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The Passionate Puritan

Chapter V

page 40

Chapter V

ButSidney had her way about visiting the mothers. At the end of her first week she had seen all of them except Mrs. Bill Hardy. She had compromised with Jack to that extent, but not until he had told her something that had caused her many times to break off in her preparations and laugh immoderately.

"If you will pardon me, Miss Carey," he had said, "I really think you had better take my advice about Mrs. Bill. She can be a horrible nuisance. And I have at last got her to keep from pestering the women in the place."

"Then she does take notice of you?"

"She does," he said grimly.

"Why?" she asked, suddenly curious.

He hesitated a minute.

"Well, about a year ago, before I had built my house, when I lived in a shanty, I came home one evening about nine to find Mrs. Bill in my bunk. She'd tried it on every man in the place. But I never thought she'd try it on me."

He looked over her head while a queer smile distorted his mouth.

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"I went out, and before she saw what I was going to do I had a bucket of cold water over her, bunk and all. I gave her two minutes to get out, and told her if ever she set foot on my ground again I'd have her arrested for stealing. When she'd gone I went and told Bill, poor devil, and sacked him again. He got drunk and he beat her, and broke her arm among other things. In fact, what he did to her would have killed many a woman, so I heard afterwards from a Whangarei doctor. I had to tell the story to the police down there to save Bill from being prosecuted. She was in the hospital for two months. She's never been near me since, and she's been mighty quiet and civil whenever I've met her around."

This tale decided Sidney that she had better leave her meeting with Mrs. Bill to chance circumstance. She was flattered that Jack had told her, rightly judging there would be few women to whom he would have trusted the story.

Sidney was sadly disappointed in the personality of the village. What she had heard of "raw human material" had led her to expect that she would discover treasures of native wit and philosophy in the bush settlement. But the village was too prosperous. Everybody in it was saving money. And the women especially reflected the influence of growing bank accounts. They had evolved from the crude state that produces nativepage 42 philosophers into the state of "getting on in the world" wherein philosophers rapidly perish and die. The village was almost a perfect specimen of bourgeois respectability. Mrs. Bill was the one blot upon its fair escutcheon. There was no Irish "drunk" to delight Sidney's heart, no cockney charwoman to take the world with vivid humour.

Not a woman in that place dared to have a front room suite of furniture that differed essentially from anyone else's. And if anyone had tried to set up a new style of decoration, or had deviated from the accepted white bed quilt and white lace curtains, she would have been regarded as an eccentric snob and severely criticised.

The aristocracy of the mill naturally held itself a little apart, but in the kindness of its heart it allowed itself to be neighbourly. Mrs. Mackenzie, Mrs. Lindsay and Mrs. Graham knew it was their duty as superiors to help the less fortunate wives of "the men," the generic term applied to all who did not live in the row with Jack Ridgefield. They were willing to be seen on the bowling green, where the men all met on equal terms, and take their turn at giving the teas, feeling that peculiar exaltation that is the reward of patronesses all the world over when they lend their gracious presences to give distinction to a gathering of humbler folk.page 43 Of the trio, Mrs. Mackenzie was by far the most intelligent and the most human, and among her superiors would always have been greatly respected for her sense and kindness. But here she had unconsciously acquired a pose as the leader of her sex, the result of her husband's position. As he had preceded the other two in the Ridgefield employ, she felt she was entitled to senior rights, and was able to impress them without being unpleasant on both Mrs. Graham and Mrs. Lindsay. The fact that she had been selected to board the teacher was an enormous feather in her cap, and one she could not refrain from waving occasionally, though she humbly confided to the other two that she could not see why she was so honoured.

Mrs. Graham and Mrs. Lindsay had one satisfaction denied to Mrs. Mackenzie. Being no rivals, but recognising their husbands as equal in the eyes of Jack Ridgefield, they enjoyed luxurious gossips on the absurd claims of Mrs. Tom to be better than they, and they had a kind of gentleman's agreement that they would stick together, and not try to get ahead of each other in the favour of Mrs. Mackenzie or anyone else. They had to admit in their secret hearts that as a cook Mrs. Tom was a marvel, and if one of them managed to coax a method or a recipe out of her she was in honour bound to share it with the other.

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These three set the standards for the village. The wives of "the men" sniffed at them, envied them and copied them.

Naturally the coming of Sidney provided a sensation. Every scrap of information that could be gleaned about her beforehand had been worn to shreds in rapid and continuous passage from fence to fence. The main interest that summer had been getting clothes ready for the children to make the finest possible impression upon the teacher, and those parents whose children had been unable to walk to the Whakapara school, had patiently struggled with the alphabet and reading and sums, in order that their offspring should make as good a mental showing as possible.

Of course the women of the village knew the teacher would be immeasurably beyond them, somewhere up in those lofty strata of society of which they dreamed in moments of yearning for better things. And what James Ridgefield had told the Mackenzies of Sidney's attainments added to her elevation. They knew perfectly well that all talk of their husbands about democracy, and all men being equal in Socialist New Zealand was just rubbish when it came to women. They may have wondered why they were not as good as Miss Carey, but they knew they were not, and that was the end of it.

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As far as the trio were concerned, they felt they would at least have the great and glorious satisfaction of rivalling each other for her notice. Fortunately for their continued friendship they each had children to go to school to report what the teacher said and did.

Mrs. Mackenzie had one boy twelve years old, a quiet precocious boy, who was not a success as a news carrier, but who was destined to win a scholarship under Sidney, to the everlasting pride of his parents and the glory of the village.

Mrs. Graham was secretly delighted that she had a bright and dainty little girl for whom she had prepared clothes that she knew would distinguish her beyond any other child. Fortunately Mrs. Bob had no girl to rival her, but two boys, intelligent and merry like their father. These boys were not slow to perceive, nor their mother to inform them, that the school was peculiarly their perquisite as their father was chairman of the committee.

On the day of Sidney's arrival Mrs. Mackenzie had a continuous succession of proud moments. Not only was she delighted to be the first woman to set eyes on her and talk to her, but she was thrilled by the prestige she derived from the event in the eyes of her neighbours. No sooner was Sidney back in her own house than Mrs. Bob and Mrs. Alec, who had been looking through theirpage 46 windows to see that neither got ahead of the other, ran simultaneously out of their front gates to meet at Mrs. Tom's back door.

They were all agitated as to whether they should call on Sidney, or wait for invitations, or be called on by her. Bob Lindsay was delegated to ask Jack Ridgefield the etiquette of the situation. Not for worlds would either of the three have failed to do the correct thing. Nor would one of them risk doing anything without the other. Jack's reply was that Sidney would call on them, and that then they should wait for her invitations.

"For heaven's sake, ask the three of them together," he said to Sidney as he talked it over with her.

"I see," she laughed.

And understanding perfectly she had them all to tea on the Friday afternoon. Even Mrs. Mackenzie was affected with nervousness, but they grew more composed as the visit progressed, feeling sure that they were all behaving correctly.

They were all amazed at the difference between the teacher's tastes and their own. She had no suite of furniture, no lace curtains. She had no sofa or couch, as they understood those objects of veneration. She had what looked to them like an ordinary single stretcher bed with a strange cover over it that they did not recognise as a finepage 47 oriental, and an extravagant lot of cushions. She did not have two chairs alike. She had pictures that rather alarmed them, and two little statues they thought indecent. Her books they took calmly, unable to distinguish between them. She had copper dishes they could imagine no use for, and her curtains were queer like the bed cover.

But they had a wonderful gossip about it all afterwards. Not for a moment did they question her superiority, and already they asked themselves how they might imitate her.

Into this hornet's nest of touchiness and rivalry Sidney strode smiling, conscious of a good deal of it, and determined to be very careful to have no favourites. She knew everything she said and did would be talked from fence to fence. She knew her position was impregnable, but because she was naturally a diplomat among women, and good humoured and idealistic, she meant to manage her parents without giving cause for bitterness.

In visiting all the other mothers she had been careful not to appear to know everything about children. She had shown she would not expect too much of them. There had been nothing patronizing in her manner. She had succeeded so well that everyone warmed to her and trusted her. By the Friday night there was only one mother left for her to visit.