The Story of a New Zealand River
the next day Alice saw that Ross was the preferred man. And she heard also, through one of the girls, whom Lynne had told, because they asked him, that he was married.
She knew that he possessed the same characteristics after she had received this information as he had before, but her opinion of them mysteriously changed. She did not mean to allow any sign of the change to appear in her manner until she had had more time to consider the possibilities that lay ahead. For two days she avoided danger by staying away from Asia and Ross, finding her excuse in the amount of work which she said had to be done in the garden.
On the third morning Ross told Asia that he felt well enough to move to his cottage. She knew that he was not strong enough to go, or to eat as he and Lynne would be likely to eat, and that he would not be ready for it for another week at least. And she guessed, also, why he spoke.
That afternoon, as Alice sat sewing and resting beside her western window, Asia opened her door after a short knock, and walked half-way across the room, where she stood with a rigidity unlike her usual ease and mobility.
Alice sensed trouble in her cool level tones.
“Mother, Mr. Ross talks of moving to-morrow. He isn't well enough to go, and he was to stay here another week. You must have made him feel he isn't wanted.”
“I'm sure I've done nothing of the kind,” said Alice warmly, as she looked up. “I've been perfectly courteous——”
“I didn't say you hadn't, Mother. You might be that, and yet not want him to stay. But he won't be any trouble page 299 to you, and you must let him think you do want him to stay.”
Their eyes met for a moment, and Alice saw something new and defiant, and fiercely hostile at the back of Asia's, something she had never seen there before. It startled her.
“My dear, of course I've nothing against his staying. I had supposed he would. What do you want me to do?”
“Well, you will have to make it plain, Mother. Sick people are very sensitive.”
“I don't know what I've done,” went on Alice.
“It isn't what you've done, Mother, so much as something you're thinking. And you have a manner that would freeze hell.” She saw her mother was hurt by this expression, but at that moment she did not care.
“What do you want me to do?” asked Alice with an air of resignation that taxed Asia's patience.
“Mother, you know very well. Don't pretend you don't. I know what you are thinking. But you might as well stop it, because that sort of thinking never does any good. Now I'm going to make tea. Will you have it with us? And will you act as if you were enjoying it?”
Though to Alice this resembled an invitation to put her head in the lion's mouth, she fought her feeling of hurt and resentment.
“Very well,” she said quietly.
Turning, Asia swung out with an air suggestive of a final ultimatum.
Uncompromising candour was a thing Alice never could cope with in any one but Bruce, who knew how to temper it with humour and graciousness. Asia's cold words, sensible and straight though they were, left her sore and helpless.
She wondered how, after this interview, she could possibly go out and be pleasant and natural to Allen Ross. She wondered how she was to rid herself of the sense of fate that had hung over her for three days. She wondered how she could keep out of her manner the evidence of the page 300 thoughts that would crowd her mind. But she felt she must try. That something she had seen in Asia's eyes frightened her. She wanted passionately to keep something she did not know how to keep.
She stood up and looked out upon the sun-swept river and the drowsy western hills. All life seemed drugged in the enervating stillness of that soft spring day, all except that around the mills, which remained, as ever, oblivious of heat and cold, and sun and rain. She saw a clutch of flitches rise into the air between the masts of a vessel at one of the wharves. She watched it swing and drop and disappear into the hold. The hum and grind and scream of the machinery were deadened a little by the humidity in the air. But there was something in the vitality of that agglomeration of sounds that helped her.
She smoothed her hair, put in a new comb, inspected her hands, and taking up the garment she had been sewing, she walked into the front room. She did not know whether Ross knew that Asia had spoken to her.
“It must be tea-time,” she began with a forced serenity.
Ross knew nothing of the recent interview, but he felt her restraint. Because she attracted him he was determined to overcome it. He raised himself off his cushions.
“I think Miss Roland is making it. Let me get you a chair.”
“Oh, no, thank you,” commanded Alice quickly. “Don't attempt to get up, please.” She walked to her rocker near the fireplace. As she sat down she saw that he would have to turn round in order to face her and sit comfortably. He made a move to readjust himself.
“Don't move,” she said, getting up again.
“Won't you come nearer, so that I can talk to you?” he asked.
She thought his voice sounded appealing as he looked at her across the top of the table, and unable to resist that friendliness, she dragged her chair to the foot of the sofa, and sat down facing him.page 301
As he settled himself again one of his cushions slipped to the floor.
“I will get it,” said Alice, as she saw him stoop.
The something curiously intimate about arranging cushions for a person, sick or well, affected her as she fixed them for him, and some of the hostility that had crept into her thoughts of him disappeared. He looked up gratefully at her, with the look of homage and genuine interest that had attracted her at the dinner. She felt that perhaps she had been misjudging him.
She took up her sewing.
“Have you been ill before?” she asked.
“I have never had to go to bed before,” he replied.
“Then, it's a new experience.”
“It is not a pleasant one.”
“No, but I've found that it has its compensations.” He smiled again at her.
She did not know whether he meant to include her company among these compensations. She would have been suspicious of any compliment, and she made no attempt to acknowledge it as such. She went on with her sewing, determined that he should do his share of making conversation.
Ross lay easily still for a minute or two, watching her. He liked the simplicity of her gingham dress and lace fichu, the grace of her bowed head, the delicate movements of her white nervous hands about the muslin and lace. Then the smallness and fineness of the garment interested him. He wondered if he dared ask what it was. Presently, when he had decided that it was not anything with an embarrassing name, he put out his hand.
“What is that?” he asked, touching it.
“It is a christening dress for a baby—the Hargraves'.” Her tone implied that it could not possibly mean anything to him. But she held it up.
Ross looked at it, saying nothing. It was the first time page 302 he had noticed anything belonging to a very little child, and he was amazed himself at the sudden effect it had upon him, at the things it suggested. He forgot all about Alice as he looked at it.
Feeling that his silence was significant, she stole a glance at him. She saw reverence, delicacy and sentiment in his eyes, and she felt that a man who could look like that could not be a villain.
“Can a child get into that?” he asked, taking hold of it.
“Oh, yes. They are very small at first, you know.” She found herself actually smiling at him. His real interest in the little garment touched her.
At that moment Asia appeared in the doorway with the tea. She gave one look at Ross with the christening dress in his hands, and one at her mother leaning towards him, and then her eyes lit up with a wild amusement. But Ross barely looked at her as she walked in and put her tray on a small table.
“There's something very appealing about it, isn't there?” he said to Alice, as he handed her back the lace and muslin.
“Yes, I feel so,” she answered, amazed that he should.
This little incident affected her opinion of him more than she was then aware of.
Asia came forward with cups of tea, her manner entirely innocent of any significance. After she had served cake she sat down on the end of the sofa, and led Ross to talk of his work and Sydney. He noticed while he talked, addressing himself almost entirely to Alice, that they both avoided looking at each other, and that Alice had lost the ease she was coming to when the tea was brought in.
He chose an appropriate place to say that it was time he stopped loafing and got to work.
“I have told Miss Roland I will get down to the cottage to-morrow. I have imposed on your kindness long enough,” he said.
“I don't think you have imposed on my kindness at all,” said Alice quickly, with a change of manner.page 303
Asia rose to get more tea.
“Well, I must be an infernal bother,” he went on, feeling something he could not define.
“If you are considering me,” Alice achieved a pleasantness that surprised herself, “you must know that you are no bother to me. If Asia likes to make a trouble of you that is her affair.” At this Asia wondered what had happened to her mother. “We are used to taking in strangers,” went on Alice. “It is a habit we have acquired in this place, and we never make a trouble of it. You will please stay here till you are quite well.”
Though still uncertain about it, he felt there was nothing for him to do but to thank her and stay.
That night Alice went out to walk up and down the beach to try to face what she was now sure was coming. She craved for Bruce, but he and Roland had gone that day to the bush to be away for days, leaving her more alone than she had ever felt before. Though she was by no means sure that he would see eye to eye with her in this situation, she felt he was now the only thing she really had. She had tried to take comfort from words spoken hurriedly by him the evening before when she had asked him if he knew that Ross was married. He had treated the matter lightly, had again begged her not to anticipate, and had assured her that Ross and Asia were as familiar with the conventions as she was, and that they could take care of themselves.
But now the look that had flashed across Asia's eyes that afternoon troubled her. It lit up the future for her. It opened out a panorama of disaster that now seemed to her to be inevitable.
Alice had faced more or less calmly for some time now the fact that Asia would probably marry some one she did not like. With the memory of Mrs. Brayton's story in her mind she had determined that whoever it was she would make the best of it. It was the one thing in her life she would have been ready for. She had prayed with but faint page 304 hopes that it would not be an actor, or a reformer of too pronounced a type, or a weakling of the kind that often attracted strong women, but she had prepared herself for the worst even in this direction. Her visions of a professional man and a “gentleman” were, she always knew, too good to be true.
But, as usual, the thing she had not prepared herself for was the thing that was going to happen. It had never occurred to her that Asia might fall in love with a married man. She had the familiar delusion that though other people's children did such things her own could not. And the bitter irony in the situation was that Allen Ross single would have been just the sort of husband she would have welcomed, while Allen Ross married was the least desirable thing in the world. She did not know yet whether there were any chances of a divorce, but even if she had known there were it would have made no difference to her just then.
The unkindest cut of all was that this situation came at a time when she had been about to rest upon her oars, when she had hoped that at last her life was to flow in the pleasant places, when at last her old haunting sense of failure had become less insistent, and the tragedies of her past had settled back into an undisturbed region of her sub-consciousness. It was this crowning cruelty that brought slow tears of self-pity to her eyes as she walked back and forth on the sand. She had so wanted peace. She had so wanted forgetfulness and some measure of happiness. It stunned her to think that there was design in this, the working out of some immutable law that would never leave her alone.
Then the old delusion that it must be stopped, that it could be stopped, and that she could stop it took possession of her. It was unthinkable that it should go on. She was sure they did not realize where they were drifting, sure they had not faced the facts, sure that even when they did begin to face them they would overlook something vital. But, she told herself, they were both fine and honourable, page 305 they did not mean to bring misery to each other, and they would listen to her. And she believed that what she had to say would open their eyes to the danger they were in.
She was anticipating the end before the beginning had well begun.
She felt calmer after she had made the decision to speak until she began to ask herself which of them she would talk to. The difficulty of it made her sick. She tortured herself with imaginary conversations, beginning now with Asia and now with Ross. But she knew facing them in theory on the beach was a very different thing from looking them in the face, and the suspicion that she might fail, and that they might go their own way in spite of her grew upon her. She began to cry helplessly. Then she raged against the man who had brought this upon her, then she cried again until she was too worn out to think about it any more. As she went to bed she decided that it might be wiser to wait and see how they went on.
When she met them at lunch the next day she wondered what she had been worrying about. Nothing could have been saner or calmer or more normal emotionally than the two people she had seen the evening before on the edge of the abyss of unbridled passions. There were no traces of nervousness about Asia, and as she watched Ross cut bread for the children she felt, as she had felt the day before, that he could not be a scoundrel. But it was only in their presence that she felt thus disarmed. Away from them her fatal intuition regained possession of her.
She tried to comfort herself with the knowledge that they belonged to a generation that had collected along with other ethical novelties the right to free and open friendships between the sexes. She knew Auckland was full of such friendships, but she had observed that, in spite of the freedom, they were commented on, and that people always wondered about them with a certain expression in the eye and a certain raising of the shoulders. It did not matter to her that the remarks were more often in the nature of page 306 amused speculation than judgment. The fact that they were remarked on at all proved to her they were not accepted naturally by society.
It was not till she had thought back and forth for three days that she remembered that her friendship with Bruce might have been questioned by the strictly orthodox. But she told herself at once that that was a very different thing from the friendship between Ross and Asia. She was so sure of it that she attempted no analysis of the difference. She shut her mind against any comparison.
She grew lonelier and lonelier each day. Her children were not rude to her, nor did they neglect her, but she saw that their attentions were a little forced. Hypnotized by the company of the two men they would forget her, and then, remembering, come ostentatiously to see if she wanted anything. She sat a good deal in her own room. The only time she really saw them all was at meals. She pretended to be busy gardening and sewing. She forced herself to be pleasant. One evening when Asia asked her if she did not want to join them all in a walk on the beach, she went, feeling it was a doubtful experiment, as it proved to be. She could not enter into their gaiety, seeing as she did the grim hand of fate above them all. She began to see treachery in Ross's careful attentions. She could not help it. She left them early with the conviction that she had spoilt their walk, and that they all knew it.
The next day, the day Ross was to leave for the cottage, Alice awoke with a headache. She did not mention it because it would look almost as if she had done it on purpose. All her children had planned to escort Ross to his home, and install him with a tea. Asia spent the morning cooking enough food to last the men for days. As it was Saturday, and they were all home, the house resounded with noise and laughter.
Alice felt miserably that she must make an effort to be pleasant at lunch. She drank hot water, took soda, bathed her face with eau-de-Cologne, and finally took brandy. But page 307 she looked so ill when she sat down to table that they all noticed it. She was sure she read in Asia's eyes a veiled impatience. After a few minutes she got up, and begging them to take no notice of her, but to go on with their fun just as they meant to, she left them, and went back to her own room.
As she was getting cold water and a towel to bathe her face Asia came in.
Alice turned on her desperately.
“Now what are you bothering about me for?” she demanded. “I can look after myself. It's just the heat.”
“Why, Mother, it's no bother. You look very sick. You must stop gardening in the sun.” Though Asia guessed that the sun was not the sole cause of the trouble, she ignored the other features in the case. She had made up her mind to manage her mother without emotional scenes as far as she could, and she was determined to be patient and to bear with her suspicions and premature judgments.
“I'm all right,” persisted Alice. “I only want to lie down and be still.”
“Very well, Mother.”
“And I don't want any one to stay home with me this afternoon.” Her tone implied that she knew she was a nuisance, but that she would not have any sacrifices made for her.
Taking her at her word, Asia said “All right” and left her.
Alice began to cry, but realizing that that would make her head worse, she controlled herself, and bathed her face and neck. Also, she meant to get up and see the party leave, and she knew she dare not show traces of tears.
When Asia came to the door to tell her they were going she got up, powdered her face—a performance she had taken to rather guiltily on her last visit to Auckland—and sniffed her smelling salts.
Faced with that smiling, eager group, she felt as if she were on trial. She felt she had no business to send them page 308 off with anything in their minds that would spoil their afternoon. She felt as if they were appealing to her to justify them in the enjoyment of their youth and good spirits.
“I'm better,” she said, in answer to Ross's question. “I stayed out too long in the sun. I hope you will all have a lovely afternoon and a very nice tea-party.”
“Don't you think you are well enough to come?” he asked.
Alice could detect no lack of sincerity in his tone.
“I won't come to-day, thank you,” she succeeded in saying lightly, “but some time soon.”
“May I stay till dark, Mother?” appealed Bunty, seeing she was in a gracious mood.
“If you have been asked to,” she smiled.
And with that smile upon her face they left her. They did not forget, as they frolicked down the hill, to turn and wave to her, and something about that little attention, which none of her children ever forgot, touched and comforted her.
But before she had been alone long a sense of terrible loneliness overwhelmed her. Something like the stillness of death seemed to brood over the house. She felt she could not stay in it. So, as her head felt better, she went down to talk to Mrs. Hargraves, whom she saw sitting with her children on her back porch. With them she was forced to fight her own thoughts out of action, and the effort did her good. She stayed with them till she saw Roland and Bruce ride up to the stables by the men's kitchen. Then she hurried home to get a meal ready for them.
She had no chance to talk to Bruce that night, or for some time afterwards, for he went off on business to the Wairoa, and when he returned a government party had to be shown round and entertained for several days.
Asia did her full share of the management necessitated by this hospitality. She got Eliza King down from Kaiwaka to help, so that her absences would put no extra work on her mother. She did not try to get out of playing to the page 309 guests in the evening, and she went on one excursion to the bush.
But Alice, watching, saw that Ross and Lynne were included in all the hospitalities, and that somehow or other Asia was with them or with Ross every day.
When the visitors finally departed Asia told her mother that she was going to coach Ross with his French. She did not elaborate the statement to say when or where, but she began to disappear after dinner at night, and her hours for returning soon brought home to Alice the conviction that if she was ever to speak it must be soon.