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The Heart of the Bush

Chapter V. How Dennis went on killing his Love

page 278

Chapter V. How Dennis went on killing his Love.

From pure loving kindness and unselfish devotion, Dennis was steadily starving the life out of his wife. She had a joyous spirit, but she needed joy to thrive on, and he was giving her none at all, only saving it up for a problematical future, without even letting her into the secret. When he was stupid, he was stupid on a large scale, and in proportion to his great ability. For he was generally recognised now as a very able man in his own way. All the settlers round looked up to Mr. MacDiarmid, from Te Puhi on the hill slopes to Wainoni Flat and Roslyn township, and as he was a kindly man, he liked the human side of his popularity. But his main object in taking up this refrigerating business had been to give Adelaide all the luxury and pleasure that seemed her native element. There was nothing too fine, too choice for his love, nothing too varied for the bright changeful spirit that was so lovely in its joy. It made his heart throb when he saw the light in her eyes, as she talked to St. Aubyn of Venice and Rome and of the cities of Spain. One night he happened to be in the room while she was page 279telling the boy that she had one dream unfulfilled, and that was to go a yachting cruise to Sicily and all the Isles of Greece. Dennis smiled down on her so kindly then, as he came to her chair to lay his hand a moment on her shoulder and to say, "Well, Aidie, who knows?" Adelaide flushed, looking up at him quickly, and caring more for the touch of his hand than for the Ionian Islands, but she made the conventional struggle for serenity and said, "Oh, it's only a dream of mine, you know. My travelling days are done. Did you hear from your mother by the 'Frisco mail, Mr. St. Aubyn?"

This was only one of the ravishing tours that Dennis planned out for her. He often asked about far countries from the Brandons and St. Aubyn, and he accumulated a good deal of information. Then he meant his Adelaide to have a beautiful house, not large, but as like as possible to the Cornish castle that had been her mother's home. This was the poetry of his life in those days.

There was a good deal of prose. And once started in business, he took a great interest in it on his own account, as an energetic man is likely to do when he sees an enterprise thrive in his hands. It was a critical time in the industrial history of the colony. During the past ten or fifteen years a revolution had been going on in the whole agricultural and pastoral systems, owing to the growth of the frozen meat page 280trade and the dairy factories. Then the Argentine and Australia came into the running, and it became a question how long New Zealand would hold its own. Those involved, as MacDiarmid was, felt to the full the excitement of the race, and the proud consciousness of pushing on the prosperity of the young country that New Zealanders love so well. MacDiarmid saw the whole prospect far and near, with the practical imagination of a Colonial who was also an Irishman, and who liked some concrete and substantial basis, but coloured even the most prosaic facts with the instinctive warm glow of his own temperament. Far more than with the colony at large, he was concerned with opening up his own district. There was good pastoral land in the valley, indeed as far as pasture and water are concerned, the whole country round Haeremai could have held its own with the best in Otago or Canterbury. But Mr. Borlase had made the fatal mistake of pushing settlement too far into the mountains, away from any of the main centres. At the time when he started farming, it was impossible to do more than speculate what land to take up, but as it turned out, no railway line or main road ever came his way, and he died a disappointed man. The Wainoni Flat settlers who followed in his wake, lived hard, bare lives in their small houses of painted or weatherboard wood, scattered at wide distances on the river banks and in recesses of the hills. page 281The whole district had been falling behind the times into the hard-working, thrifty poverty that seems the fate of Scotch peasants, when MacDiarmid took Mr. Borlase's place on the Road Board and fought like a lion, or better, like a clansman, for the making of roads and bridges, and the more equitable adjustment of a carelessly unfair method of rating high and low levels, accessible and almost inaccessible places alike. In a few years he had done great things within this lonely and isolated neighbourhood, and his purpose was to do much greater. If he was sometimes a child in the arms of his wife, he was a man amongst men. He would have gone into Parliament, but he had that objection to politics which is only too common amongst straight-dealing colonials, and he preferred the downright scrimmage on the Road Board. His patriotism was local and narrow, but it was intense. He loved these mountains and these valleys as the Celt and the Gael love their misty islands and craggy hills. Here he had been born, and here, if it had not been for his wife, he would have been content to do his life-work, and to die and be buried. A few years back he had helped start the Dairy Factory in Roslyn. That was his first enterprise, but he was only a very young man then, and he himself held only a few shares. It had prospered, and he had made money. Now he was agitating for a creamery on the Flat, because the distance to Roslyn was such a serious page 282difficulty in conveying unseparated milk. As every farmer knows, the question of conveyance is the supreme one in regard to every form of produce, and his idea was to set up buildings and machinery sufficiently near at hand to make both milk and meat fit for distribution beyond his own neighbourhood. His own special project was this Farmers' Refrigerating Company, and for the time it absorbed the greater part of his energies. These two enterprises, the Freezing Works and the Dairy Factories, meant an immense boon to the district, saving it in fact from being hopelessly starved out, and finally deserted, as more than one settlement in back country has been. The pastoral revolution had made it impossible to compete with other parts of the Colony if the old methods of farming were persisted in, and MacDiarmid saw, ready to his hand, the only means of saving the settlement. There were human interests involved. If the district went under, it meant ruin to all the settlers, every man, woman and child of whom he knew intimately. So it was a great day for him, and for them too, when the first blocks of stone were laid for the foundation for the freezing works, and a greater still when the arrival of the refrigerating machinery was wired from Dunedin.

All these things MacDiarmid meditated on when he rode to and from Roslyn, and when he sat at home absorbed in his papers and letters, page 283leaving his wife for the present alone in her loneliness. He did not exactly forget her, but neither did he quite remember her. He had a habit of feeling the presence even of his best-beloved in a sub-conscious manner and was, in some ways, singularly undemonstrative. But Adelaide was vivacious and accustomed to unlimited attention. Dennis was much more often away now than at home. Unless there was any special operation on—branding, dipping, docking or shearing or harvesting— the work on Haeremai was slack for a man of his capability, and M'Ilvride was perfectly competent to look after the ordinary routine management of the stock—the yarding, the milking, the ploughing and fencing, beside the innumerable odd jobs that a good farmer must turn his hand to. M'Ilvride was a hard-working man, and in his own way reliable. He had "a sort of Hielan honesty," which in his case might be defined as honesty with pickings. Since Mr. Borlase's illness, MacDiarmid had been gradually placing him more and more in the same anomalous but important position that he himself had formerly held, making him, so to speak, "head man in general," and M'Ilvride relished his own importance. The higher and more scientific part of the management—the stock-breeding and the culture of the land, the raising of root crops and all market transactions—still remained entirely in MacDiarmid's own hands, but these matters, too, involved his spend-page 284ing a good deal of time either in the township or in Dunedin.

So Adelaide was left to break her heart alone, until Lena busied herself at the stove or the dresser to hide the pity on her face, whenever her young mistress came in after seeing her husband ride off. Since the night of his confession, Dennis had never been anything but tender to her, but then he scarcely spoke to her for days together. He never talked of all his plans for her happiness, because he suffered from a constitutional "tardiness in nature, which often leaves the history unspoke that it intends to do." The whole enterprise was a risk, and he might not after all be able to give her the gifts that he desired to give. Adelaide tried to take an interest in his business, but he saw no use in that. She was by no means an empty-headed girl, she read and enjoyed "Monna Vanna," and "Es War," and "Il Santo" in the original. She could dress, and sing, and dance, and talk in exquisite perfection, and she kept her little house in the prettiest and most artistic order. But the frozen meat trade was quite beyond her, and she was heart sick and weary of its very name.

So she drooped and pined like a lovesick girl, which in truth was all she was. If she could have been angry, it might have roused her, but he was never unkind enough to excite anger. She had such sacred memories of him; she had seen such depths of love. It was all page 285a mystery and a wonder of pain. It was a pity she could not offer any resistance to him, but she could not. Just then she was all the more his own because she bore their child. Day after day she grew more pale and weak and lay more and more on the couch, so tired out, not as Dennis thought, with work, but with heartbreak—that she could scarcely lift her head. All those who saw her began to say she would go, as her mother had done, and she knew that they were saying this. Still she tried to console herself with the old conse-crated cant that women should not be exacting, that when men stayed from home it was because their homes were not attractive to them, that a woman's place is in her home and a man's in the world. She made a piteous effort to be attractive, and seeing that her husband thought her manner artificial and was vexed, she yet more piteously gave up the attempt. "It is my fault," she said to herself. "I can't amuse him at all now. I ought to be thankful it is only his work and not some other woman that he cares for." To excite reluctant pity was the thing she would most of all have dreaded, so she lay gracefully on her couch in the evening, and if Dennis noticed, which he did not always do, she said, "Yes, she did get a little tired now, not much, but she liked indulging herself if he did not mind. She had got into indolent ways in London with nothing to do but to amuse herself and rest." But page 286oftenest she lay quite alone in her pretty little drawing-room, and saw through tears the furniture and pictures that brought back the days when they had arranged every detail together in the first joy of union. At night she was sleeping now by herself, but if he were not away in town or city, Dennis always came to her bedside with a kiss and a few fond words, and then she clung to him with her arms around his neck, in a sort of despair. "Why, Aidie," he said once with kind laughing eyes, "aren't you going to let me go? I believe you're afraid to be left alone in the dark."

"Yes—alone in the dark," she echoed wildly, and let her arms drop from his neck, and threw them out across her bed, "alone in the dark— I'm afraid to be left alone in the dark." Then coming to herself, "Forgive me, Dennis. I am hysterical to-night."

"Drink some cold water," he suggested with unutterable stupidity, and gave her some.

This potent cure for loneliness excited Adelaide's sense of comedy, and she laughed distractedly, but drank the water and said with an effort, "Women—who are not very strong— often get hysterical—at this time. Now leave me, dear. Goodnight."

"Yes, I think you had better get to sleep," Dennis said, and went away perplexed and worried.