Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Passionate Puritan

Chapter X

page 88

Chapter X

In the middle of the next week Sidney received a note from Mana, brought by one of her children to school.

"Dear Miss Carey—I am hoping you can visit us on Saturday."

Sidney was glad to look forward to it.

As she looked down upon the Joyous Valley she forgot all disagreeable things. The little farm laughed in the sunlight, and she had a feeling of great contentment as she looked at it. Other people were enjoying it too. She heard the children screeching down by the creek, and a man's deeper voice joining in. She wondered if it were their father.

Presently she heard splashing, and knew they were bathing in the pool near the house. As she strolled on she saw emerge from a clump of bushes first the three tawny bodies of Mana's children, all in short cotton pants, and then a tall white figure in sporting trunks. To her surprise she recognised the dark head of Arthurpage 89 Devereux. She stopped on the path to let them keep well ahead of her.

The children began to run towards a shed at the back of the house, and he followed, chasing them. The sun glistened on their lithe wet bodies. To Sidney it was a refreshingly healthy scene. She was instantly curious about Arthur Devereux's presence there. She wondered if he had prompted Mana's note.

With her feelings indefinably intensified she walked on to the house. Mana met her at the door.

"It's always warm when you come," she smiled.

"I hope it always will be. I love warmth. I'm awfully glad to see you, Mana. I've been depressed since I was here last. You heard about Rosy Hardy's death?"

"Yes, a good thing, poor child."

"Why, Mana!"

"A good thing, surely," repeated Mana.

"That's what everybody says. But, you see, I had never seen anybody die before."

"Oh! That is different, yes. It is not pleasant to see people die, even if it may be pleasant to know they are dead."

Sidney looked curiously at her, smiling in her low chair. She looked herself like life incarnate.

"It's a pity more people do not die when theypage 90 are young; people like Mrs. Bill, for instance," went on Mana.

"Perhaps. I wasn't thinking of the individual death. I was thinking of death. It is horrible."

"Why?" asked Mana. "Would you have us go on for ever just getting up every day and eating and sleeping? Very dull, I say."

Sidney smiled. "You are right. If we knew we should live for ever and that nothing could ever kill us how queer it would be. Nobody would ever do anything. The incentive to hurry up would be gone. The thought of death is hounding us all the time, somewhere down in our subconsciousness."

Mana looked as if she thoroughly understood, without ever being troubled by her understanding.

Sidney wondered if she would mention Arthur Devereux before he appeared. But she did not. One of Mana's fascinations was that while she had exquisite manners, she was ruled by no conventions whatsoever. She lived and moved by secret springs of her own.

In a few minutes Arthur swung round the house, followed by the children, and entered as if he belonged there. He had on white flannel pants, a soft white shirt, and a navy flannel coat, and looked as if he were on an English tennispage 91 lawn. A considerable volume of life entered the room with him.

"Hullo, Miss Carey. How d'you do? How charming that you know Mana! Here, at least, you can be off the pedestal. Do you smoke?"

He was stopped by a sh! from his hostess, who indicated her children with a glance.

"How stupid of me, Miss Carey. Of course, you do not smoke," he corrected himself quickly.

"Children," said Mana, "you all go out and ask Rangi to give you a piece of cake, and to make us some tea. And then you go into the garden and pick teacher a big bunch of flowers, the best we have, and don't come in till I call you."

"The deuce! I forgot they went to school," said Arthur, after they had gone out.

"They might talk," said Mana. "They wouldn't mean——"

"Of course not. Then, Miss Carey, you do." He extended his cigarette case.

"I do," she smiled, "but I don't know how Mana knew it."

"I didn't, but I thought you might be going to say yes."

Sidney smiled at her own dullness.

Mana took a cigarette also, and Arthur lit them both. Then they all leaned back puffing happily.

page 92

"Thank God, I am again among human beings," exclaimed Sidney.

"Why, you do have a few of them at the mill," said Arthur. "What about Jack Ridgefield? And Bob Lindsay's a very human chap."

"Very," smiled Sidney. "But you've mentioned only men. And they are both on my school committee."

"I see," his eyes twinkled.

"Mr. Ridgefield is a wonderful man," said Mana softly.

"I don't doubt it," she answered. "He subdues even me. But he has one unfortunate characteristic. He has a passion for saving women from things. He would save us from our own feelings as he would save us from chopping wood or carrying water. He thinks we are too delicate and gentle to be allowed to feel. He just sees women as sweet young girls, or as dear old ladies in lace caps. He never sees us in the intermediate stage where we want to go adventuring with life."

"He's young. He'll get over that," said Arthur. "He's really a remarkable chap. It's no bally joke managing the mill and the bush, hundreds of men, the tough nuts they are. And your labour laws have made them a pretty independent crowd. Democracy is a fine idea, but it's a deucedly hard thing to work. No reverence for your position. You've got to beat them with yourpage 93 personality, and that's a big job nowadays. But Jack has methods of his own. Bob Lindsay told me a great story about him the other day."

He paused to take a few puffs at his cigarette.

"It seems that some two months ago Jack found some filthy language chalked up on the mill buildings. One day while the men were all at dinner in the kitchen he walked in with a blackboard and an easel under his arm. He'll probably never let you see the men eating in the kitchen. It's a sight. Bob happened to be there that day, as his wife was away in Whangarei. They keep the food very good. James Ridgefield often eats there when he's up. Likes to be democratic, you know. Well, everybody looked up when Jack walked in, and they had a suspicion something was up. Bob says there was a funny silence. Without a word Jack set up the blackboard at the end of the room, and put a box of chalk on the table. Then he said he wanted to speak to them for a minute. He was very quiet, very courteous. He told them he had seen the language. He said he was sorry he had not foreseen that they would like to write that kind of thing, or he would have provided for it before, but, as they knew, he had been pretty busy, and it was hard to think of everything. He said he thought for the sake of the women and children about the place it would be better if theypage 94 would confine their writings to the blackboard. He hoped they would spend many pleasant evenings with it. If there was anything else they could suggest that would add to their amusement, French postcards, for instance, he would see that they got it. Bob says not a man dare look at him. He waited a minute, and then said 'Thank you, men,' and went out. And not a word has been written about the mill since. What do you think of that, Miss Carey?"

His eyes shone as he finished the story.

And Sidney's eyes shone too, and she was as much stirred by his appreciation of the incident as she was by Jack Ridgefield's management of the situation.

"I certainly think it took some courage to do that," she cried.

"More than that. An extraordinary self-possession. If he'd made a slip he would have been done. But Bob says those men were really ashamed, he made them feel so darned small. It's a great gift."

"It certainly is," she said, and leaned back in her chair thinking about it.

Somebody called from the kitchen.

"Ah, the tea," said Mana rising.

"Allow me," Arthur said, springing to his feet. As he went out Sidney wondered how long he had known Mana.

page 95

When he brought in the tray he stood to hand Sidney her cup and poured out his own as he liked it.

They talked idly for a while of the bush and the kind of people to be found in it, and then they smoked again.

"You will stay for the evening, won't you, Miss Carey, and we will have some music?" said Mana.

"Oh, may I? I'd love to."

"That will be nice. Now Mr. Devereux, you must entertain Miss Carey while I help to get the tea."

He jumped up.

"Come on, Miss Carey. It is delightful now in the garden."

He led the way outside.

He pointed out things as if the place belonged to him, but he had the subtle fascination of including her as a companion in a discovery.

"How did you find Mana?" he asked frankly.

"Why, she is a parent!"

"To be sure," he laughed.

"I just came, and I could have fallen on her neck, I was so delighted to find her different from the mill women. But she would be different anywhere, wouldn't she?"

"Indeed she would. Charming! You've heard her sing?"

page 96

"Yes, rather. You sing, too, I believe?"

"Yes. I'm fond of music."

Then the children saw them, and ran up with bunches of flowers.

Sidney liked the way Arthur played with them. They called him "Uncle," and showed no signs of shyness with him. She watched them all curiously, much attracted by his ability to amuse them. A man who is genuinely fond of children has a pass key to the hearts of many types of women.

They stayed outside romping till Mana called them in.

The "tea" was not the ordinary expurgated meal of those parts. Too often it had to be a rehash or an extension of the midday dinner, for there were no ice chests to delude the memory or elongate the distance between the pie and the pie end. But Mana's tea was not an aftermath. It was a complete event. There was a whole cold chicken, and potatoes and corn, and junket and cream and grapes.

"Please carve, Mr. Devereux," she said.

"With pleasure." Arthur sat down at the head of the table.

Mana's companion, Rangi, sat with them. She was rather fat, and the most easily quiet person Sidney had ever met. As for herself and Arthur, they behaved absurdly. They egged each otherpage 97 on to tell ridiculous stories that convulsed Mana and the children. But when the meal was over and they turned into the front room Arthur changed the mood.

"Look at that," he said, going to the door, and nodding at the sunset.

They all went on to the verandah to look at it. It was a startling sky splashed with a fan-shaped design of little blood red clouds. Lower down, there was a broad strip of bright pea green spotted with flakes of molten gold. They stood still watching the colours deepen and change and fade.

Sidney said nothing, and Arthur was struck by her silence. He looked at her, admiring the lines of her figure, and the easy way she stood still.

Mana sent the children to bed. They sat down on the verandah chairs. Arthur gave them cigarettes and filled a pipe for himself. They smoked for a while in a companionable silence. Then Mana went in to the piano and began to play and sing.

When he had finished his pipe Arthur followed her, and Sidney sat out to watch the light fade from the sky. But at the first sound of his voice she stole in, went to the sofa, and sat so that she could look at him without being seen.

In spite of what Bob had said she was no more prepared for his voice than she had been forpage 98 Mana's. He had one of the best trained and richest baritones she had heard. It stirred her as nothing had stirred her since she had heard such music last. He sang some popular concert songs, and then some old English and Irish ballads.

Mana played his accompaniments perfectly, and had evidently learned his ways. Sidney watched them as she listened, vaguely jealous even then of the bond between them. She herself loved music, and understood it, but she played but little, and envied all women who could entertain as Mana could.

She looked out once at the deepening dusk and wondered how she was going to get home. But she would not break that spell. They sang for a while in the dark till Arthur lit the candles, and then they continued, inspired by Sidney's appreciation, which they felt without the medium of words.

And she listened, feeling more alive than she had done for months.

About half past nine they tired.

"Well, that was quite a concert, Miss Carey," said Mana, turning round on her stool. "I hope we have not tired you."

"Tired me!" she exclaimed, sitting up. Then she looked at Arthur. "You could be on the stage with that voice," she said, her eyes shining.

page 99

"I've been told so," he smiled. "Have a cigarette."

"No, thank you. I must get home now." She stood up.

"Oh, I'll see you home, after a cigarette."

"Thank you. But you can't come all that way."

"Of course I can. I'm riding. I've got my togs outside. Sit down."

She sat down, quite willing to be managed.

They smoked and talked for another half hour, and then Sidney said she really must go.

Arthur went out to change his clothes and saddle his horse.

"You have given me a treat," said Sidney, with enthusiasm. "What a delightful man!"

"Very," said Mana, with equally frank enthusiasm.

She knew how to be disconcertingly brief.

Sidney knew how to hide her curiosity. She turned easily to talk of the pleasure she expected to get out of the organ, which, though small, had a good tone.

"I shall love playing it at night in that empty schoolroom," she said.

Mana's eyes glowed in company.

Then Arthur called from outside.

He stood by his horse's head.

"Can you ride, Miss Carey?"

"Yes, I can."

page 100

"You get up, then."

"Why, what are you going to do?"

"Walk beside you, of course."

She laughed, knowing he would have his way.

"You'd better have a lantern," said Mana.

"We don't need it, thanks. It's a clear night."

Sidney jumped lightly into the saddle, despising his assistance. She felt absurdly glad that she could ride. They set off forgetting the flowers.

Mana thought of them as she re-entered the house, and ran into the kitchen for them, and then, thinking they would be a bother to carry, she looked at them sadly, and left them where they were.

Arthur walked up Mana's road holding on to a saddle strap.

"How far are you from here?" Sidney asked, when they had cleared the garden.

"A good four miles. Over in Ridgefield's country. There's a bush camp about a mile from me, and I'm not far from one of the big dams. Have you seen a tripping yet?"

"No. I believe they had one the week I opened school."

"They're due to have another soon. I hope you can see it. Close the school, anyway, and I'll come down for you."

Sidney laughed suddenly.

page 101

"My dear man, I can't do that kind of thing! I'm a civil servant!"

"Oh, Lord!" he grumbled, with a comical disappointment that was very flattering.

"Well, I can't," she repeated. "But tell me about it.'

He gave her a vivid picture of the system as they went up the ridge. Then, at the top, he pulled the horse to a standstill.

"The stars are wonderful to-night," he said, throwing up his head.

In the blue-black velvet sky every southern constellation was brilliantly outlined, and every star seemed to be a magnetic point aimed to draw puny human beings off the earth. Sidney had a curious feeling that if she continued to look she would be sucked up off the horse.

She stole a look at Arthur, standing hatless, his face upturned. She saw he had forgotten her, and because he had she became more vividly conscious of him, and the excitement of being out there in the night with an unknown man.

"Well," he said regretfully, after a while, "I suppose we must go on. Have you ever had a clear view from this ridge in the daytime?"

"I have. It is glorious."

"Mana chose a charming spot. She's rare, isn't she?"

"Indeed she is," she answered warmly. "I won-page 102der if you have the feeling I have about her sometimes. I keep being surprised at her charm and her understanding. If she were a white woman I should have no such feeling. I'd take her all for granted."

"I know. It's our damned Anglo-Saxon assumption that we are superior to everything with a dark skin. We can't help it. It's subconscious. We Englishmen feel the same thing when we go out to India. We go to handle 'the natives.' They are defined in our minds as that and nothing more. It's the same with the whole empire. But, by Jove, in India it brings one up with a round turn to look into the eyes of some of those fellows. You'd give your soul to know what they are thinking about. It is something so much more complex than the things we dream of. And when it comes to power of will, and nervous and physical endurance, why we can't touch them. But just because we are ahead of them in organizing power and in devising quicker ways of killing we think we are superior."

Sidney was impressed by his understanding of her thought.

"And yet we can rule them," she said.

"Yes, we can rule them, because we begin by letting them think we are going to teach them a new way of ruling themselves. And we can go a long way on that bluff. And when they findpage 103 us out they have also learned that we are the least of two evils—ourselves or someone else. Their insight into that fact is the power behind the British Empire."

He went on to talk to her of India, where he had spent two years. She asked the kind of question that spurred him to talk. She hardly noticed the distance, and was astonished when they reached the mill tramway. The reflection of the waste fire had guided him in turning off the main road.

"Where do you turn in?" he asked.

"By the back road. I'm one of the aristocracy," she said with mock importance.

"To be sure. I know it. You are next the Ridgefields. By the way, have you seen his wife? It was like him to do it like that, wasn't it?"

"I don't know. I don't pretend to understand him. Yes, I've seen her. She is a quiet, but attractive little thing. Very feminine. But I shall not be surprised to find her more liberal in ways than he is." She went on to give a description of Sophie.

They arrived at the gate that Jack had put across the back road with a sign saying it was private.

Arthur stopped and looked over at her house.

"Do you like living alone?" he asked.

page 104

"Well, it's a new experience. But it's the only way I could live here."

He gave her his hand to dismount. She wondered if she should ask him to come on and have something to drink. He had walked fast, and was hot and dusty.

But he jumped straight into his saddle and held out his hand.

"Good night, Miss Carey. Awfully nice to have you to talk to. We must have these evenings often."

"Good night. Awfully good of you to come all this way."

"Don't mention it."

Swinging his horse he rode off. She turned round the end of the gate, for there was no fence, and walked slowly towards her house.

She wondered why she could not sleep. But, she reflected, she had always been like that. If she enjoyed herself, she became blazingly alive. If she went to a theatre or a concert it was always the same. She lay awake for hours hot and restless.