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The Story of a New Zealand River


page 128


when Alice began to make peace with Asia the next morning she was prepared neither for the easy forgiveness and forgetfulness of the tragedy of the day before nor for the torrent of questions that was the result of the emotional intimacy of that reconciliation.

She was conscious that day that something was wrong with her method, and for the first time she longed to talk it over with somebody, and she knew the somebody meant David Bruce. She had awakened that morning thinking of him, and of his words to her the night before. She knew now that she had to see him and talk to him, that he could help her to straighten out some of the perplexities of her thinking that winter, and she wondered why it suddenly seemed to be all right. But as the day wore on, and the possibility of her seeing him that evening became more insistent, excitement welled up in her again, and her pet bogy, the beginning, arose to frighten her. She knew that if she longed to see him so much it was not right to see him at all.

But temptation kindly removed itself from her for a few days. When Roland returned from the bush that evening he made a fuss about some important paper he had forgotten to get from Bruce. And Alice learned that as the latter would not be down for some days her husband would have to make a special trip back to get it.

This left her alone to deal with Asia and her questions as best she might. And in the course of those few days she was appalled at the distance the child's mind had travelled, and hurt to find out that she had talked freely to others. In a moment of illumination she saw that this was the result page 129 of her own actions. Whenever Asia had begun to be inconveniently inquisitive, she had declared she had a headache, that she mustn't be worried, and she had thought by this means to stifle or divert that lively imagination and that vigorous curiosity.

Asia was indeed a revelation to her mother. She had been quick to turn from Alice's headaches to David Bruce, who never seemed to have headaches when she wanted to talk to him, and to Bob Hargraves, who had no scruples whatever about churning up her young mind, and to other men about the bay, who were amused at her naïve questions. She had pestered them all as to their views on God and the angels. She had collected their opinions on the subjects of what people ate in heaven, whether they wore clothes or not, whether they slept in beds, whether they were so strong that their legs and arms would not break, whether God really heard your prayers, what he really did to the wicked, and so on. And she had puzzled herself into a fever over the variety of their answers.

It was from the Socialist carpenter working on the beach that she first learned that there was no God, that nobody really believed in him, and that it did not matter whether there was a God or not, because people had to live just the same, and be nice and kind to one another, that the greatest thing in the world was to be liked, and that if you were kind you were liked, and if you were nasty you were not. As for hell, he successfully convinced her that no god of love could ever have thought of such a place for a minute.

It was when she asked him if she was to believe him instead of her mother that the carpenter saw he might get into trouble for talking to her. So he tried to explain that people had different opinions, but that some people did not like to hear about anything but their own, and so he asked her not to tell her mother what he had said. This troubled her so much that she had asked Bruce about it. He gave the carpenter and Bob Hargraves and others a hint that page 130 they had better leave her education to the people appointed to educate her. But he had difficulties with her himself.

“Do you believe God lives up in the sky?” she had asked him.

“I haven't seen Him, but lots of people think He is there,” he replied.

But she was not to be put off.

“Do you believe He is there?” she persisted.

“I don't know,” he answered truthfully.

“Do you say your prayers?” she asked.

“I pray in a different way,” he evaded.

But this only started more questions.

And so it was that when she got this chance to begin on her mother she was a questioner experienced by considerable practice, mystified by the variety of opinion, and stimulated by something that was almost a conspiracy to keep her from the things she wanted to know.

God seemed a safe and simple topic, but they had not proceeded far with Him before Alice found herself in a hopeless mess.

“Mother, do you really believe God lives up in the sky?”

They were all out in the garden the second afternoon, Betty and Mabel playing in a big box, and Alice and Asia trying to dig a plot for vegetables.

“My dear, you know I do. Why do you ask? I've always taught you that God lives in the sky.”

“Does He see us now?”

“Yes, He always sees us. I've told you all this before.”

“Does He know we want to have a nice lot of vegetables?”

“Of course He does.”

“Then why does He let the worms eat the seeds? That isn't kind.”

“Well, they won't eat them all, and they have to live on something.”

Alice thought this was satisfactory, but she saw that Asia page 131 was turning it over in her mind. She could not understand why the child no longer believed her.

“You are not digging very well. You must go deeper than that,” she said, hoping to divert her attention.

She had discovered that action and a new occupation were fine antidotes to Asia's mental restlessness. She had also learned that they might be a good thing for her own, and for that reason she had been glad to learn to garden. When she heard that Mrs. Brayton did a good deal of her digging Alice decided that she could dig a little too, and as soon as her husband had got her and Asia light spades and other garden tools they had begun to work out of doors whenever the days were fine, and now they had a few spring plants and rows of sprouting vegetables.

But along with these joys they had discovered the sorrow of worms, and Asia had developed an extraordinary vindictiveness for the predatory insects that destroyed the seeds and buds. Her mother had been amazed once to see her stamp with exalted fury upon a snail, which she called a villain and a thief, telling it that now she had got it she would show it no mercy, and giving a sigh of satisfaction when she saw its pulpy remains mixed with the earth. Indeed, snails and worms had had a good deal to do with Asia's speculations about God.

“Mother,” she said, leaning upon her little spade, “if I was God, and could make nice things, I'd never make nasty ones. I wouldn't make snails and worms to eat up the flowers.”

“But they do good in other ways,” said Alice.

“But why should they do any bad things? God could have made them all good.”

“My dear”—Alice tried to be patient—“we do not know His reasons. I do not know them any more than you do. But I believe that it will be all right, and we shall know some day.”

“But I want to know now. It won't be any use to know when we are dead.”

page 132

Alice stared at her, startled by this truth. She wondered if the child understood what she was saying, or whether she was repeating something she had heard. This thought had occurred to her several times lately.

But just then she caught sight of Mrs. Brayton coming down the field, and Asia flew to meet her.

The old lady had her arms full of spring flowers and two books of short stories by W. W. Jacobs. She greeted Alice with a spontaneity that hid no secret reference to any tragedy in the past, and they immediately began a discussion of the garden. Mrs. Brayton praised Asia's plot for which she had brought a parcel of young plants, and she gave Alice hints as to the care of seeds, and the best way to rake and hoe. Then they went in for tea and music.

The next evening, as Asia threw out the tea leaves, something in the spring night caught her.

“Oh, Mother, the stars are so wonderful. Come out and look.”

They stood some minutes looking up at them.

“Mother, do play Red Indians with me, just for a little while. It's such a long time since you had time to play.”

“Very well,” smiled Alice, “just for a few minutes. Get my cloak.”

Roland sat over his everlasting figures in the sitting-room, beside a fire. Alice knew the babies were asleep, and that she could be out without being missed.

Asia got a board and a box for them to sit upon, and with an air of mystery and suppressed excitement that amazed Alice she led the way to a Maori pit that Bruce had told her was the remains of an old fortification. There were several of them along the top of the cliffs.

“Now, Mother, we'll be good Indians, and the bad ones will come up the river to burn our homes. We must lie down and watch for them. Quick! 'Cause Indians can see in the dark. And when the fish jump that's the sound of their canoes. They don't make any sound if they're careful, page 133 but to-night they'll be careless, 'cause they think we are away. Quick, now, Mother, or they'll see us.”

Wildly excited she dropped down into the pit, almost pulling her mother off her feet.

“We are safe,” she whispered. “Now listen, and be ready to shoot, like this, see,” and up went her pointing hands in imitation.

Alice was astonished at the vividness of the child's imagination, at the seriousness of her play, at this transformation from her ordinary self, or what Alice took to be her ordinary self. When a fish jumped she fired with an assumption of nerve and bravery, then she heard the screams of sinking Indians, and, what was still more unlike herself, she exulted in their destruction. In ten minutes they had won a great battle single-handed against innumerable foes, and then, the thrill of the fight passed, and their safety secured, Asia dropped back, panting, beside her mother.

She lay still for a minute or two. Then she drew up her knees, pressing her chin into them. Her hair fell about her face so that Alice, looking at her sideways, could see only the tip of her nose. With a pang at her heart the mother felt that the child had come in the last few months to live in a world of her own, from which, if she did not take care, she would be soon shut out.

“Mother”—Asia turned suddenly—“we've killed hundreds of bad Indians. We have not really, but suppose we had, do you think they will all go to hell?”

“Bad Indians have to be punished, like bad white people,” Alice answered, hoping the questions were not going to begin again.

“Mother, is there really any hell? Mr. Bruce doesn't believe there is any.”

For a moment Alice felt the resentment she had felt before that any one but herself should direct the thought of her child.

“There are people who don't believe in hell. But there page 134 must be a place where bad people are punished,” she replied uncomfortably.

Asia peered through the starlight at her mother.

“I can understand why bad people should be punished, but I don't understand why they have to go on being punished. Nobody goes on beating all the time down here. If Betty is naughty in the morning, you don't slap her all day and all night and on for ever. And I don't believe a good God would either. Mr. Bruce wouldn't. He told me. He's kinder than God.”

Startled afresh, Alice looked away from her and down upon the star-spotted river sheen below. It was bad enough to be thinking something of this kind herself, but to have her doubts put into the hard form of words by her child was worse. At Asia's age she herself had been a clod to be moulded as her elders pleased. She had never doubted the things she had been told. She had never heard any other point of view; she had been too carefully sheltered.

“Asia,” she said sadly, determined not to be angry with her, “you have been talking about things that only I should tell you, and so you are getting mixed up. You must not ask other people questions.”

“But I want to know things, Mother. I must know.”

“Then you can ask me.”

Asia waited a minute or two.

“Are you sure you know, Mother?” she asked.

Alice began to get impatient.

“I know just as well as anybody else, and it is the duty of children to believe what their parents tell them. You are forgetting all the things I have taught you.”

Asia thought a few minutes.

“You told me God answers our prayers, Mother.”

“When we pray for what is right, yes.”

“He does not answer mine.”

“Then you have prayed for foolish things.”

“No, I haven't. I have prayed a long, long time that you page 135 wouldn't have any more babies, and now Mrs. Jones says you are going to have another—”

“What!” Alice sprang into a tense position.

“Oh, Mother, don't be angry. Why do you get angry—”

“Oh, oh!” Alice burst into helpless tears of shame and humiliation. For the moment she wished she were dead. There seemed to be no end to her sufferings.

“Mother, what have I done?” whimpered Asia. “I don't want you to have any more babies. I can't help it—I don't—”

“Oh, Asia!” Alice turned to her with a passionate burst of grief that hurt the child as much as anger. “You are going to make me ill. You will kill me if you go on like this. You must stop talking to anybody—anybody but Mr. Bruce. Do you hear me?” her voice rose. “I will not allow you to go anywhere. Where did you see that woman—Mrs. Jones? Tell me at once. Where did you see her?”

“She was in the store this morning. I heard her tell another woman—” Asia was sobbing now herself.

Alice clenched her hands to keep herself from screaming.

“Oh, how horrible!” she gasped, to herself. “How could she know? I haven't told any one. It must have been just suspicion. Vile creatures!” She wondered if her husband could possibly have guessed and told her. She knew he talked with what was to her disgusting familiarity.

“Mother, don't be angry,” pleaded Asia.

“Asia, I don't know what I will do if you go on talking to people. You used to be so good. You did as I told you. Now you don't seem to care whether you make me unhappy or not—”

“Oh, I do, Mother.”

“Then, listen to me. You stop listening to anybody or talking to anybody when I send you to the store. These people are not like us, and they have no business to know anything about us, or to talk about us. Now will you remember that?”

“All right, Mother. Can't I talk to Mr. Hargraves?”

page 136

“No,” cried Alice furiously, “not to anybody.”

Asia sobbed in perplexity.

“But I like him,” she moaned.

“I can't help that. You must do as I tell you.”

“All right, Mother,” said the child with an air of resignation. “I won't talk to anybody any more. But how did Mrs. Jones know you were going to have a baby? Can't you stop it, Mother?”

“Oh, Asia”—Alice sprang to her feet—“go inside! I cannot talk to you any more to-night. Go inside. Don't be frightened. I am not angry with you. But I want to be alone. Go to bed.” She burst into tears again.

Asia sobbed bitterly as she got to her feet.

“I don't understand why you are crying—I don't understand. Will you tell me, Mother?”

Alice looked helplessly at her. It never occurred to her to soothe her with the truth, and she was totally unprepared for such a situation with the sort of lies that might have been effective. What to do with a child who would think, and who wanted real reasons she did not know. She only felt that such precocity was most unhealthy. Asia was no longer merely her child. She had become a problem as well.

“I can't talk to you to-night,” she repeated. “But go in and go to bed, and do stop thinking. You are not old enough to think for yourself. Now, kiss me good night. I am not angry with you now.”

But the grief was just as inexplicable to Asia as the anger. She went sobbing inside, and sobbing she undressed and got into bed to puzzle about it for hours before she fell asleep. No sooner had she begun to develop a feeling for the world as a glorious plaything than this other sense of fearful things lurking just out of view began to oppress her. Along with the revelation of adventure in the Boys' Own had come the mystery of babies, and the still greater mystery of the things one must not say.

After Asia had left her Alice walked blindly down to the beach, and began to pace up and down the hard sand border page 137 between the pebbles and the mud bared by the low tide. She was too distracted to cry any more.

“Oh, God! What am I to do, what am I to do?” she groaned. She looked up at the stars. Was He there, that Comforter, that she had sought so often, and believed in so unquestioningly in the past, that prop she so badly needed? She felt she did not have to visualize Him, she only had to feel Him as a presence. If He was all round her she ought to be able to feel Him there when she needed Him as she did now, and if she could not feel Him what use was He?

“Oh, God, where are you? I want to know now,” she said, and then she remembered she was echoing Asia's words.

She stood as if expecting that sign that all men look for in those desperate moments when doubt, gathering strength, gets its final throttling grip upon blind faith. But she saw nothing but the hard starlight, the black bush, the spotted leaden channel of the river. She felt nothing but the chill air, the pervading desolation of the swamp lands and the hills.

Struck by sudden fear she sat down on the gnarled root of a pohutukawa, which spread its knotty and grotesque shape like the clutch of a demon hand far out onto the beach. If there were no God to help her, who would, and what did her life mean? Could she go on living without God, without any knowledge of Him? Could she make the sacrifices? Suppose there were no heaven—no reward? What would keep her a decent person? What would guide her in her daily life? What had guided her but that hope of a future life, with its justice and rewards? How could she face life without that hope? What was she to tell her child? How did people live who did not believe in God? She knew there were those who did not. She had heard great names, Ingersoll, Bradlaugh, etc. But she had always vaguely thought that there was some special dispensation to deal with great geniuses and the heathen. She had given God page 138 credit for some powers of discrimination. But she had always believed that the average person had to have God in order to be decent. She didn't see how without Him people would be decent. The fact that belief in God had not improved the lives of many people she knew had never affected her belief in Him. Her father had taught her that one should not condemn good kerosene because it got dirty in a dirty lamp, and she had accepted the illustration as allembracing. She supposed that everybody she knew believed in God. But as she sat there she began to wonder how many of them really did. She wondered if David Bruce did.

Her thoughts went back to Asia and the outrageous Mrs. Jones, and a fit of anger shook her again. She did not know how she was going to live in such a place with such people, and with such experiences. She could not bear to be talked about. Her reserve and sense of aloofness from anything she did not like amounted to a mania. She thought it was necessary to the preservation of her own personality that she should wall herself off from those who had not her own sense of taste. Platitudes such as “You can't touch pitch without getting soiled” had the force of gospel truth to her. She thought it dreadful that Asia should even see such a person as she supposed Mrs. Jones to be.

When her feeling had spent itself she began to think. She saw that if she continued to worry as she had done in the past months she would become a nervous wreck. She knew that even if there were no God, no heaven, no justice anywhere, she would still have to live on here by the river, feed and clothe her husband and her children, have more children, keep her house clean, do certain things and not do certain things. And it would not matter what she believed, the porridge must be well boiled, or her family would get indigestion.

This came to her with the strength and clearness of a pronouncement from the skies, but she realized that it did not come from the skies. Though she was far from believing that it did not matter what she believed, she now page 139 made the discovery that no matter what she believed there were certain ways in which she, being herself, must act. And she saw, too, that in order to act in those imperative ways she must learn to protect herself from the violence of her own feeling.

But like a child in the dark, she craved for the light. If it was not to come from heaven, she would have to look for it elsewhere. She felt that David Bruce could help her. She wanted something to justify her desire to know him. She told herself that it was part of his work as a doctor to advise his patients, and that she could without any disloyalty to her husband turn to Bruce for spiritual advice. She did not see that what she really wanted was emotional satisfaction, sex satisfaction by proxy. She would have indignantly denied any suggestion of that.

“I don't care if there is a God or not,” she said at last, half fearfully, as she got up, “I have a right to have that man for my friend.”

She was a little afraid as she looked up at the stars. But no thunderbolt or lightning shaft shot out of the sky upon her. The probable loss of God in His heaven might have disturbed her much more if her thoughts had not turned to the final comforter of all women, whether they spurn it intellectually or not, a son of man.

Uncertain still, but glad to know that David Bruce was something she really could see and hear, she walked home.