The Story of a New Zealand River
asia met her mother at Point Curtis with the launch, one of the new things that Alice had welcomed, for she had always been nervous in the sailing-boat.
The usual steamer-day crowd was waiting on the wharf as the Ethel was guided alongside with more fuss than if she had been an ocean liner.
“Dear me, your ma gets younger every year,” said a farmer's wife, smiling as she spoke at Mrs. Roland, who had just recognized her as she stood near Asia.
“Yes,” Asia looked curiously at her mother, seeing her afresh, and admiring her new tailored suit.
Alice had been in Auckland a month. She had gone mainly because the Brough Company was playing a series of modern plays which Asia said she must positively see, and because Asia had successfully educated Roland to face the fact that seeing plays was part of ordinary modern life for women whose husbands were in the position he was. Roland had become, as he had succeeded, more susceptible to the mandates of public opinion. He had been in the habit of taking women to the theatre if there was anything they wanted to see when he was in Auckland, but formerly the mere suggestion that his wife should take a trip to the city for the purpose of seeing plays would have met with a snort of scorn. However, Asia had taken full advantage of the fact that, at various times, passing travellers in for a meal had assumed that the wife of so prosperous a person as the boss naturally visited Auckland at intervals to keep up to date.
Though not a highly suggestible person where spending money on his wife was concerned, the boss had in the last page 283 year or two become more generous to her, and he was quick to see where anything in his treatment of her was likely to reflect upon himself. So that if she wished to go to Auckland she was now free to go, and she had on occasions accompanied her husband at his own request to attend some big function where the addition of a beautiful wife helped his social status.
This last time Alice had gone with Bruce as escort, a business trip for Roland happening to coincide with the arrival of the Brough Company. It had been the first they had ever taken together, and it had been the boss's suggestion. Alice had stayed with the Hardings, and Bruce had lived at an hotel. The morals of Auckland would have survived their staying under the same roof, and Mrs. Harding laughed at Alice's scruples, but could not cure them.
Frequent visits to the city were only a part of recent changes in Alice's life. Ever since the birth of her last dead baby she had lived alone in her room. She did not know that Bruce, in his capacity as doctor, had, after much deliberation, decided to talk seriously to her husband about her health, which had declined steadily after Elsie's birth. She had merely thought that at last he had come to feel that she was unattractive as a wife, and that he preferred to drop the pretence of caring for her in the only way she had supposed he cared. But she was puzzled over the fact that he had become, not less kind and friendly, as she would have expected, but more generous and more considerate.
Personally, she had no regrets for the change in their relations, but only an intense gratitude, mingled sometimes with the fear that as her health improved he might claim her as a wife again. He had never spoken to her on the subject of the change, which had come about naturally. Nobody had remarked on the fact that after her long illness he had continued to sleep in Bunty's room. Her children had not appeared to notice it. Asia had never hinted at any knowledge of it. And so the thing she had longed for, but could page 284 never have managed for herself, had happened without her knowing how.
Eight months before the arrival of the Australians Alice had had an operation which had been urged by David Bruce to save attacks of pain and debility from which she had long suffered. Asia returned from Sydney the day her mother went into hospital, and helped to nurse her back to what proved to be a second youth.
It was while they were both in a Rotorua sanatorium, where Alice was being massaged by the best masseur in the colony, that they got the news of Mrs. Brayton's sudden death.
As Alice had received a spirited letter from her only three days before, the news was a shock to both her and Asia, and the manner of the gallant old lady's passing, as it was told in the papers, upset them still more.
Mrs. Brayton had always declared that she would die standing, and she almost did. She had caught influenza, a disease she despised, and, in spite of David Bruce's protests as to its seriousness, she refused to go to bed. In the middle of one morning, after he had been up with her all night, and had told her she was not to get up, her heartbroken old maids found her gasping on the floor, partly dressed. Before they could even get her on to her lounge she was dead.
Asia kept the reports of the funeral from her mother as long as she could, but Alice evaded her and bought old papers giving accounts of it. It had taken on the size and importance in the public mind of a great event. Tom Roland had closed all his works, and the Kaiwaka and bay schools had a holiday. People from a radius of twenty miles had crowded round the grave in a corner of her garden, sobbing for something they had lost, even if it was only the oft-told tale of her open gate, and her home-brewed ale, and her pleasant chatter. To all who had seen her in her own domain she was to remain a vision, an ideal appropriately haloed by the grandeur of her material possessions.page 285
The fact that she had left a good sum of money to local charities and to the school funds probably intensified somewhat the enthusiastic expressions of grief in some directions, more or less public, but she was privately enshrined for ever in the hearts of many to whom she had been a fairy godmother. As time went on she was more quoted than the Bible, and she became a sort of legend with the children growing up, a beautiful spirit of the river and the hills.
Her death changed the character of the bay for the three people who had been her real intimates. To Alice, Bruce and Asia some virtue had gone out of the place never to return. They all realized within a short time that its hold on them had loosened, that there was a vacancy about that garden in the pines that they were continually conscious of, that it was like a dull ache ever present.
The death of the old lady, combined with her mother's illness, had influenced Asia to subdue most of the effects of the city of Sydney upon herself. It was not until they had been back at the bay two months that Alice discovered that she had learned to smoke, and that she gave other signs of complete emancipation from the old-fashioned ways of her mother's generation. But Alice was not as shocked about it as Asia thought she was. She knew that Mrs. Brayton had smoked occasionally with Bruce.
Then Alice had seen, not without a secret amusement, in the last six months, that she was being educated by Asia in the direction of modernism. The process had really begun soon after Asia went to Sydney, with a positive avalanche of books that “Everybody is reading”—Shaw, Wells and Company. Alice suspected that both Bruce, who took with enthusiasm to “the intellectuals,” and Dorrie Harding, who wrote continually of them, were in the plot to clear Puritanism finally out of her constitution. At first Shaw had shocked her—she took more kindly to Wells's sociological books—but by degrees Bruce got her to make the distinction between the “intellectual assent” and the per-page 286sonal deed with regard to actions she would not even have spoken about a few years before.
One result of her determination to interest herself in modern plays and books had been less introspection, and she had been surprised to see that her health had improved with her new interests. It had improved so much after she had got over Mrs. Brayton's death that she began to wonder what had happened to her, and more than once Asia had made scandalous remarks about her reaching the “dangerous age,” remarks that at first amused and then vaguely disturbed her.
But the greatest joy of the past six months had been Alice's realization of her improved relations with Asia. Although the friendship between them had not included exactly the sort of confidences she felt she should have had, it had been something so much more than they had had for years that it was a source of emotional satisfaction that partly made up for the loss of Mrs. Brayton's sympathy. The only cloud upon it had been the knowledge that some day she would go away again.
There was one direction in which Alice's ignorance of Asia deceived her into thinking that there was yet nothing to know. Asia's adventures with men were entirely unknown to her mother. What personal experiences she had had in her concert tour in New Zealand and later in Sydney—nothing very disturbing to the stability of public morals, and no more illuminating to herself than those she had had before—she had kept entirely to herself, and, as far as her mother could see, she was much the same as she had been before she first went away. Alice firmly believed that however extravagantly she might talk, and however unconventional she might be in certain directions, she would be “moral” when it came to action.
Asia waited for the steamer with mingled feelings. Knowing herself, and thinking she knew her mother, she had a presentiment that their relationship was to be tested as it had never been.page 287
But all thought of trouble was cleared from her mind by the sight of her mother in her new suit.
At forty-two Alice was now a more beautiful woman than she had ever been. And this time she came home flushed with what had been to her some social triumph. Dorrie Harding, who was more devoted to her than ever, had arranged a series of entertainments in her honour, and Alice had tasted something of a social homage that was more pleasant than she had ever imagined it could be. She had been a centre of attention, had felt that people listened when she spoke, and had known the delight of being well and suitably dressed among people who would approve her taste with critical intelligence.
She saw at once, with childish pleasure, that Asia was delighted with her new clothes.
“Why, mother, what have you been doing to yourself?” she whispered, as she kissed her.
“I feel better than I have for years,” Alice smiled back. “Indeed, I don't know when I felt so well.”
It was not until they were half-way home, after Alice had told with pride some details of the fine time she had had, that Asia attempted to give any local news.
“We've had a diversion too,” she began carelessly, stooping to look at the engine.
“Two men—Australians—on a holiday, and one of them met with an accident, and has been very ill. We've had him home. He's getting better. They're both very nice.”
“Why, you did not tell me in your letters,” said Alice, looking at her, and immediately sensing something significant in the omission.
“Well, I did not have much time. Mr. Ross had pneumonia and nearly died.”
Asia again turned her attention to the machinery, but her mother was not deceived by her casualness. Instead, she felt one of her uncanny presentiments that there was more in this than met the eye.page 288
Her presentiment crystallized into a conviction when she had been home half an hour. She had found Ross lying convalescent on the front room sofa, and Lynne, with his arms full of kites which he had made for Bunty and Elsie, waiting with them on the spit to meet her. Both men took her breath away by hailing her with boyish friendliness. She did not realise that her children had spoken of her in such a way that both men felt they knew her before they saw her. Nobody had hinted that she might not receive them in the same spirit that the boss and Bruce and Asia had shown. Allen Ross perceived the mistake immediately.
Usually, when Alice returned from Auckland, she was the centre of a pleasant fuss for a few hours at least; for, apart from the excitement of receiving the presents she now always brought for them, her children liked to know what she had seen and done, and they liked to rival each other in claims for her first attentions.
But this time her home-coming was robbed of almost all its importance by the fact that Asia was that night to give a dinner-party in the front room, partly to celebrate her return, but more, as she guessed later, to celebrate Ross's recovery. Alice felt the more hurt because she had looked forward to telling them more than ever what she had enjoyed while away.
Asia had no time to do more than unlock her mother's trunk before she said she must see about the dinner. Bunty seized upon the mechanical toy she had brought him, and rushed off to show it to Ross and Lynne. Betty, who now taught in the Kaiwaka school, and Mabel, who was a probationer in the school at the head of the bay, were not yet home. So that only Elsie was there to be impressed, and even she was obsessed by the coming festivity.
“It's to be a real dinner-party, Mother,” she said, her eyes popping out of her head, “with all our silver, and candles, and just roses, Asia says, and I can sit up if I'm good. There, she's calling me.”
And the child ran gaily off, leaving Alice alone with her page 289 open trunk, and her things scattered over her bed. For a while she tried to go on with her unpacking, and to ignore the fact that she was feeling hurt. Then the air of fuss and importance about the house was too much for her. She went out to the kitchen after changing her suit for a house dress. Asia was putting the last touches to a pan full of fat spring chickens, with Barrie Lynne hovering about ready to hand her things.
“What can I do?” Alice asked.
“Oh, nothing, thank you, Mother,” answered Asia briskly. “Everything's done now. We did most of it this morning. I've only got the flowers and the table. There's nothing else till dinner-time. You finish your unpacking, and then rest. Don't get overtired.”
“I'm not tired,” replied Alice with a sense of injury, as she turned away. There was no part for her to play, she saw, and for some reason she wanted to join in. She went back to her room annoyed with herself for feeling badly.
She took up a new brown silk dress, a lovely soft thing, shot with gold, that she had paid for with money given to her by David Bruce. She was half fearful that her husband, thinking his money had paid for it, would think it ridiculous extravagance, for there was nothing at the bay for her to wear it to, and she would have been still more afraid to have him know that he had not paid for it. She had always felt rather guilty about the presents of money Bruce had given her when she went to Auckland, and she had been careful to spend them in ways that were not conspicuous enough to attract Roland's attention. But the brown dress had been too much for her. She had bought it in company with Dorrie Harding and David Bruce, who both conspired to soothe her conscience as to her right to spend so much upon one garment. They had persuaded her to try it on, and once on it was fatal. Alice felt afterwards that much of her success was due to it, but as she looked at it now she thought she had been foolish to buy it, and that page 290 apart from Bruce no one would care whether she wore it or not.
As she stood holding it up Betty and Mabel walked in. They were now pretty, fresh girls, of no violently radical tendencies, and with no promise yet of the outstanding individuality of their father, or of the distinction of their mother. When Roland said they would have to earn their own living and be useful, whether he could afford to keep them or not, they decided to become teachers, and both had made satisfactory beginnings in the profession. To them Asia had always been something of an outsider, and they had grown up happy in their friendship for each other. They were just the attractive, normal, sentimental and conventional girls that organized society expects its young women to be.
“Oh, Mother,” they cried together, kissing her, “what a lovely dress.”
Alice was pleased that they liked it.
“You are going to wear it for our party,” said Mabel.
“I don't know.”
“Oh, yes, Mother. Do look nice. It's to be a swagger party. You must wear it.”
“Well, I'll see.”
Then Alice found the blouse lengths of silk that she had brought for them. They had barely thanked her when they heard Asia calling for them.
“She wants us,” said Betty. “We must go. Oh, Mother, aren't Mr. Ross and Mr. Lynne just lovely?”
They ran out excitedly, leaving Alice once more robbed of her audience and shut out of the preparations for the dinner.
As she went on with her unpacking she heard the constant tramping up and down the hall, Asia's voice calling for this and that, sounds of furniture being moved, gay voices and laughter. She felt as if she had been away a long time, as if she did not belong there any more, as if she were an interloper in the house. Again she was angry page 291 with herself for being so stupid. Why should they not have a party, even if it were for the two men? Why should she not get into a party mood, and not act as if they had set her aside?
When she had put away all her clothes she went out into the garden. The children had finished gathering the roses, and were now busy inside. Alice strolled round the beds, rejoicing in new flowers, and planning where she would put the plants she had brought home with her. Then she sat down on a garden seat to watch a fine sunset that finally helped her to eliminate herself from her consciousness and sent her inside disposed to cast a more friendly eye upon the inevitable readjustments.
Soon afterwards Asia poked her head in through the doorway.
“Mother, do look nice to-night. You are the guest of honour, you know. Have you anything new to wear?”
“I have a brown dress,” began Alice.
“Brown!” Asia sounded sceptical. “Well, if it suits you, do put it on.” Then she vanished in the direction of the kitchen.
Then Alice decided that she would wear the brown dress, and that she would do her hair very carefully. After all, David Bruce would notice if no one else did. So she began one of the most painstaking toilets she had ever made. At the end, when she viewed herself in the glass, she felt she had not done badly. Her beautiful hair was only just beginning to show the grey. Her colour was better than it had been for years, and her eyes showed a vitality that she had thought would never return to them.
But her chief charm lay in something not to be pointed out in this feature or in that, not even in her graceful figure. It lay in something life had made of her, a capacity for being better than she knew.
She had no intention of making a dramatic entrance, but it so happened that when she walked into the front room Bruce, who had just entered, and Lynne and Asia, and the page 292 girls were all standing round the sofa where Ross sat propped up by cushions. The table was laid, the candles lit, the whole room bowered in roses. Everybody turned as she moved forward.
“Why, Mother, if you don't look stunning!” burst out Asia, in the manner of her early childhood. And the eyes of every one else reflected her opinion.
Alice paused, flushing, and obviously resenting this frank praise before men she did not know. Then, catching Bruce's eye, she was warned in time and smiled. But she saw that even that brief resentment had done something to the general enthusiasm, and that she must try to restore it. So, with the air of being very nice, she looked at Ross. She was not sure yet which of the two men Asia preferred.
“I hope this fuss is not tiring you,” she began solicitously.
“Not at all, thank you,” he replied warmly, his dark eyes glowing up at her, for he knew he wanted her to like him.
Bruce placed a chair for her, and sat down himself on the edge of the sofa.
“We still have to take care of him, though,” he said, looking from Ross to Alice. “He has been a very sick man, Mrs. Roland.”
This beginning restored the flow of talk that had been interrupted by Alice's entrance. Lynne and the girls chattered on among themselves, while Ross began, in answer to a question of hers, to tell Alice how he came to get ill. Before he was well begun the boss came in humming, as he did when there was anything unusual on to which he wished to appear quite accustomed. He had changed his suit and put on a clean collar at Asia's request.
“Well, how are things now?” he asked cheerfully, whisking up to the sofa party, with the air of inquiring after a business or a public movement, and not stopping for Ross to finish the sentence he had begun.
They all saw he was addressing the invalid.
“I'm improving fast, thanks.” Ross smiled up at him page 293 as if there was a secret understanding between them. He thoroughly enjoyed Tom Roland's idiosyncrasies.
As he turned to look for a chair, the boss got the full effect of his wife as she sat back in her rocker. He had barely seen her on the spit that day as she landed.
“Well,” he grunted, oblivious of the fact that to her the Australians were still strangers, “you look as if you'd taken a new lease of life. Seeing plays must be healthy.”
Alice was not yet equal to taking him lightly in such situations. Both Bruce and Asia saw the necessity for diplomacy.
“Get up and bow, Mother, and in future always wear brown dresses,” laughed Asia.
“And keep on going to see plays,” smiled Bruce.
“You see,” Asia explained gaily to Ross, “we have at last got Mother to see that some contact with this wicked world need not interfere with the pursuit of higher things, so she has been seeing ‘The Liars,’ and ‘The Gay Lord Quex,’ and ‘Niobe,’ and ‘Lady Windermere's Fan,’ with the result that she has bought without my assistance that adorable dress, and looks younger than ever. I've always told her that too much pursuit of higher things was incompatible with a good complexion.
Everybody laughed, for Asia said it with delightful impertinence, mingled with her obvious affection for her mother. Even Alice laughed. But Ross, who was a sensitive person, knew that she thought the whole conversation in very bad taste. However, as Asia's remarks had been addressed to him, he felt he had to say something.
“Well, Mrs. Roland, if complexions are the test, you have preserved a very nice balance between God and mammon.”
Alice could not help responding to the mischief in his eyes, or to the old-fashioned look of homage that followed it.
Then the conversation became normal again, and Asia and the girls went off to put the finishing touches to the sauces and the gravy.
The Australians knew that Asia had never imagined for page 294 a moment that she would impress them by her little dinner. She had joked about using all the family silver, and so on, but there was no pretension about the function or the spirit in which it was given. But, all the same, there were things about it that were distinctive. Ross and Lynne had never seen so many roses in one room before, they had never eaten better chicken, they had never sat down with a man who interested them more than David Bruce, or with women who charmed them more than Asia and her mother.
And, to do him credit, the boss was at his best. It was his home and he had paid for everything. So, to him, the glory of the party was a reflection from his own generosity, and he was sure the two men understood this. It put him in most excellent spirits, and called forth, whenever he got the chance, his choicest collection of stories from his dramatic life.
Alice realized before the meal had gone very far, that she was, after all, really enjoying it, for everybody treated her as if she were, indeed, the guest of honour. Bruce's attitude she took, of course, for granted. It was too familiar a thing to be remarked. But she had not expected quite the amount or kind of attention that she received from Ross and Lynne. And it pleased her to feel that their homage was due to something more than her position as hostess. There was something especially flattering about the way Ross regarded her opinions of the plays she had seen. He did not have the superior air of kindly tolerance that Asia had been unable to hide. He looked and spoke as if he valued her judgment.
Alice had started the meal with reserves. She had meant to give the whole of her attention to Bruce in a manner that would convey to these young men the fact that, whatever Asia might think of them, her good opinion was something not to be easily won. But long before the meal was over she had succumbed to Ross's charm. And she did not remember [gap — reason: unclear]ill afterwards that Bruce had talked very page 295 little, and that he had given leads for the younger man to follow.
Several whispered conversations followed the dinner.
Lynne chose an unlucky moment, while helping Asia to put away the food in a dark corner of the scullery, to put his arms impulsively round her and kiss her.
“No, don't be a fool, boy,” she said with a touch of contempt.
And though she talked on as if it had been the most negligible of incidents, the rest of the evening was saddened for him.
Soon after the table was finally cleared Bruce said Ross had to go to bed. Asia preceded him to her room, lit his candle, turned down the bed-clothes, and altered the windows. She lingered so that she would be there when he came in.
When he did he partly closed the door behind him.
“You are tired,” she said softly, her eyes reaching out to him.
“A little, but no matter. It was a charming dinner, little girl.” He stood easily before her, sure of his right to make a move if he wanted to, and, therefore, in no hurry to make it. “Why didn't you tell me your mother was such an interesting person?”
“Mother, why, of course, she's wonderful. I suppose I'm used to her. But she's really old-fashioned.”
“Is she? It wasn't so obvious to me. She reminded me of an ivy-covered tower I saw somewhere in England that had weathered many storms. It had a beauty I shall never forget.”
Asia looked at him. She knew he was not saying this to impress her, that, in fact, he had forgotten her for the moment.
“I'm glad you like her, and I hope she likes you,” she went on. “But she is a very peculiar person to please.”
“I prefer people who make careful selections. It is so much more flattering when they choose oneself.” He smiled page 296 gleefully at her as he held out his hand. Then, moved by one of the few impulses he had let run away with him, he raised her hand to his face, held it a moment, rubbed it against his cheek, and kissed it lingeringly.
Raising his face, his eyes challenged hers with a look that asked many questions. Then he smiled as if the answers were satisfactory, and putting his hands on her shoulders, he turned her to the door without another word.
While Roland and Lynne smoked in the front room Bruce and Alice manœuvred themselves out into the dining-room, which was empty, for Betty and Mabel were washing up.
Bruce had talked with his eyes many times that evening, but he had to put it into words.
“My dear, you really are a miracle. I have never——”
“Oh, David, don't be foolish,” she interrupted, half laughing. “It must be the dress.”
“Partly. But mostly health.”
“Yes, I do feel well. David, who are these men?”
He knew that was chiefly what she wanted to talk to him about.
“I don't know, any more than you do,” he answered carelessly.
“Do you like them?”
“Why, yes, don't you?” He looked quizzically at her.
“I don't know,” she began cautiously.
“Are they going to be here long?”
“They've taken King's cottage. below the mill for some months, I believe.”
“Why do you say it like that?” He saw that she had already begun to anticipate.
“What are they doing here?” she evaded.
“Lynne writes, and is after ‘copy.’ Ross is studying for the law.”
“This is a funny place to study for law.”page 297
“Not at all. It's a first-rate place. He brought a caseful of books.”
Then they heard the boss saying good night to Lynne, who was returning to the cottage, and they rose to go back to the sitting-room.
Later Asia followed Bruce out of the back door to the side gate.
“I congratulate you,” he began softly. “Your mother likes Ross. That was the object of the dinner, wasn't it?”
“Oh, Uncle David, you always deprive people of the pleasure of explaining their actions. It is unkind. But you were lovely at dinner, and didn't he talk well?”
“He did.” He smiled at her over the gate. “You've certainly got something ahead of you to manage, haven't you?” he drawled. “I predict that your talents will not get rusty for a while.”
She looked back at him, saying nothing.
“Didn't Mother look stunning?” she veered abruptly.
Bruce laughed outright.
“Don't you think you can snub me,” he said, taking her by the shoulders.
“I didn't mean to, Uncle David,” she answered seriously. She looked as if she wanted to say something more, but after a brief uncertainty she bobbed up on her toes and kissed him, and ran from him to the other side of the house.
Bruce pursued his way to his shanty speculating as to what the morrows would bring forth.