The Passionate Puritan
Six weeks later, on a Saturday evening, Sidney walked out into the fern beyond her house to watch the moon rise over the Puhipuhi. A faint haze shrouded the flat with a gossamer film, so that what skeleton trees there were looked like shadows touched in delicately by a super artist upon the silver glow. Though the autumn was well on its way it was still warm enough to sit outside.
After Sidney had looked for a while at the moon she turned down an old wagon track leading into the gully at the back of the cottages. She wanted to be alone for the evening, and she was never sure of solitude if she stayed about her house or the school. Already a light in her windows acted like a magnet to draw some child or parent who wanted to know something that they supposed only she could tell them.
And Sidney felt she needed the gully. She had barely got home from her tea that evening when Bob Lindsay knocked at her front door. She was always glad to see Bob. She would have been gladder still to see him if he had not always beenpage 58 so furtively glad to see her. He was easily emotional about women, and it was obvious that his dull wife had no hold on him whatsoever. He had a piano and a melting tenor voice, and was always begging Sidney to drop in in the evenings and play his accompaniments for him. She would have liked to go, but she saw she had to be careful with Bob.
The great passion of his life was his devotion to Jack Ridgefield, and if there had been nothing else about him to admire, this would have constituted a bond between him and Sidney.
"I've some news," he said, as he sat down in her front room. "Give you five guesses."
His blue eyes, always merry, told her nothing.
She tried twice. An inspector was coming. The school organ had arrived. Then she gave it up.
"The boss is back."
Jack Ridgefield had been away for two weeks.
She had known he was expected that day or the next.
"And he's married. His wife's with him. And he never even told me he was engaged."
Bob was more taken up with this lack of confidence in himself than he was with the effect of the news on Sidney. In fact, it had never occurred to him that there would be any effect onpage 59 Sidney. And he saw nothing out of the way in her astonishment.
"What! That is something for the village to talk about," she exclaimed, her eyes full of amusement. "Have you seen her? What is she like?"
"I haven't. They drove in while everybody was at supper. Jack told me ten minutes ago. I'm not telling anybody but you to-night. I guess the gossips can wait."
Sidney had to smile at his manner of making exceptions. Then he went on to tell her that the school organ had arrived, and that they were going to move it in in the morning.
When he was gone she put on her coat and went out, feeling curiously bereft of something, she hardly knew what.
For six weeks she had been consumed with interest in Jack Ridgefield. She was not physically in love with him. But she had wondered if she ever would be. She had a passion of admiration for him, as she had always had for men of stirring action. It was a mental passion, but her mental passions were just as fierce as any physical ones.
Though her admiration for him had fed her mentality he himself had provided no company. She had never had a chance to be human with him for more than a minute. She had noticed that whenever she forgot she was a teacher and began to be a woman he became aloof and went off.page 60
She told herself she could have given him a perfectly distinterested friendship as she had his father, and she was piqued to think he had not cared to take it.
He had been in many ways the most disconcertingly uncomplimentary man she had ever known. Though he had shown no interest in her as a human being he had gone out of his way to be helpful to her as a teacher. He had seen her every day for a month to be sure she had everything she wanted. And when he went away he left her formally in the care of Bob Lindsay. Sometimes he had stayed as long as half an hour to talk shrewdly about the village parents and such minor problems as the school provided. At others he had come and gone with a question.
As he was still there to be admired she wondered, as she walked down into the gully, why she should feel so blank about his marriage, why she felt the chagrin, the hurt vanity of someone who had been snubbed. It was silly, she told herself.
But for the first time in her life she had a painful sense of her grievous loneliness.
And more than that, she was now troubled by the lack of challenge in her work. There was nothing big or dramatic about her "daily round." Her "common task" was much too common for her, and she had no sentimental illusions about page 61"brightening the corner where you are." She yearned for obstacles. She had come up primed to conquer them, only to find there were not any.
The shy and docile country children hardly presented a difficulty after some of the city classes she had known. Even the Hardy children were no trouble to her. After one or two solemn talks on the subject of their vocabulary they made such desperate efforts to be good that they could not be considered a bother.
The rather dull brains of most of her pupils did not worry her. She could grade them as she pleased, and she knew that in a new school whatever she did would be taken without question. As Sidney Carey, she could even have loafed on her job without fear of criticism. She thought longingly of a class of sixty boys she had had in Auckland, a terrible class that faced her every morning keen to get the best of her all day long. It had taken her two months to get them under, and even then she had to interest them, keep them busy every minute, or face a riot.
But here the twenty-five faces that smiled confidently at her as they answered their names were guileless of any intention to plague her. Even the boys never dreamt of mischief in those awe-inspiring precincts. To have been severely reproved by her would have been generally felt to be an overwhelming disgrace. Of course Sidneypage 62 had cleverly created most of this atmosphere, and she was backed in the homes by the deferential regard of the parents.
She knew now, also, that there would be nothing in her daily life to trouble her. When James Ridgefield was up three weeks before he had shown that he regarded her as a person to be pampered. He did realize better than anyone else the things she had to go without. He decided she should have a horse to ride, and when she mentioned casually that she missed music, he asked at once if an organ in the school would be any use to her.
"Then we can have services once in a while," he had said. "That will please the women. They have been saying something about the place being big enough now for a church."
"Oh dear," groaned Sidney. "Then they will want me to teach Sunday school. But I refuse to give up a minute of my Sundays to anybody."
"Then don't. There's no reason why you should. You don't have to mind what anyone here thinks about that."
"Thanks. You are the most satisfactory superior officer I ever heard of," she laughed.
She had been rejoiced to see James Ridgefield.
He was a successful man of fifty, with a shrewd knowledge of human nature, and a lot of worldly wisdom. He had known Sidney since her girl-page 63hood. There was a warm, thoroughly honest friendship between them. Though he was chairman of the Board of Education they both forgot the fact. She had never traded on it to get favours, and he had never assumed the right to dictate to her about anything she wanted to do. She knew that as far as he was concerned she was as independent in his mill school as she would have been under another Board. He was concerned solely with her comfort.
But the trouble with Sidney was that she was too clear-sighted to be satisfied only with comfort. And though she despised the idea of being an example in the ordinary sense, she was not without her notions of the mission of the teacher. She meant to influence her children. She meant to be something they would talk about when they grew up. She wanted to influence the parents. She was in ways a born reformer and would never quite get over it. But the thing that appalled her here was the conviction that she would never change anyone's ideas.
She saw she had only to suggest a new way of doing some familiar thing, such as bottling tomatoes, and everybody in the place would at least have tried it. But if she had suggested a new way of thinking about God as force, or sin as defective education, they could not have followed her an inch.page 64
At the end of six weeks she hated the smug prosperity of the mill population. She had heard there were "characters" about—men in the bush, and women in a little back settlement that rejoiced in the explanatory name of Harlot Town, but she knew she would never see them. So far she had not set eyes on Mrs. Bill Hardy, whom she suspected of having distinctive traits.
She saw sadly that as far as the village was concerned there was neither stimulus nor diversion to be had. And now, with Jack Ridgefield married, some edge had gone off her interest in him.
She thought gratefully of Mana, whom she had been to see again. But she could not hope to see her oftener than twice a month, for she did not lack employment. She did her own housekeeping on Saturdays and Sundays, and she had already seen the possibility of a scholarship for George Mackenzie if she gave him extra tutoring, which she had made up her mind to do. He was her only clever scholar, and she was glad to think she could give him this chance.
As she walked back and forth on the old wagon track the beauty of the night diverted her. On the side of the gully running up to the cottages there were no trees, only the everlasting fern and stumps, but immediately across the track on the lower side there was one of the most perfectpage 65bits of undisturbed bush in the whole country. The kauri saplings there had been too small to be felled when the rest had been cut, and they stood like beautiful slender grey pillars rising above the soft rimu and titoki and nikau and fern.
Sidney walked to the creek that rushed out at the foot of the precipice below the mill dam. Here was a glade of legendary loveliness, where one could imagine every kind of elf and pixie disporting itself in glee. It had formerly been the favoured haunt of bell birds who had immortalized it with their incomparable song, and now the tuis perpetuated their memory by imitating their delectable notes in the depths of the dell. In the moonlight it was beyond all description elusively exquisite.
Sidney had discovered it with delight, and was pleased to find that no one but herself seemed to want to go there. It was a wonderful place for a retreat and a smoke. The hidden waterfall, gurgling its mysterious way under the face of the ravine, made a stimulating accompaniment to thought. No sounds drifted down from the village, and nothing of it was visible but the top of the dam and the fantastic frame of the waste tramway, now caught and glorified by the moon. The mill fires, burning low, scarcely coloured the night.
Sidney took out her cigarettes, and presentlypage 66 she forgot the lack of challenge in her life. On nights like these she felt the place could give her something no human being could, and she let herself go out to meet the appeal in the calm moon and the pale stars.
She was amused during the next week to receive a disgusted letter from James Ridgefield.
"What the devil has that son of mine been doing? I didn't know he had a thought of marriage in his head till I got his letter three days ago. I had visions that you and he might hit it off. Should have liked nothing better. Be warned. Never arrange anything for anybody. It's fatal. Tell me what kind of woman he has married. I never have known his taste in girls. What should I give her?"
At the end of the week, when Jack told Sidney his wife would be glad to see her, she had already adjusted her mind to the change.