The Story of a New Zealand River
the carpenter and Sonny Shoreman were working on the back shed, and Asia was amusing herself, and incidentally Betty and the baby, by playing with the shavings and chips, when she saw an astonishing figure making its way among the rushes and cuttigrass bushes that dotted the slope of the green hill that rose like an overturned basin a few chains away from the back of the boss's house. She sprang to her feet and called upon the carpenter to look.
“It's a lady,” she exclaimed.
He grunted assent.
“A real lady!” repeated Asia. Her first impulse was to rush to tell Alice. Then she remembered.
The astonishing figure came on. Every detail of its appearance was a never-to-be-forgotten fact by the time it paused beside the shed. And surely only magic could have produced that small grand old lady, in a stiff shot silk dress of green and gold, with lovely old lace folded round her shoulders, a funny little old hat of lace and velvet upon her fine grey hair, distinction radiating from every inch of her.
In her hands she carried a card-case of tortoise-shell and gold, two books, and a magnificent bunch of violets.
Her bright blue eyes rested approvingly upon Asia's golden hair, and stared with frank pleasure into the questioning depths of those dilated young eyes.
“It seems to be a case of mutual surprise, my dear,” she began. “I suppose you are Asia Roland.”
“And you must be the fairy godmother,” was the sharp reply.
The old lady laughed.page 30
“That is just what I shall be,” she said.
As she spoke Asia's eyes fell upon the violets. The visitor noticed the gasp of delight.
“Ah, you love violets?” she said.
“I brought them for your mother. Are you not going to ask me to come in?”
“Oh, yes, please. But my mother, she's asleep. She was so tired. She said I wasn't to disturb her whatever happened. She didn't expect you, you see. Would you mind if we sat in the kitchen? It's just finished, and it's quite clean. And I couldn't wake Mother for anything.” It all came out with a rush.
The old eyes glowed.
“Indeed, you shall not wake your mother. I shall be very pleased to talk to you.”
Asia glanced at Betty and the baby, who were playing amicably.
“They will be quite good with you,” she said sweetly to the carpenter, who remained quiet as to his doubts. Then she proudly led the way inside, talking quickly and with guarded softness. “I can make tea quite well. I know how—I often make it for Mother. Have you come from those pine trees? We saw them from the river. Mother wondered who lived there. You see, we feel so lonely—at least Mother does. I like it here, but Mother hasn't been used to a place like this. She doesn't like it. She doesn't say so, but I know—I always know when she doesn't like things. No, you can't sit in that chair; it isn't comfortable—I'll bring you Mother's chair.”
She disappeared into the front room, leaving the old lady standing in the middle of the kitchen. She reappeared, staggering, with an ancient mahogany rocker, which she cleverly steered without bumping through the door. The fairy godmother moved swiftly to help, but was waved airily aside. Asia placed the chair in front of the window.
“Now, sit there. You will look lovely with the light on page 31 you. Mother does. This is a special chair, very special. It was once my granny's. It came from England. Mother loves everything that comes from England. Now, you look just right.”
The child's eyes, glowing with admiration, looked the old lady up and down. The fairy godmother felt a very human lump in her throat.
“Now I must put the violets into water,” continued Asia. She went to the cupboard and selected a plain white enamel basin. She loosened the flowers and arranged the leaves round them. Then she buried her face in them for a minute, and sniffed energetically. Finally, she placed the basin carefully in the middle of the bare, kauri slab table.
“You must have a garden,” said the old lady, who had watched her with increasing interest. “I will give you plants.”
Asia whisked round.
“Oh, thank you. That will be lovely. We would just love a garden.” Then, with a grand manner, “Now I will get you some tea.”
The fairy godmother rocked slowly while the child turned to the open fire place, where the kettle hung singing over glowing coals. All the while she prepared the simple tea Asia chatted on with delightful importance. It was clear she felt to the last degree the exaltation of entertaining so grand a personage.
“We have no biscuits,” she said regretfully, “but you won't mind, will you? I can cut bread and butter. We have a cow, so I can give you cream. Mother says it's a luxury, and we haven't many luxuries. You see, we are very poor, and you are very rich, aren't you?” with another survey of the silk and lace. “But you won't mind our plain things, will you? Mother says it doesn't matter what we have, it's what we are. And Mr. Bruce says plain things are beautiful. Do you know Mr. Bruce? I think he is lovely, don't you?”
The old lady seized this chance with alacrity.page 32
“I do know Mr. Bruce, and I do like him. It was he who told me you had arrived. Thank you, I take sugar, one teaspoon. Mr. Bruce told me your mother has a piano. That's another luxury. Does she play much?”
“Oh, yes, it makes me feel—oh!” she clenched her hands.
“Ah, you love music too. Tell me, where were you born—in England, I suppose?”
“No, I wasn't. But Mother was. She is English”—very proudly—“I was born somewhere in Australia, Mother told me once. I think it was Sydney. I don't really remember. I wish I could remember more. It's horrid to forget things, isn't it?”
The old lady choked on a mouthful of tea.
Asia jumped up in alarm.
“Shall I slap your back?” she asked. “I always do Mother's.”
But the visitor waved her back, struggling with a fresh attack. Finally, righting herself, she laughed heartily.
“You amuse me so much that I can't help laughing,” she explained.
“I hope your tea is as you like it,” said Asia gravely, repeating her mother's formula.
“It is indeed. It is delicious tea.”
The smiling old eyes noted the composed satisfaction on the child's face.
For another half-hour Asia fired questions at her enchanted visitor, who continued to rock slowly in the warm band of window light.
Suddenly a figure appeared in the middle doorway.
“Oh, Mother?” Asia sprang up. “Here is a lady who has come to see us. She is a real fairy godmother. I have made her tea.”
For a second Alice stood dumbfounded by that vision in the sunglow. Then, recognizing the type of her amazing guest, she crimsoned with humiliation to think that such an elegant person sat within full view of a bucket of dirty page 33 water, a box of saucepans, and an untidy corner of groceries, still waiting for promised shelves.
The visitor stared frankly at her tall and graceful figure, simply dressed in dark blue gingham, and at her fine head wreathed with thick plaits of copper-tinged hair. She knew instantly what was disturbing her. She rose up out of the rocker, her blue eyes full of mischief.
“Yes, I'm in the kitchen, and do you know why?”
Alice stared at her.
“Because you were tired and asleep, and must not be disturbed, whatever happened. And to avoid disturbing you Asia brought me here, and told me to talk in whispers. And I have not enjoyed anything so much for years. Now you know you do not have to apologize.” She held out her hand.
Still too astonished to speak, Alice took it and looked at her.
“Ah, I would know anywhere that you were English,” said the old lady with undisguised satisfaction.
“Yes,” murmured Alice.
“Thank God for that. These awful colonials get on my nerves. They think and act as if England didn't exist. It will be delightful to have an Englishwoman to talk to again. I am Mrs. Brayton. I live at the back of that hill,” indicating it with a nod, as she sat down.
“In the pines?”
“Yes, in the pines.”
“Oh!” gasped Alice, unable to realize all at once this good fortune. Then she saw the violets. Tears rushed to her eyes.
“I know just how you feel,” cried Mrs. Brayton impulsively. “You've been here one week, and you think it's the end of everything, and that you'll die, and that there's no God. I know. I felt that way. But I've been here nearly fifteen years, and I have grown to love it. I wouldn't live anywhere else now. You'll feel the same by and by. I have my son, and my old English servants, and my garden page 34 and my library, and all my own things about me. And I get the London papers, and the reviews and magazines. And I have a magnificent view. I tell you I love it. And you can be happy here if you want to.”
Alice struggled with her amazement.
“I can see you are tragic, my dear. You must be cured of that. You must think of the compensations. You must have a garden. I will send you plants. I find there is nothing like a garden for soothing the nerves and giving one a good opinion of God's ways. And the country is the place for children and books. Nothing like it. I know the first week is paralyzing, but you have got over it now, and soon you will begin to realize the bush, and that mountain and the river. And they will mean more to you than you think. No place can bury you, my dear. We bury ourselves. I'm an old woman, so I can lecture you. And if I have stood it you can. You are young, and you have children to help you out.”
Her eyes rested on Asia, who sat leaning forward, listening feverishly. Alice flushed, and for a moment there was an eloquent silence.
Then Betty and the baby tumbled in from the yard, laughable objects of dirt and crossness. Seeing that Alice was ashamed of them, Mrs. Brayton took her in hand.
“Now don't be cross with them. Children ought to be dirty and hungry. It's their natural condition. Mine always were. And what does it matter whether I see them or not? What does anything matter in a place like this except that we be human? You can't bring drawing-room conventions here, my dear. This life is real. Artificial things are ridiculous in it.”
While Alice struggled with a discomposure that she could not immediately control, Asia lured the children outside with diplomatic promises of refreshment.
“Will you come into the front room?” Alice tried to smile.
The old lady wondered how any one as good-looking as she could have remained such an iceberg.page 35
They walked into the front room, Alice carrying the rocker.
“Ah, a Brinsmead!” said Mrs. Brayton, her eyes on the piano.
“Yes,” said Alice, glad that she had something good to show. By the time they sat down she had recovered some of her self-possession.
Mrs. Brayton took in at a glance the tasteless and poverty-stricken appearance of the little room. Apart from the piano there was not a thing in it to interest her. She saw that as yet there were no pictures, no books, no ornaments. She knew that the wooden sofa and the cane chairs were the cheapest things of their kind that could be bought. And she guessed that the girl before her had somewhere in the past known a very different setting. She noticed her shapely hands, the poise of her head, the unmistakable signs of generations of culture.
“Do play to me,” she said, looking at a pile of music on the top of the piano.
“I'm badly out of practice,” Alice began nervously. She hated to play before strangers.
“Oh everybody says that. But you will have to begin to play to me some time, so why not face the evil moment now?” The old lady smiled mischievously at her.
Facing the evil moment was not one of Alice's strong points, but she could not resist that smile. Uncertainly she moved to the piano, and chose a volume of Chopin. Through nervousness she made one or two mistakes, but in spite of that she played a nocturne and a prelude with great feeling and brilliant technique.
Mrs. Brayton was amazed and delighted.
“My dear,” she exclaimed frankly, “I need hardly say I didn't expect to find you when I set out to call on Tom Roland's wife. Now, I don't mean anything against him. He's one of the few colonials I thoroughly admire. But how could one expect that he would have an accomplished musician for a wife. Oh, what your music will mean to me! page 36 My playing days are done, but my old Broadwood is still fairly good. You must come and play to me often. And you can play with David Bruce. Have you heard him play the violin?”
Alice's look of confusion and astonishment was not unexpected.
“No,” she stammered, flushing furiously.
“You haven't?” went on the old lady remorselessly. “Well, he plays beautifully, and has kept up his practice. You have met him, of course?”
“Yes,” answered Alice most uncomfortably.
Mrs. Brayton pounced upon her.
“My dear, I hope you have not been putting on airs with poor David. Let me tell you he is a gentleman. They don't breed anything like him out of England. He is one of the few people I invite to dinner. He is one of the most interesting men I have ever met. And when we English people find ourselves away in places like this we can't afford to snub each other because of a difference in the work we do. We drop all that when we leave England. When I met David Bruce first he was digging gum, but when I found out he read Voltaire and played the violin I could have fallen on his neck and wept for sheer delight. All work is the same here whether you are paid or not and whether you work for yourself or not. My dear, you are very young, and you have been here only a week, and you are feeling very badly about everything. But you will learn that there are no class distinctions here, and you must take down your barricades. I was like you. I had to. You must forgive me. I am a chattering old woman.” Mrs. Brayton stood up, and put her hand on Alice's shoulder. “Don't be offended,” she said.
Alice fought to keep back tears.
“I'm not offended.” She tried to smile. She knew she could not resent anything this elegant old lady might say. Nothing but gratitude for the sound of that cultured voice page 37 filled her heart. But she foresaw horrible complications arising out of her reception of David Bruce.
Mrs. Brayton sat down again.
“How many children have you?” she asked abruptly.
“Three,” answered Alice, grateful for the change.
“And you were a widow. You must have been married very young the first time. I don't approve such early marriages. I think English parents make a great mistake to allow them. One thing I like about this country is that the women work, and learn something about life and men before they marry.”
“Yes?” said Alice, not in answer to anything.
Mrs. Brayton detected the coldness in her tone.
“How far away do you live?”
Her abruptness was almost rude, but Mrs. Brayton ignored it. She saw she had ventured on a forbidden topic.
“Our property borders yours, but we are more than two miles apart by hill and gully. Do you ride?”
“No, I do not.”
“Well, you can learn. It is not hard. And then we shall seem much nearer.”
“Whatever brought you to this place?” asked Alice, unable to resist the question.
“Harold came up here land hunting soon after we arrived in New Zealand. He came out purposely to farm. And as he is the only human I possess I had to come too. I wept and protested, and declared I'd die. And he said I didn't have to come if I didn't want to. And he took no notice of me. There comes a time, you know, when our children do what they want to do. And I don't blame them. It's their right, and it makes them more interesting. Of course, I wanted most to be with him, or I would have done something else myself. So I settled down to it, and we made a house and garden. Then we planted an orchard, and got cows and fowls and bees, and soon had no time for introspection. It's five years since I went to Auckland. They call it a city, that little village! I don't care if I never see page 38 it again. No. Give me my garden and my view of the river, and the smell of burnt fern, and my English papers.”
Alice listened humbly to this spirited chatter. Thinking herself the only white woman of her type who could ever have met so awful a fate, she had inwardly raged all through the week, anticipating her own degeneration. And here before her, after fifteen years of it, there had stepped, as if straight out of an English drawing-room, this silkbegowned old aristocrat, fragrant with the scent of violets. In a burst of gratitude for her presence in such a place she unbent.
“Oh, I am so glad to find you here,” she said.
Mrs. Brayton smiled.
“Well, you're something of a discovery yourself. We must do all we can for each other. You must have a garden and fowls. Nobody can be despondent with fowls about. I have grown to love animals, even pigs. You must make Roland put up a fence and fix up a fowl run. Haven't you any books?”
“Only a few. I have not unpacked them yet.”
“What a mistake. It might have done you good to look at them. I have quite a library. You can have as many books as you want. I have brought you Mrs. Humphry Ward's latest, and a wonderful new novel called The Story of an African Farm, by an Olive Schreiner, new writer to me. But perhaps you have seen them?”
“I have not, and I shall be very glad to read them,” said Alice gratefully. “It was very kind of you to bring them.”
“Do you read French?” asked Mrs. Brayton, laying the books on the table.
“That's good. Do you know Voltaire?”
“Now, don't say you're a Puritan,” said the old lady, who had guessed she was.
“I'm afraid I am, rather,” answered Alice doubtfully.
“Then you must be cured. Puritanism is an awful dis-page 39ease. You must read Voltaire. I consider him as valuable as the Bible. I shouldn't like to face the world without him. Are you a churchwoman?” To Mrs. Brayton there was only one “Church.”
“No, I am not,” replied Alice uncomfortably.
“Not a Wesleyan, I hope,” in obvious alarm.
Alice laughed suddenly, her whole face lighting up. Mrs. Brayton thought it was a pity she did not laugh oftener.
“No, I am a Presbyterian.”
“Oh, that's all right,” with great relief. “It's a state church anyway, and they do educate their parsons. We have a nice young curate in this diocese. He will be coming to see you. I hope you will come to the Kaiwaka church sometimes. There is no Presbyterian church anywhere about.”
“Thank you, I will come.”
“Dear me,”—Mrs. Brayton rose—“I shall be left out in the dark if I stay any longer. I want you and your husband to come to have dinner with me some day next week, say Friday.”
“Oh, thank you,” as they walked towards the door, “but I can't leave the children.”
“That's true. Well, I'll get Eliza King. She's a good, reliable girl. She lives at Kaiwaka, and often works for me. I'll send her down to look after them. They will be quite safe. She's excellent with children. And she will ride, and can go home at any hour. She is not afraid.”
“But, please, I can't allow——”
“You will just allow me to do as I please, my dear. You can't come without some one to look after your children. I want you to come. I'm pining to know how the world looks nowadays. I'm just as glad to discover you as you may be to find me. I shall send Eliza King on Friday. And come early in the afternoon so that you can see my garden. Oh, and bring Asia—yes, now, I won't forgive you if you don't. And don't say you haven't any clothes, or any nonsense of that kind. As you have told your child, it isn't what we page 40 have, it's what we are that counts. If you talk philosophy to your child, live up to it.”
They had walked out of the front door and round the house. At Mrs. Brayton's last words Alice laughed again, meeting the old lady's eyes.
“What a joy to have such a child,” said Mrs. Brayton.
Before Alice could reply they came in sight of the back door and David Bruce, who had some fresh fish in his hand. He put them down on the doorstep, and turned.
“Oh, David, how are you?” cried the old lady. “I've expected you up for your violin.”
“I can't shake hands, I'm fishy,” he said, raising his cap to them.
“Well, if you are not busy you can walk up to the fence with me, and see me through. I nearly tore my dress coming down.”
“Good-bye, my dear,” said Mrs. Brayton, turning to Alice. “I shall see you next week, and remember when you are inclined to feel blue that, whatever happens, you will have an Englishwoman, and”—with a nod at Bruce—“an Englishman to see you through.” The gloved hand rested for a moment on Alice's arm.
Alice mumbled something, but could not keep a tremble from her lips. She turned away hurriedly, went inside, locked herself into her room, and wept.
After saying good-bye to Asia, who had rushed at her from the kitchen, Mrs. Brayton stepped out with Bruce up the field.
“I've invited the Rolands to dinner next Friday. Can you come too?” She looked quizzically at him.
He smiled back at her.
“Not with them just yet, please.”
“I see. She hasn't discovered you.”
“That's nicely put. She is very young and uncertain.”
“And very proud and conservative. But very attractive, page 41 isn't she? What the devil made her marry a man like Tom Roland?”
“Hanged if I can guess. He has great qualities, but I doubt if they appeal to her.”
“She won't like his skirmishes with other women.”
“Well, my dear lady, what woman would?”
Mrs. Brayton laughed.
“Oh, some of them don't worry. They go and do likewise.”
“I dare say. Should you think of suggesting it to Mrs. Roland?”
“Don't be absurd, David. Heavens! But she is armorplated, isn't she? If I had a husband like that and a child like that I should find it rather a strain keeping up the family dignity.”
“I should say she does.”
“We must educate her out of it.”
“Yes? I think you'd better go gently.”
“Oh, I have won her now, David. It's you who have the work to do,” laughed the old lady. “It is rather a dramatic thing, isn't it, that a group like that should have landed up here?” She looked round at the mountain, the river and the bush.
“It's just as dramatic that you should have landed here,” he smiled. “I should like to see her face when she meets your house and garden.”
He held the wires of the fence apart for her, stood a moment as she walked on, and then returned to the bay.