slid past each other. Each felt the other stiffen, hesitate, and harden again, and then Asia was gone out of the door, through the gate, and down the path.
Alice stood looking after her. She saw the children join her. She saw the blacksmith come out of the smithy, and Bob Hargraves out of the store. She saw men come from the tramway and the booms, and form a little circle about Asia as she stood on the beach. She saw them all shake her by the hand, and all the hats go off as some one pushed the stern of the boat away.
As Bruce hauled up the mainsail, Asia sat down by the rudder; then she turned homewards, and seeing the figure in the doorway, scrambled to her feet, and waved.
For the life of her Alice could not wave back. She tried to, but her frozen limbs refused to move. Her throat burned. Her eyes burned. She dimly saw the group on the beach wave with an energy that seemed purposeful to hide her own immobility. She saw the figure in the stern of the boat sit down.
As the sail, catching the wind, shot out of the little channel by the end of the spit into the river, Alice moved mechanically into her room, and to her western window.
She saw the boat head down stream, but she could not believe it would go on. She said to herself it must turn back. When it reached the first point she thought she saw it swing. Her hands clutched the side of the window, and her breath raced. But no, it went on. At the next headland she gasped again. It was turning now. But no, it went on. It reached the gap, and her heart stopped. She saw it turn in the channel. But no, it was only tacking. page 239 It went on. It disappeared. Even then she waited, looking for it.
After eternal moments she grew dazed. The full truth had burst upon her at last and had stricken her soul. Asia had gone, not merely removed by distance, but gone out of her life and understanding, gone till she herself should bring her back, she who did not know how to bring her back. With an inarticulate cry she fell on her bed, and lay like a stone.
David Bruce did not look at Asia till they were well out into the channel. Then he sat down in the stern beside her, his right hand on the mainsail rope, and his left along the back of the seat behind her as she steered.
He said nothing, knowing she was beyond speech. Once or twice she looked back to see the children still waving from the cliffs, but not the figure at the window.
Presently he saw that tears were dripping off her cheeks.
“She might have waved,” she choked, giving way suddenly.
He merely closed his hand upon her arm.
At the gap Asia looked back for the last time, seeing no one, but only the grey house with its black spots of windows, and the group of buildings clustered below, and the long streamers of smoke flying with the wind from the mill chimneys.
As everything was suddenly cut off by the cliffs at a turn in the river, Asia felt as if her old life was as suddenly cut off from the new. It was as if a wall had descended between them. And with the elasticity of youth her thoughts leapt to the future, and she told herself it was silly to suffer any more. But as she turned her face for the first time full upon David Bruce she remembered that she still had to say good-bye to him.
She had barely begun to mention it when he stopped her.
“For God's sake, child, have no tragic last moments with me. I am not going to retire to weep and pray, nor do I expect to die before you come back. For heaven's sake let's page 240 dilute the awful occasion with a little cheerfulness. I have to go back to your mother.”
And Asia actually laughed, and saw that the sun was shining on a golden kowhai on the bank, and that the river was a shimmering thing of blue and silver beauty.
“That's better,” said Bruce. “Your young life is not blighted, nor the world wrecked. And everything will go on just the same, and everybody will realize it in a week. Your mother will readjust herself, and will soon be revelling in your letters. She doesn't know it now, but she will.”
“I know. All this has been so unnecessary, so stupid.”
As there was nothing to be said, he said nothing.
“You will let me know at once if she is ever ill—seriously, I mean, won't you?”
Silence fell between them, while Bruce watched for gusts from the gullies, and Asia listened to the swish of the spray against the boat. She had always passionately loved sailing, and she could not be unhappy long with the wind whistling past her ears and the spray tickling her cheeks. It was not till they came in sight of the Point Curtis wharf and the waiting steamer that she remembered what was happening to her.
There were things she had meant to say to David Bruce, things she had often imagined herself saying, but they were destined to remain unsaid. Bruce kept her busy for the last half-mile taking notes of things he wanted her to do for him in Auckland, and by the time the boat touched the landing steps the steamer was all ready to go, was, in fact, only waiting for her.
Two men ran forward for her trunk and bag, and before she realized it she was at the gangway with Bruce, and some one was yelling, “All aboard.”
“Why, they are ready,” she said vacantly.
“Yes.” He smiled.
Putting her arms round his neck, she looked fervently page 241 into his eyes, revealing something of what she had meant to put into words.
But he ignored it.
“Take care of yourself, little girl, and don't forget to come back,” was all he said as he kissed her.
Blinded by tears and fighting for control, she hurried with her head lowered across the gangway, seeing no one. At the gunwale she stood looking back at him as the ropes were cast off and the steamer began to draw away. She knew that in the world to which she was going she would not look upon his like again.
But she was wise enough to know, even as she stood there, that she would get over her adolescent emotion for him, and keep unspoiled the hero-worship.
As Bruce looked after her, he hoped he would be there to greet her when she came back. He waved his hat, and was glad to see her smile in return. He stood till he could no longer distinguish her face upon the deck, and when he turned he found himself alone upon the wharf.
Fighting the shock of emptiness that the people left behind always have, he dismounted the slimy steps to the boat, hauled the sails, and started homewards with a heavy heart.
He knew that to him, also, the bay would never be quite the same again, and he understood why humanity all down the ages had feared and resented and hated change.