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The Passionate Puritan

Chapter I

page 9

Chapter I

It would not have mattered to Sidney Carey what kind of morning it was when she stepped out of the train at the Whakapara station for the first time. As it happened, it was blazing January heat, in the summer of 1912. But she hardly noticed it.

When he handed down her travelling cases the train guard wondered again who she was, and why she had stopped there. He thought of her several times during the day, and when he reached home he did not wait for his wife to begin her usual inquisition as to who had gone up and down the line, but volunteered a description right away of the only first-class passenger he had had on the morning train.

Sidney Carey was prepared to wait at the Whakapara station. Prepared because everybody she had ever heard of told picturesque talespage 10 of waiting at wayside stations. Prepared also because the unusually explicit letter of instructions she had received told her not to be disturbed if she had to.

For a minute she stood still looking about her. After one glance at the dusty bench in the stuffy three-walled waiting room she decided to leave her luggage where the guard had dropped it, and to put up her umbrella, and walk up and down the platform. She saw the other passengers go towards a group of low wooden buildings on the other side of the clay road that ran parallel to the railway through the valley. She had no time to observe them individually because a stooping man, whose only insignia of office was a battered headgear like a yachting cap, came up to her. He carried a mail bag stamped Whakapara under one arm.

"Miss Carey, miss?" he asked.

"Yes, I am."

"Somebody'll be down for you before long, miss. They know you're coming."

"Oh, thank you. Do you know if my luggage has arrived?"

"I guess so. There's a lot of stuff gone up for you."

"Thank you."

The station master touched his hat with a rare respectfulness, and turning from her moved somepage 11 cases into a small baggage room attached to the waiting room, locked the door, and with the mail bag under his arm followed the passengers across the road.

Sidney walked after him to the end of the platform and looked curiously across at the building. She saw Whakapara Store and Post Office on a sign over the door where he disappeared. She saw the passengers and farmers and settlers gather to wait for the opening of the mail. In spite of the heat and the yellow dust that lay over everything she felt fresh enough to be curious about all she saw. She recognised one of the buildings as a blacksmith's shop, another as an extension of the store. All, save the smithy, were set on low wooden blocks, with a sad assortment of tins and rubbish stowed away beneath them.

A little apart from the central group stood the Town Hall. Sidney was to learn later what a Poohbah among buildings this absurd barn was— how it housed the activities of all denominations of ministers, of all brands of politicians, of the undertaker, the coroner, the wandering lecturer on character reading and "bumps;"of how it housed the annual agricultural show, the church soirees, the occasional bazaar, the intermittent movie, the ambitious wedding, the weekly dance, the anniversary ball—those hallmarks of westernpage 12 civilization that follow the British flag to the remotest ends of earth. Sidney did not take in all this as she looked at it, nor did she foresee in what circumstances she might learn to have a great affection for it. It did not look like a place that offered a chance for thrills.

Her eyes roved along the valley over the hills, partly wooded, burned and smoking in places, and all curiously desolate, even under the summer sun. Then she strolled to the other end of the platform and looked north. She could see the clay road and the railway running together for a quarter of a mile. She noticed that the train had stopped and was shunting empty trucks into sheds at the base of the hill on the right that rose like a cliff sheer up from the railway line into a mountain range. She remembered the station master's "up" and "down." And she knew without being told that somewhere up there was the Puhipuhi forest, lying like a land of dreams remote beneath the summer sun.

Sidney gazed hopefully up at its uneven skyline. She knew adventure lay ahead of her up there, knew it as surely as a child does when it sets out to dodge imaginary lions in a shrubbery in the twilight.

The train puffed on, and the sounds of its strenuous snorting died away. As Sidney was about to turn she heard a low rumbling up in thepage 13 hills, a rumbling that swelled and stopped suddenly. Then something caught her eye on the brow of the cliff above the railway line. To her amazement she saw a pile of timber shoot over the top and drop down to the empty trucks with a short roar that echoed round the valley. Since she could not see the machinery by which it was done it had the appearance of magic. As she watched, another load came over and dropped and reached the bottom safely. It filled her with excitement. She knew it was linked up with the timber mill in the bush whither she was going.

Sidney Carey, at the age of twenty-four, expected great things of herself and of the world. And in this belief she had been encouraged by most of the people she had met in her native city, Auckland.

She had recently been arrested by a sentence by Arnold Bennett to the effect that whatever a person was was due merely to the accident of being born in the other bedroom, and because she had absorbed the profound truth in this remark even before she read it she was not as harmed by the success of her personality as she otherwise might have been. It was because she was born in a bedroom where the good fairies lavishly dealt out objective tendencies and gave but a minimum of introspective ones that she had sailed through the world with her head up, her eager eyes and mindpage 14 roving to learn of anything and everything but herself.

Though not beautiful as a child, she grew more attractive every year. She was tall, slight and supple. Her hair was warm brown, touched in the sun with reddish lights, her colour clear and good, and her eyes blue and steady.

At the age of fifteen she had passed her first teacher's examination second on the list for the Auckland Province. For the three succeeding years she had headed the list. In the wider state examinations for her certificates she had gained first-class honours for every subject she took except algebra, thereby establishing a record that nobody in the whole of New Zealand had reached at that time.

Being an inspired teacher, as well as a first-class student, she was naturally a favourite in educational circles, and naturally every headmaster in Auckland wanted her for his head assistant.

But some time before her dramatic triumphs the Auckland Board had ruled that every teacher applying for a big city position must have taught for two years somewhere in the backblocks. This was not only for the good of the teacher's soul, but also for the good of the children of the remote farmer, the gumdigger and the bushman, who, the Board felt, ought to get some contactpage 15 with the best it had to give them. After some wirepulling, and adverse criticism thereon, the Board had become rigid about enforcing the rule. Sidney Carey could not hope to escape it, even though she were a friend of the chairman, James Ridgefield. The most he could do, he said, would be to send her to the new school at his mill in the Puhipuhi where she would be within three hours of Whangarei, the largest town in the north, which was itself eight hours by steamer from Auckland.

And Sidney, knowing she had to go somewhere, said this would do finely. Once she had adjusted her mind to the idea of the change, and it did not take her long, she was enchanted by the visions she conjured up of things she had known only in short vacations. She liked the idea of the little bush school she was to open and start upon its way.

And she wanted something new. She had come to mental crossroads. She saw she had lived far too much in books.

Sidney was not a typical teacher. She loathed the idea of ever becoming hallmarked. It was her secret pride that no one who met her socially took her for a teacher, or could guess her profession. Out of school she never talked shop. She had already begun to project her mind into other fields. She wanted to write. And somepage 16 success with newspaper articles had turned her thoughts to journalism. A discriminating newspaperman told her to get away from books, from teachers and theories, to talk less and feel more.

"You're not half developed, even for your age," he told her. "Why, you've never been in love! And you really don't know the country. You have lived far too much in rooms, and you're surfeited with other people's vibrations. By all means go to the Puhipuhi. The very thing you need."

Sidney knew he was right. And that was why she was glad to be on the Whakapara platform that summer morning, waiting for someone to meet her.