The Story of a New Zealand River
before Bruce reached the bay Alice had left for Mrs. Brayton's.
She did not go straight there, but stayed for over an hour in the dell, sitting on a little point above the mangroves. A tui sang in the gully behind her, shags occasionally flapped by on their way up stream, sparrows and fantails flew about her inquisitively. But she was dead to the sunlight and the call of the spring. She shed no tears. She scarcely moved.
When she finally reached the pines Mrs. Brayton was working on a bed for annuals. The old lady knew it was no occasion for flippancy, and even if it had been she could not have risen to it. For once she was at a loss as to how to proceed.
But Alice greeted her coolly, begged her to go on with her raking, and suggested that she should help her. The loveliness of the Spring day in that sheltered and seductive garden had an instant effect upon her.
So, avoiding carefully any reference to Asia's departure, they hoed and raked together, talking as they worked of plants, the last curate, the delay of the English mail, and of the topic that was then absorbing the attention of all English people in New Zealand—the declining health of Queen Victoria.
But even as they talked Alice felt that Mrs. Brayton must think her a fool, or worse. She knew the old lady could hardly avoid taking sides. She had been rather bitter during the last three days about the part she and Bruce had played in helping and perhaps encouraging Asia to go. The thought that her two best friends had helped to bring about the thing she had dreaded for years was not an easy one page 243 to dismiss, and only her urgent need of those friends helped her to forgive them. The thought that she herself was hopelessly in the wrong did not make it any easier for her to look either of them in the face. Less ashamed to meet Mrs. Brayton, she had come first to her, feeling blindly that until she was at peace with both of them she would be utterly alone in the world.
She hoped the old lady would not order tea. There was something about the sociability of that meal that made it impossible to bolster up reserves, and Alice hated to think that the moment would be fixed when she might have to begin the inevitable references to Asia's departure.
Fortunately, the new curate appeared, and he was welcomed with a warmth not always bestowed upon the usually well-timed visits of country curates at meal hours. He stayed to dinner, with no smallest notion of the situation into which he had precipitated himself. However, his ignorance was infinitely more helpful than his knowledge could have been.
He thought Mrs. Brayton charming, and Mrs. Roland an attractive-looking, but frigid and dull woman. As a non-member of his church, she was more or less removed from the social sphere he desired, even at Kaiwaka. He had not been in New Zealand long enough to realize that in that radical country church membership did not constitute an entrée to exclusiveness, and that in the remote districts of the northern bushes it was not regarded as important.
By the end of dinner even Mrs. Brayton's powers of endurance were approaching their limit. Ordering a fire in her own room—for the night had turned chilly—and leaving Harold to digest the curate as best he might, she drew Alice by the arm out of the library and along the hall.
“I must be going,” began Alice weakly, realizing that once they were alone again she would have to unbend.
“You are not going,” said Mrs. Brayton with determination, resolved now to manage the business herself.
They entered the old-fashioned room with the firelight page 244 playing about the four-poster, on the much patterned wall paper, and on the deep chintz-covered chairs.
Alice felt like a child led out for a parental scolding. And like a child she sat down stonily, frozen again, and unable to help with the beginning.
Taking one of her hands, Mrs. Brayton sat down beside her on the low lounge. She began rather nervously, but as Alice gave no sign of hostility she continued with more assurance, till her voice deepened and broke as she went on with the personal confession.
“My dear, I know how you are feeling, and you can't help some of it. But, you know, we have no right to make the young unhappy. Asia has committed no crime save the crime of being able to get on without you. I know that hurts—it hurt me once. But we parents are all wrong. We think these children of ours are our property, that they must come when we say come, and go when we say go. We think we have a right to discourage them, to hamper them, to fill them with innumerable fears, just because they are young, and we think they don't know life. My dear, they know more about life than we have any idea of, and they hate our interference. They hate it. And if we persist in interfering they will hate us. They may not show it. They may tolerate us afterwards. They may keep up a brave show of affection. They may remember our birthdays and keep us out of draughts, and encourage our secret affection for sugar candy. But the great thing will be gone for ever. They will cease to speak to us of vital things, and they will talk to us only about flowers and the weather.”
“My dear”—the old lady paused, her head lowered, her hands closing nervously on Alice's—“I had one daughter. I idolized her—never for years did I let her out of my sight. I swayed her, so I thought, body and soul, and I believed we were the greatest friends on earth. I did not think she could do a thing that would displease me, and I thought that was the right thing between mother and daughter. Then the man came—a man I did not think rich enough page 245 or good enough. I talked of my rights and my will, and my affection and my sacrifice, and my views, as if I had a monopoly over these things. She listened—she was very courteous, she never answered me back—and then she ran away with him. They had one year of happiness, except that she grieved because I never saw or wrote to them, and when the baby was born and she lay dying they sent for me. It was more than I deserved. I went. All she had time to say was, ‘Oh, Mother,’ and then she lay back dead. I have seen her as she lay there every hour of my life since——”
She stopped, for Alice had burst into a devastating passion of tears.
For nearly an hour Mrs. Brayton soothed her, saying little, and knowing that the tears were a relief.
Neither then nor ever afterwards did Alice make any reference to the story she had just heard, but it altered her whole attitude of mind towards Mrs. Brayton, and drew her to her as nothing else could have done, and killed her pride and her foolish aloofness.
“I do not know what is the matter with me,” she choked, struggling for composure. “Feeling makes me blind. It does something to me—I don't know what. I have been cruel to her and it is all my fault. And to-day I couldn't wave to her. I couldn't—I wanted to, but I couldn't——”
“What!” Mrs. Brayton sat up. “You didn't say good-bye to her!”
“Oh, yes, in a way—at the house; but at the boat she waved, and I could not. And I wish I had.” Her tears flowed afresh.
“Then you can send a telegram and say so.” Mrs. Brayton realized the pathos of this little incident. “I'll write it out, and the curate can take it to the post office to-night, so that it will go first thing in the morning. Will you do that?”
“Yes,” sobbed Alice.page 246
The old lady filled in a telegraph form and wrote: “I am sorry I did not wave—Mother.”
“There,” she said, showing it.
“Yes, please send it.”
When she returned from giving it to the curate she found Alice had recovered some composure. She sat down beside her again, and patted her hands.
“You will get along, my dear,” she said gently. “We all do. We all get along somehow. And it is very foolish of us to think we cannot.”
“Oh, I know; I am not going to die. But, oh, God, how I will miss her, and there is another child coming.” Her voice ended harshly.
It was some seconds before Mrs. Brayton could trust herself to speak.
“I am sorry to hear that,” she said gravely. “She didn't know.”
Mrs. Brayton felt this was a case where something ought to be done, though what, she could not have put into words. Then her thoughts turned to helping Alice to face it.
“She might not have gone if she had known, but sooner or later, my dear, she had to go. Now you can get on without her. Make up your mind to it. The matter with you is that you don't adjust your mind beforehand to possible readjustments in your life. Everything is always a shock to you.”
“I don't know how to help it.”
“Oh, yes, you do. You know everything changes. Realize that it will. You knew perfectly well your child would grow up and go away from you, but you refused to face it. You said, ‘She will not go,’ instead of saying, ‘She will.’ You did not want her to go, and you tried to think she would live by your wants. I know why she means so much to you, but you don't own her. She is only yours if you understand her. You must love her less and understand her more. My dear, do you know a line of Oscar Wilde's—‘For each man kills the thing he loves?’ You don't. Well, take it page 247 home with you, and think about it. It's one of the most telling lines in the language.”
Alice leaned back, repeating the words to herself. It hurt the old lady to see the lines on her face and the pallor of her cheeks and the twitching about her eyes.
“Cheer up, my dear. There's plenty to live for even yet.”
“I will try,” said Alice feebly, with the faint-hearted resolution of a person attempting what she knows to be an impossible task.
But before they went to bed Mrs. Brayton had succeeded in comforting her beyond her hopes.
As she walked home in the fresh morning air, and looked down upon the sun-specked river dancing its way to the sea, the natural vitality in Alice reasserted itself, and she realized once more that she could begin again, and that she would not make the same tragic blunder in the future.
She had not been home ten minutes before Bruce appeared to know if there was anything he could do. When he had gone she told herself that she was in danger of taking what life had left her too much for granted.
At midday he brought her a telegram.
“It isn't bad news,” he said at once. “I've had one.”
As Alice read it the tears sprang to her eyes. It was very short, and said simply: “Cheer up I am still your child.”
She told him of the telegram she had sent.
“I'm glad you did, for it was a pity you did not wave. It hurt.”
“Oh, David.” Her lips trembled.
He put his arm round her a minute, saying no more.
Asia wrote every week. In the third letter was the news that she was off on a six months' tour of New Zealand as pianist to a concert company at the fabulous salary of six pounds a week. To Alice this meant going on the stage. It took her some weeks, with the assistance of Bruce and Mrs. Brayton, to adjust her mind to that, but they man-page 248agedaged to keep her from writing, even cautiously, what she thought of the experiment.
At the end of the first month she was amazed to receive a present of four pounds from Asia. And possibly the regular receipt of that amount every month helped her to modify her views of concert companies.
At the end of six months Asia was prevented from accepting a second engagement by a telegram from Bruce:
“Your mother very ill baby a week ago born dead she forbade us tell you serious relapse your return work wonders.”
Later in the day he received her reply. He broke gently to Alice the news that she was on the way home. She immediately showed signs of improvement, and four days later she was well enough to be propped up in bed to watch for the first sign of the sailing boat beyond the gap.
It was cold and wintry, and the river was a dull and angry grey, cut to intermittent foam by an irritable wind, but it seemed to Alice the friendliest river she had ever seen. She was not strong enough to sit up all the time. So Betty stood by the window to watch too.
“I do hope the steamer isn't late,” said Alice, dropping down after half a dozen disappointments.
“Now, Mother, don't,” pleaded Betty. “You must not get excited.” Her eye caught something beyond the gap.
“Oh, is that it?” cried Alice.
“Mother, don't jump up like that. I'm not sure, but it looks like the boat.” She picked up a small field-glass. “Yes, I think it is the boat—yes, I'm sure it is. Now lie still, Mother, for a while.”
“Could she see if we waved?” asked Alice eagerly.
“No, Mother, not yet.”
“I must see,” said Alice perversely. She lay with her head to the foot of the bed. They had turned her round so that she could look out. Betty raised her till she could see the grey sail on the dull water. Then she sank back page 249 again, her long plaits of hair falling about her shoulders, her face flushed, her eyes brilliant.
“You must wave,” she said imperatively, “something she can see. I am sure she could see a sheet. Hang it from the window.”
“Oh, all right, Mother. But I'm sure she can't see it yet.”
“Do as I tell you,” said Alice, with sudden fierceness.
“What's this?” said Mrs. King, coming in. “You must keep calm, dearie.”
“Mother wants a sheet waved from the window, and there is such a wind,” said Betty.
“I don't mind the wind. It won't hurt me.”
“All right, dearie.” Mrs. King sensed the situation. “But you must lie down and be covered up.”
“Very well,” replied Alice meekly.
Mrs. King and Betty opened the window and held out a sheet that flapped furiously.
“This is silly,” protested Betty. “I'm sure she can't see, and the children can wave from the cliffs; that would be better.”
“Now, now,” soothed Mrs. King. “Look, what's that? Isn't that something waving from the boat? That's not the sail. Don't you move,” sternly to the bed.
“Is it really?” begged Alice from her mound of blankets.
“Yes, she sees. She's waving. Now just you keep calm.”
Feeble tears of happiness ran down Alice's cheeks.
“Tell me where they are,” she said.
They announced the progress of the boat bit by bit as it came scudding on, with the sails full reefed and the foam flying away in two wings behind it. It was just such a day as Asia loved best to sail upon the river. When it reached the mill, three low whistles rang out across the water.
“That's for her,” cried Betty excitedly. “A salute. Uncle David said the engineer was going to.”
Alice flushed again with pride.page 250
“Wave from the front window now,” she commanded.
“They're in the channel, Mother,” went on Betty. “I can see her. She is standing up and looking this way. And she has on a dark dress, and a white thing round her neck—I wonder if it's fur. Oh, my! she's waving. Oh, Mother, I must go. Mabel and Bunty and Elsie are off down the hill——”
“Go on, then,” said Alice.
“Sh! quietly,” frowned Mrs. King, as she bounded forward.
“You needn't hold the sheet any more,” said Alice hoarsely. “Tell me when she's coming. I hope they won't keep her.”
“They're just by the spit now. Mr. Bruce is pulling down the sails. She's moving to the bow, now she's jumped out, and she's running. The children have got to her—she isn't stopping, bless her! They're all after her. Now she's got to the store; she's waving at somebody—it's Mr. Hargraves and Mr. Roland. She isn't stopping. Now, dearie, be calm, she will be here in a minute, and you must be quiet, or she can't stay with you.”
“I will be quiet,” said Alice peacefully. “Nothing matters now.”
They heard the wild shrieks of the children following her, and then running steps and the click of the gate.
“Mother,” called a ringing voice from the front step.
And then Mrs. King went out to take the children round to the back.
Alice saw nothing but a brilliant face that grew into the room till, leaning down to her own, it filled all space.
Mrs. King persuaded the children to go down to Bruce to help to carry up Asia's things. There were two trunks, and a travelling-bag, and a roll of umbrellas, and a rug. The girls gazed awed at this magnificence.
“Three umbrellas!” gasped Mabel.
“Do you suppose she brought anything for us?” questioned Betty.page 251
The mere idea drove them all wild.
But Bruce told them they would have to wait. At the end of an hour, he said, Asia would have to leave her mother, and then it would be their turn. As they followed him up the hill, they all fought about carrying her umbrellas and the rug. When everything had been set down in the back porch they sat down fascinated upon it, lest by chance any of it should be spirited away.
“I hope she brought me a railway train,” said Bunty. “I told her I wanted one.”
“Greedy pig! That was just like you,” retorted Elsie, who was secretly aggrieved that she had not possessed his forethought.
While they waited with burning impatience, Mrs. Bob Hargraves arrived with her babies. She was a fresh and charming young mother, who had won her way rapidly into the home life of the boss's house. Glad of a diversion, Betty and Mabel turned excitedly to her and her children.
Soon afterwards they heard a rustle of silks.
“Oh, here's Granny,” said Mabel, and everybody made way for Mrs. Brayton, who was dressed almost as she had been when she first walked down the green hill to the house on the cliffs. Of all her ancient gowns the now muchdarned green and gold was Asia's favourite.
“Get a chair, Bunty,” commanded Betty.
“I couldn't wait, my dears,” said the old lady, as she sat down. “I was watching for the boat, and I knew she couldn't stay very long with your mother.”
A few minutes later the waiting party was joined by Tom Roland and David Bruce.
“Oh, Uncle David, isn't it an hour yet?” cried Mabel.
“Just about,” he smiled, as he moved on into the hall.
Mrs. King then joined them, and after a few more minutes of waiting Bruce returned.
“She's coming,” he said.
With her swift light step, and an exciting little jangle of keys, Asia swung down the hall, pausing for a moment page 252 to put her coat and hat, her white fur, and her small handbag into her own room, which like the rest of the house, had been gaily decked with flowers. Her face was flushed, and there were traces of tears in her eyes as she stepped into the porch.
Mrs. Brayton was the first person she saw. A thrill fired every one, even Roland, to stand up, as she bent over and kissed the trembling old lady. Then she turned more lightly to Mrs. Hargraves.
“Did you bring me a railway train?” exploded Bunty.
“Yes, I did.” And Asia joined in the general laughter.
That unpacking was a wonderful adventure. Things that had already become necessities to Asia were still luxuries at the bay, so that to Betty and Mabel almost everything that came out of those trunks was like an item from The Arabian Nights.
But the best thing about it all was that Asia had forgotten nobody. She seemed to have divined correctly what each person would have chosen for himself. Bunty was soon hugging his railway train, Elsie, a fully dressed sleeping doll, while Betty and Mabel gushed over fine silks for new dresses.
With a surprised grunt Roland accepted a pocket-book, and Bruce and Mrs. Brayton smiled over new books and music. Asia's generosity had not stopped with the family, for there were gifts for Mrs. Hargraves and her children, and for every other child about the bay. And she had remembered all whose pronounced tastes had ever impressed her own groping progress towards finding out what she wanted. For a mystic working on the tramway she had brought a book on theosophy, and, for the carpenter, the latest word on socialism.
So it was no wonder that for weeks the whole bay revolved about her return, her clothes, and her new ideas. With the latter she had come back stocked with the latest novelties in everything from wall-papers to cremation. Before she had been home a fortnight everybody knew that page 253 she had got the boss to promise that the sitting-room should be entirely refurnished according to her own instructions, that the stove should be moved from the kitchen to the scullery, that the kitchen should be transformed into a dining-room, and that the house should have a veranda built round three sides.
But with all this everybody agreed that greatness had not spoiled her. She walked in by the back doors as she had always done, and not even the most critical could find a trace of anything that might be called an “air.”
Alice, growing stronger from the moment she arrived, did not worry now about the prospects of more adjustments. The things she cared about were that Asia brought in all her meals, that Asia was the first person to kiss her in the morning, and the last to tuck her in at night, that Asia noticed more quickly than any one else, excepting Bruce, if the light was in her eyes, that Asia kept the house quiet, and put fresh flowers in her room every day. All these things she saw even before she had got over admiring the velvet cloak with fur collar and cuffs that had been the gift chosen for her. And it really seemed more important to her that Asia should not shake the bed than that she should have a tailored suit and six evening dresses, even though the latter did rather take her breath away.
When by degrees she began to notice changes of manner and suggestions of worldliness, she told herself it was nothing to worry about; that the main thing was that in the fundamentals, her fundamentals, the world, as far as she could see, had not spoiled her child.page 254page 255