The Passionate Puritan
Before she saw her Sidney was sorry for Sophie Ridgefield. She felt she was doomed to an even greater isolation than herself. She foresaw that Jack would want to keep his wife apart from the gossip and pettiness of the village, and that probably she and Mrs. Jack would now constitute a little aristocracy of their own. For that reason she fervently hoped they would have something in common. But, though she hoped for the best, she was not optimistic as she walked the short distance between the two houses on the Saturday afternoon.
So far, nobody had seen the bride, about whom there was the fiercest curiosity. Mrs. Mackenzie had asked Sidney every day if she had met her, and had reported the absence of news afterwards to Mrs. Bob and Mrs. Alec.
Sidney saw at once that she would like Sophie, and she was grateful to Jack for marrying her. Though the bride was nervous and shy, giving at first acquaintance no indication of the substance that was in her, Sidney was discerning enough to see that there was much more in her than met the eye.page 68
Mrs. Jack was small and quiet. She had fine dark eyes and hair, a sensitive and expressive face, a nicely rounded figure, and beautiful little hands and feet. She was one of those people who carry elusive defences buried in their persons. It was impossible to imagine anyone's being rude to her, or being in any way objectionable in her presence.
But she was hard to talk to. She had not the modern fever for self-expression. Sidney thought her conversation colourless, but suspected that her husband had limited her by telling her to be very careful what she said. As a matter of fact Jack had told his wife that Sidney was the one person in the place she could trust and make a friend of. But Sophie was affected by what he had told her of Sidney's cleverness, and it was to take her some time to feel at home with her.
As she walked home, Sidney told herself that Jack's marriage would probably turn out to be more interesting to her than his singleness. There would now be at least one house in the place where she could talk freely, one home that she could enter as an equal. And she foresaw that she might see more of Jack than she had before, and that now that he was married, he might be more human.
About nine o'clock that night Sidney heard steps approaching her gate. She opened her door to see Bill Hardy with a lantern in his hand.page 69
"Good evening, miss," he began respectfully.
"Good evening, Mr. Hardy. Come in." She wondered if he had come about her horse.
He stepped timidly to the door, but would not enter. His manner towards everybody in the place was that of a creature that knew it had no excuse for living, and that apologised with every gesture for approaching others. Only when he was drunk did he recognise his human rights.
"I'm sorry to trouble you, miss, but Rosy, my little girl——" he paused.
"Oh, dear. I hope she isn't ill." She had sent the child home the day before looking very sick.
"I'm afraid she is, miss. She's wrong in the head. And she's been calling 'Teacher,' miss."
"I'll come with you at once," said Sidney. "Have you sent for a doctor?"
"I'm very glad you came for me," she said warmly.
She did not know it had taken him two hours to screw up his courage to appeal to her.
She wondered at once if she would at last see Mrs. Bill. The Hardy home was on the far side of the village, removed from it by the space of the kitchen garden that covered some acres. To reach it they had to cross the tramway and pass by the stables. Even before they entered it Sidney knew Mrs. Bill was no housekeeper. Thepage 70 lantern light shone on heaps of tins and rubbish lying around. There was no attempt at a garden, and the fern encroached upon the yard. Even in that sweet windswept place the house smelt of garbage and stale food.
In the front room a woman in a loose soiled wrapper rose up from a narrow cot over which she had been leaning. Hysterically worried though she was, Mrs. Bill suggested her usual air of cheerful brazenness. She was of the Amazon type, with green eyes and bleached hair. There was nothing sinister about her, even though she was almost uncannily vital. She suggested a sleepy tiger, after a full meal.
Mrs. Bill was a rabbit among mothers. She glowed with fecundity. She bore the ravages of her passions with astonishing freshness and gaiety. In spite of eleven children of assorted fatherhood she was youthful, and her figure fairly well preserved. It may be that paternal monotony often has a saddening effect upon the female of the species. At any rate Mrs. Bill flourished the happy results of polyandry in the eyes of all her monogamistic world.
But she had not handed her vitality on to her children. They were a pale devitalized brood. Mrs. Bill's vigour was fiercely individualistic. In some curious way it turned back upon herself.
At any other time Sidney would have been in-page 71terested to take stock of her, but she was concerned now about the child. She gave Mrs. Bill one quick look, determined to be very business-like with her, before she turned to the bed.
Mrs. Bill was not nearly so sure of herself with women as she was with men, and she was clever enough to see that Sidney was too much for her. She presented her best maternal front at once.
"I can't make out what's the matter with Rosy, miss. Very good of you to come," she said obsequiously.
"Not at all, Mrs. Hardy."
Sidney had taken first aid and nurses' courses and knew from one glance at the face on the pillow that something was seriously wrong. The moaning child did not recognise her. It was fast sinking into a coma.
"How long has she been like this?" she asked.
"Most of the afternoon, miss."
"Why ever didn't you come for me before?" she asked sharply. Then she saw they had hesitated about it.
"Where's the nearest doctor?" she went on more gently.
"Whangarei, miss," said Mrs. Bill. "Is she very bad?"
"I'm afraid so," Sidney looked her straight in the eyes. "Have your children never been ill? Don't you know anything about nursing?"page 72
Mrs. Bill felt a condemnation of herself in Sidney's tone. Coming from anyone else it would have aroused antagonism in her, but from the teacher it made her feel uncomfortable.
"They've 'ad 'ooping cough, and the measles and colds," she said.
"Well, you know fever when you see it, don't you? The child must have a temperature of 104. And it's not a cold. It's something internal. She's getting blue. Somebody must go for a doctor at once."
She turned to Bill.
"I'll go, miss."
"Oh, no. You stay. I'll see that somebody goes. Would you like me to come back?"
"Please, miss." It came from both of them.
Taking his lantern Sidney hurried to the Ridgefields'. Jack, who had just undressed, came to the door in his pajamas, expecting to see one of the men.
"Why, Miss Carey! What's wrong?" He was obviously conscious of his appearance.
But she was oblivious of it.
"One of Bill Hardy's children is dying. Something internal. Probably appendicitis."
"Oh, Lord! You've been there?" he frowned.
She resented his attitude.
"I have. Bill came for me. Of course I went. Is there no doctor nearer than Whangarei?"page 73
"Nobody any good. And I doubt if anyone would come up to-night."
She thought his calmness heartless. She did not realize that he had a much longer acquaintance with human tragedies than she had.
"Why, it's a matter of hours—an operation as soon as possible, if it's appendicitis. What do you do in such cases?"
"We've never had appendicitis. The worst thing we have is accidents. And we take them on stretchers to Whakapara to the train. We can telephone from there to Whangarei. I'll get someone to go. But no doctor will come up till the morning, I know that."
"Have you a thermometer?" she asked, as he turned away.
"Yes, just a minute."
When he brought it back Sophie followed him, a wrapper over her nightgown, although he had told her there was nothing she could do.
"Does anyone up here know anything about nursing?" Sidney asked. "I don't know what to do for this child."
"I doubt it. Ordinary illness is all we have had. And if anyone did she would not go near Mrs. Bill."
"Indeed! Well, I'm not afraid of her. I'll do what I can," she retorted.
"You're going back there?"page 74
"I certainly am." She flashed a determined look at him.
"Why, of course she will," broke in Sophie. "If I can help, will you let me know, Miss Carey?"
"Yes, indeed," said Sidney, rather surprised at her offer.
Jack's eyes softened.
"I'll go after a messenger at once," he said.
Sidney hurried off with the thermometer. She found Bill and his wife sitting helplessly beside the cot. They had moved Rosy into their only room that was not a bedroom. It was a kitchen and eating room combined. It was dirty and close. No windows were open. Sidney knew the sick child had not been washed all day.
"Could you get me some hot water, Mrs. Hardy," she asked at once. "And we must have some air in here. I'll leave the door open for a while."
Mrs. Bill was glad enough to do something.
When Sidney took Rosy's temperature she found it was 105. She was hardly sure whether she should let the poor little creature sip water, but she took that risk. Apart from making her clean she did not know what to do but wait for the doctor.
It was not long before they heard a horse's hoofs going off along the tramway. That signpage 75 of help to come cheered Bill, who sat without a word, a dumbly appealing object, beside the window.
He had not realized the child was really ill that morning, and he had been away all day with his horses. He never took the Saturday half holiday, having nothing to take a holiday for. When he came home to tea he saw something was wrong. His wife told him Rosy had been talking queerly all the afternoon. She had given her a dose of castor oil, she said, the thing she always gave the children. She did not know that this time it was the worst, instead of the best thing she could have done.
Mrs. Bill brought the hot water to Sidney with the air of rendering distinguished service.
"Have you a clean sheet?" asked Sidney.
"Bring it, please. We must make things as nice as we can for the doctor."
Just then they heard steps, and to Sidney's surprise, Jack Ridgefield's form filled the line of light that shone out of the door.
Bill turned in his chair.
"It's Mr. Ridgefield," she said.
He got up, and his wife retired quickly to a back room. Mrs. Bill never met Jack if she could avoid it.
"I've brought some medicine," Jack said, hand-page 76ing a bottle to Sidney. "My wife says you can safely give it in any kind of fever. The instructions are on the bottle. If you need anything more she has a medicine chest."
He turned to Bill.
"Tony Hand has ridden to Whakapara to telephone for a doctor." Bill mumbled something intended to be thanks.
"Is there anything I can do?" Jack turned to Sidney again.
"I'm afraid not," she answered.
"If there is, you'll let me know?"
She wondered after he had gone if that quiet little Sophie had made him come.
She called Mrs. Hardy back.
"I want you to help me to wash her," she said.
The two women hung over the now unconscious child. Sidney was too preoccupied with the unpleasant job to consider the dramatic aspects of her association in such a way with a woman like Mrs. Bill. She felt only it would be dreadful for a doctor to find the child in the state it was in. Mrs. Bill, now thoroughly alarmed and subdued by her manner, did her best to help. She had the wisdom to keep quiet.
At last the child was comparatively clean, and lay between a clean sheet. When she had given it a dose of the medicine Sidney knew there waspage 77 nothing more she could do for it. She wondered if she should stay. She sat down on a wooden chair near the door to wait a little while. But she began to feel very uncomfortable.
She saw that nothing she had ever learned out of books would help her here. She looked at Bill huddled up beside the window, and at Mrs. Bill leaning over the cot. She knew she had only one means of communication with these people— she could only order them about. She did not know how to talk to them, how to comfort them. She did not know whether they wanted to be talked to or comforted. Her utter ignorance of a human situation like this humiliated her.
And yet, out of all the village, she was the one person they had appealed to. She felt she must stay.
At half past ten the night began to grow cooler. But Sidney kept the door open, even though something in the stillness outside worked upon her nerves. The house was not far from the creek, and there was a good deal of swampy land beyond it. It began to be filled with invisible presences. She knew she would not have gone out at that moment and crossed it for anything in the world. She looked at the cot and began to be afraid.
She had never seen anything, not even an animal die. She wished the sick child would move orpage 78 moan or give some other sign of life. But Rosy lay exceedingly still.
The strain of inaction had just reached snapping point with her when Mrs. Bill called sharply:
"Oh, miss, please!"
Sidney jumped, and she and Bill hurried to the cot.
Poor Rosy opened her eyes with a glassy stare, seeing no one, and then stiffened and turned grey.
They all stared stupidly at the body for a minute.
Then with a feeling of horror Sidney forced herself to put her hand on the dead child's forehead. She knew instinctively it was the end.
"She's gone," she mumbled. "We can't do any more."
Mrs. Bill gave a wail like an animal.
Utterly overwhelmed by the shock of death and ashamed of her helplessness Sidney turned quickly out into the night and left them.
Blindly she stumbled on past the stables, across the tramway, and so to her own house. But she could not go in. She was afraid of the blackness inside it. She sat down on a log and stared up at the stars. She felt as if she had swelled enormously, she was so full of emotions that stretched her very skin.
The stillness of the village startled her. How could people sleep while there was such a thing aspage 79 death in their midst? And yet there they were, all peacefully oblivious of it. This extraordinary spectacle of humanity's indifference to humanity's greatest calamity staggered her. In her first contact with it she felt death to be so terrible a thing that it must needs stir people out of sleep.
So far she had never had an emotion that she could not easily control. Her parents had died when she was too young to miss them. An indulgent aunt and uncle had brought her up in pleasant easy paths. She had never had anything to worry her deeply. No one she had known intimately had died since she had grown up.
She saw now that this was extraordinary. And she was capable of depths of emotion out of all proportion to the significance in the scheme of things of so commonplace a thing as death. Rosy's end was but one pathetic bit of waste out of millions of discarded ends, but to Sidney it was the revelation of the end of herself, and of everything she loved.
She sat out till she was chilled. Starting at every sound she got to bed feeling she could never be light-hearted any more. She did not fall asleep till the dawn broke.
At half past seven she dressed and went to tell Jack Ridgefield. He was lighting his kitchen fire.
"The child's dead," she said solemnly, as he came to the door. "It died at eleven last night."page 80
"Lucky for it, poor little devil," he said.
Then he saw he had shocked her.
"What on earth had she to live for?" he asked.
"It's not that," she gasped. "It's death," and feeling he would not understand, she turned quickly away.
Nor were the Mackenzies startled by Rosy's death.
"What a blessing!" said Mrs. Tom, when Sidney told her.