Other formats

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


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Passionate Puritan

Chapter XX

page 211

Chapter XX

Soon after Arthur returned Sidney found herself faced with the problem that had cast its shadow before that summer.

They had met in the dell at his suggestion. He was tired of going out with her in riding clothes, he said.

Sidney was only too glad to share with him the romance of the one place about the mill where she had been able to enjoy beauty and solitude. The lovely little gully was indeed a perfect setting for the exalted mood of happy lovers. Its elusive witchery stirred to further eloquence their already inspired tongues and they rhapsodized together about themselves and their future and the glory of the night.

Presently they sat down in a little natural arbour by the brook, and with his arms about her Arthur began to sing snatches from the love songs of Tristan and Isolde. And, as he sang, he brought the words out of their legendary setting; brought the burning words there as the eternal voice of love whispering from the haze around them in the little dell.

page 212

He stopped suddenly, and drawing Sidney's face upwards he pressed his lips against hers.

She yielded for a moment, and then started out of his arms and moved away from him. They both felt as if a rock had crashed down into the peace of the glen behind them. At first they had the curious mental discomfort of the broken mood. Then Arthur felt a keen sense of irritation at Sidney's attitude, at what he called her utter lack of the adventurous spirit, but because he really adored her he sat still for some minutes trying to hide his annoyance. Then he scrambled to his feet, took out his cigarettes, and lit one.

"Let's walk," he said abruptly.

They began to smoke, and without talking walked slowly up the track and out on to the flat among the reminiscent stumps. The hazy summer night soothed their fretted nerves. Arthur threw off his feeling of resentment and recovered his sense of humour. Taking her arm he began to talk with a detached frankness and quiet seriousness about the problem of man and woman.

They paced back and forth, talking late into the night. Sidney had never discussed the subject even with a woman at such length or with such plainness. She was surprised how natural it was to be doing it with Arthur. And she was surprised to find that an examination of the sub-page 213ject lessened in some mysterious way the traditional taboo.

At the end of the conversation she found she had not an argument in favour of chastity, There was not a thing she could say that Arthur could not prove to be merely a superficial command that no one with a particle of character considered. But throughout the talk he kept the personal note entirely out of it. He did not ask her to change. In fact, at the end, he told her he understood and admired her attitude.

But the result of this conversation was that in a day or two she began to ask herself why indeed she should not live with Arthur. And thereby set herself the most difficult problem that life sets the modern woman And in comparison with this moral struggle her previous ones were as a grain of sand set up beside a mountain.

For now she had to reckon with the life force pounding through her. And life forces care nothing for the scruples of the mediums through which they forge their way. She was terribly disturbed to find she could not settle the problem by simply saying to herself "I will not." Her mind to-day revoked the decision of yesterday till she felt she was a pawn in the hands of some grim player whose only idea of movement was a zigzag between adjacent lines. The thing that frightened her most was the strength of her ownpage 214 feeling. She began to be afraid to be alone with Arthur. She felt he was not trying as he might to help her.

"You don't play fair," she reproved him, as they rode together.

"Of course I don't," he laughed back. "Whoever heard of a man in love playing fair? You seem to think, my child, that we can manage this business. We can't. It's managing us. If I could carry you off this minute I would. So keep your weak moments away from me."

"The thing I complain of is that all your moments are weak," she retorted.

"No they're not. But unfortunately they are very likely to coincide with your weak ones."

She had to laugh. She could not complain of his lack of frankness now.

She thought a good deal about his charge that she took herself much too seriously.

"You women eternally overestimate the importance of your actions to the universe," he complained, looking at the stars. "What do they care?" He pointed upwards. "You think everything will go to pieces if you don't have the right idea about the family or the status of God in modern civilization."

"I don't care a bit about the family or the status of God," she retorted.

"Perhaps not. But you think your physicalpage 215 chastity for a certain number of months is a big thing to humanity."

"I don't. But I think it's a big thing to me."

"That's exaggerated egoism."

"All right. Then that's the disease I have."

But it was no joke to her as she walked alone with the ghosts of the ancient forest. She began to look up at the stars asking what the morality of one poor little female atom did mean to them. How could it matter to the great progression of events whether she lived with Arthur Devereux or not? How absurd to put the importance she was putting into her puny problem!

Then she went to sit with Mrs. Jack Ridgefield, and told herself it mattered very much. Jack and his wife were the unconscious antidote to her moral apostasy. In their house she felt the value of strength and ideals. They stood for something she felt she could never live without. She felt that if she lived with Arthur she would have to give them up. As she had been born with dreams of influence, born to official relations with the world, she knew she could never bear to lose that status. She was not so much afraid of the risk as she was of the effect of a clandestine love affair upon her own affections. And her affection for Arthur was something she would not jeopardize. This she always felt in the presence of the Ridgefields.

page 216

Sophie was glad to have her company. Jack was now usually so tired that he went early to bed, and as his wife was becoming rather nervy and sleepless, she disliked sitting up alone. They both urged Sidney to spend as many evenings with them as she could.

And Sidney was only too glad to go there to have her sense of balance restored. She was soothed by the normal atmosphere of their little house. Something about Sophie quietly sewing for the coming baby made Sidney feel that she had to keep herself above suspicion for the sake of the babies she was to have. She knew this was sentimental. She knew the fever in her blood despised it. She looked at little Mrs. Jack, and wondered if she had ever had such a temperature.

Fortunately for her, Sidney had always loved being in the open air, and the delight she had felt from the first in the peculiar atmosphere of the Puhipuhi proved now to be as the shadow of a great rock in the weary land of her emotional struggles.

One evening, when she felt in no mood to go to the Ridgefields, she walked across the mill dam out over the flat in a direction she seldom went, because it meant going through the village. But every time she came this way she meant to come oftener, because a mile away from the millpage 217 the plain dropped precipitously into a gully, and from the top there was a glorious view to the north.

This way came the soft warm winds that travelled from Australia over the Tasman Sea. This way came storms and walls of rain. This way came the flocks of birds that travelled their mysterious way from foreign lands. The long valley leading to hills that were always blue on the horizon seemed like a finger pointing to the sunny north. On a clear day you could see fifty miles of its intermittent cultivation, its clumps of stiff pines, its yellow roads, its white farm houses, its desolate gumfield wastes. And if you happened to be there at the right time you could see the thrilling trails of smoke that followed the train as it made its leisurely way along to Kawakawa, its terminus in the "lonely north."

A wooden tramway ran into the mill dam from the brow of the plain, where a windlass drew logs up a perpendicular drop from the gully below. There was a camp and a dam at the bottom, and as Sidney sat in the fern she could hear a rough laugh now and then, and the sounds of an accordion.

She lay back, clasping her hands behind her head, and looked up at the rose and grey clouds forming out of the magic of the sunset. She had lain some time when she heard the voices of menpage 218 coming nearer. Then she heard steps on the sleepers. She raised herself and saw the heads and shoulders of Jack Ridgefield and three others above the fern. Something about the way they walked roused her curiosity. As they got out into the open she saw they were carrying something under a grey blanket on a stretcher.

She sprang up and hurried after them. If it was an accident she might be needed.

Jack saw her coming, stopped the procession, and met her a few yards away.

His face was white and drawn.

"You can't do anything, Miss Carey. I'm afraid we won't get him to the hospital alive. I'm going to drive him right on to Whangarei."

"Who is it?" she asked, a lump in her throat.

"John Hay. Single man fortunately. Tree fell on him." And he turned back to the others.

She stood watching them go off along the tramway. Tears filled her eyes. Never in her life had she seen anything so powerfully appealing as that grey hump on the stretcher. She forgot all about her own problem.

With her mood entirely changed she did not want to stay out any longer, but turned home-wards. In front of Bob's house she met Jack.

"Don't tell my wife, Miss Carey. Hay was dead when we got to the mill. I don't want herpage 219 to hear to-night. Can you be with her for the evening?"

"Yes, I can," she said, willingly.

And as she sat with Sophie embroidering herringbone stitches on tiny fine flannel gowns she could not keep her thoughts off the poor corpse that was lying somewhere in the village.

As before, the presence of death suffocated her. It seemed incredible that she and Sophie could sit there unconcerned, working as if nothing had happened.

When Jack came in his wife noticed that something was the matter, but she said nothing. She had learned already she could help her tired husband most by leaving obvious remarks unsaid.

But when he was gone to bed she voiced her feeling to Sidney.

"Something has happened," she said. "And Jack isn't telling me because he thinks I shall worry. Aren't men funny? They think we do not see through them?"

Sidney smiled into her beautiful soft eyes.

"Yes, they are funny," she said, and would have given her soul to talk out to Sophie. She was so sure there was a fount of wisdom behind those eyes. "But I'm glad we see through them. It would be so much worse if they saw through us."

page 220

"Yes, that would be awful, wouldn't it?" laughed Sophie softly.

And Sidney wondered what secret thoughts lay behind that remark.

She hardly slept that night. The grey hump on the stretcher haunted her. She could not have told what it did to her, but for days afterwards she forgot she was an object drifting on a great river of impulse, for she was absorbed in the wonder of the stream itself, in the mystery of its origin and of its end.