The Story of a New Zealand River
asia, it's time you went to bed.” Alice did not say it convincingly, for she dreaded being alone. “Yes, Mother,” said the child, understanding that it was not an order, and making no attempt to move. She sat in a tangled attitude on the narrow sofa, her head bent low over a dilapidated Boys' Own Annual that Roland had bought for her at an auction sale in Auckland, her brains on fire with the adventures of a party of explorers in The Silver Canyon.
The glow of the open fire, rivalling that of the kerosene lamp, played on the bare walls of the front room. It had been lined, but was still unpapered. A plain, oblong table, with a flowered cover, stood in the centre. The floor was now covered with a new linoleum of much too large a pattern—Roland's choice—but there were no rugs. On the narrow mantelpiece was a row of Alice's books, Tennyson, Browning, Charlotte Brontë, Cowper's poems, Drummond's Ascent of Man, Butler's Analogy, Paley's Evidences, The Pilgrim's Progress, and some children's books—Line Upon Line, Peep of Day, and more modern ones issued by the Religious Tract Society. There were no knickknacks anywhere, and no pictures. Alice's piano, which seemed to fill up half the room, suggested magic rather than plain fact.
Alice sat with a heap of mending beside her, but she was so restless that she could hardly sew. She had been getting more and more wrought up each day since her husband had left for Auckland. On his previous absences she had been nervous enough, but she thought that as time went on she would get used to it. Now the responsibility of the money imposed upon her nervous condition was driving her fast toward hysteria. The appearance of the tramps that page 82 day was the last straw. After they had gone she worked herself into a fever fighting her desire to send for Bruce. The mere sight of him, she felt, would steady her nerves, and she wanted to be sure that he was about. But she did not want him to know that she was frightened, she did not want him to offer to do anything. She only wanted to be sure that he was there, within reach.
For over an hour she had kept going to the window to look for him, but not once had she caught a glimpse of him. Finally, unable to resist the impulse, she had sent Asia after him, and had then dreaded his appearance, not knowing what she could say. His words about the tramps had somewhat reassured her, but his words about the camp oven had charged her with another kind of excitement. It seemed to her to be such an intimate incident. He had assumed the right to take her in hand, and she knew she had been helpless to resist him. After he had gone she sat down, sick and trembling, her nervousness increased. She thought of sending to ask Mrs. Brayton to come down to stay with her. But she felt this would be an appalling confession of cowardice. She knew she would have to be alone again and again, and she told herself she had to get used to it. But, as the evening wore on, she wondered how she could possibly get through another sleepless night.
She jumped up suddenly, walked to the front door, opened it and looked down upon the starlit river, and up at Pukekaroro, looming dark against the moon. Then she heard the sound of Bruce's violin. She stood there listening till the music stopped. Then she found that she was very cold. She shut the door and put more wood on the fire.
She tried the experiment of repeating hymns and religious poetry. But she was terrified to find that the thought of God failed to help her. It grew late, but she said nothing more about Asia's going to bed. When it was nearly eleven, however, the child got up of her own accord, kissed her mother good night, lit her candle, and went out through the kitchen to her little room, which opened off it. The one page 83 window opened towards the back with a view of the bare hill.
Asia did not undress. Instead, she put on an old astrakhan jacket, and knelt down to pray that her mother would cease to be afraid. Then she took a dark blanket off her bed, wrapped it round her legs, and sat down by her open window, gently pushing it open further till the lower sash was up as far as it would go. She meant to watch for David Bruce. Since she had begun to read the Boys' Own, her mind had been a ferment of adventure and romance. Men were wonderful beings, she thought. She was full of exaggerated notions of their strength, their beauty, their tenderness, their care for women. Precocious beyond her mother's imagining, she knew also that there was something else, something mysterious, that made them creatures to be looked up to, feared and obeyed.
She had known the first night that she had seen David Bruce in the back yard that he was there to do something for them, and she instinctively felt that he was in some way taking the place of Roland. She knew he must be cold and uncomfortable, and she immediately made of him a hero. With his big body, and his kind eyes, and his gentle ways, and his unafraidness, he seemed to her the very incarnation of all the heroisms of her favorite heroes in the Boys' Own. And because he was a hero she had to be the heroine. And she would rescue him from the cold. This night she meant to make him come in to her bed, while she indulged in a riot of sacrifice by sleeping on the mat. So she sat watching for him.
Bruce crept cautiously by way of the cliffs to the paling fence at the back of the yard, and sat down on a low stump. From the store he had seen the light still burning in the front room, and he was afraid lest Alice should look out. He was not at all easy in his own mind about the money. There was more than one man in the boss's employ to whom £400 would be a formidable magnet. It would be easy for any one of them to get away to one of the great page 84 northern gum-fields, lie low for a time, and then ship by way of a timber vessel to Australia. So Bruce had let the impression gain ground among the men that he was staying at night in the boss's house on guard. They all knew he was armed.
This night Bruce was very weary, and he wondered how he was going to keep awake. He sat on till he was sure Alice must have gone to bed. Then he made his way slowly round the fence to the side gate and got safely into the yard without having made a sound. He started as he caught sight of Asia at the window, and shook his fist at her. He could see her mouth opening and shutting silently, and her fingers beckoning, but he waved her back.
Just then, as she sat in a frenzy of fear over the dying coals in the front room, Alice felt there was somebody about. With a courage born of sheer desperation, and to save herself from screaming she jumped up, moved to the front window and pushed aside the blind. But there was nothing to be seen in the moonlight but the things that were there by day. Then she walked quietly out into the kitchen. Asia, hearing her, gasped and gesticulated wildly at Bruce, who did not see her as he turned to pick up his rug.
Alice went straight to the kitchen window, and pulled aside the blind. She saw the figure of a man crouching in the yard. She gave one frenzied shriek, and fell in a heap on the floor.
Sick and trembling, Asia rushed to unlock the back door. Bruce almost fell over her.
“Light a candle,” he cried, as he dashed into the kitchen. By the light of it he gathered up Alice's contorted body, carried her into her room, and laid her on her bed. “Get me a pencil and paper.”
Asia ran to get her own candle, found her pencil and a piece of a paper bag, and hit her big toe badly as she ran back to him. He almost snatched the things from her and dashed off a note.page 85
“Take that to the kitchen, give it to Bob Hargraves, and tell him not to lose a minute. And, child,” he was now aware of her scared face, “don't be afraid, be brave. I shall want you badly to-night. Come back as fast as you can.” He gripped her shoulders with hands unaware of their strength, and put more into her than he dreamed.
Primed with those words and that grip she flew to the kitchen, hammered on the door, and gasped her message to the first man who spoke. Bob was one of the few men in camp who owned pyjamas, which he stuck to in spite of much chaffing. He did not wait to change after reading Bruce's note, but snatched up a case of instruments from Bruce's chest, and yelling “Get a horse, somebody,” he bounded out of the door, and got to the boss's house with Asia chains behind him. Back at the kitchen, he slipped on his lightest boots, and rode off as he was, bareheaded, for the only maternity nurse Kaiwaka possessed.
When Asia got back she found that Bruce had already made up the front room fire. Directly he heard her come to the bedroom door, he said:
“I must get the children into your room.”
As he carried them out they woke and fretted, but she soothed them to sleep again. She had only just got them quiet when she heard Bruce calling her.
With a fierce excitement burning her from head to foot she hurried to and fro getting the things he had ordered. Action kept her thoughts busy. She did not feel the finger she scalded or the toe bleeding inside her woollen slipper. She felt that she was important, and that she had a fine opportunity to show Bruce how useful she could be.
It was not until she sat down with everything ready that she began to wonder what it was all about. She could not bear the inaction. She felt that something strange and terrifying was going on in that closed room, and she wanted to go in and help. She knew she would not be so frightened if she could see. She went desperately to her mother's door.page 86
“Mr. Bruce, the water is all ready,” she cried miserably.
“All right. Don't come in. Go back to the kitchen,” he called curtly.
Before she had been back there long Bruce was calling for hot and cold water.
Action helped her again. She hurried with two jugs to the bedroom door. He took them without looking at her, and quickly closed the door, shutting her out from that horrible unknown. She wanted to scream, to beat her hands upon the door and beg to be let in. She felt that whatever it was if she could only stand beside Bruce she would feel better. Then she remembered that he had told her to be brave. She went back to the kitchen, and made up the fire there to keep herself warm.
In spite of her efforts tears poured down her cheeks, but she was careful not to be heard.
As she shook and sobbed the bedroom door opened, and Bruce called her again.
“Bring me a little hot milk; don't boil it.”
That helped her. Hot milk was such a plain everyday fact. She prepared it carefully, and called from the front room when it was ready.
This time he saw her face.
“Oh, child.” Again his hand gripped her shoulder. “Don't be frightened. She is going to get better now. Be brave.”
Tears of relief rushed to her eyes. But he had no more time to spare for her. Once again he turned and shut the door.
Asia walked back to the kitchen fire sufficiently relieved to begin to be conscious of her burn and her bruised toe. She looked at the blister on her hand, and wondered if she had better put some vinegar on it. But she was now almost too tired to bother. She sank down on the sack in front of the fire, and believing that her mother was really better, she fell asleep.
She was partly roused by the sounds of a horse's hoofs page 87 galloping up the slope to the cottage. As in a dream she heard Bruce walk through the kitchen to meet Mrs. King at the back door.
“’Ope I'm in time. I was away with Eliza at the Hakaru dance,” puffed the steaming countrywoman.
“It's over,” Bruce said. “Child born dead. She's very low. She will have to have very careful nursing. I gave a little chloroform. I'll send for Mount. There may be complications——” Their voices died away in the front room.
At last Bruce came into the kitchen. Asia rose stiffly from the floor half dazed and rubbing her eyes.
“Poor child,” he said, holding her tight against him.
She sat up in his arms, feeling better and safe now that he was there.
“Why, look at your hand,” he said.
“Oh, I scalded it,” she said in a tired voice. “And my toe hurts too.”
“Dear me, we must doctor you now,” he said lightly. He was distressed to see how exhausted she looked. So he made a great fuss over her burn and her badly bruised toe, and bandaged them both carefully with rags, and was glad to see that he had successfully taken some of the shock out of her. Then they heated some hot milk, and drank it together, and then he ordered her to bed.
“Will you come and tuck me in?” For the first time since the accident she resembled her old self.
“I will,” he smiled.
He went into her little room when she called to say she was ready. Her red and swollen eyes glowed at him from the pillow. The babies slept peacefully on their mattress on the floor. As he tucked her in, Asia flung her arms round his neck.
“I think you're just—just beautiful,” she choked, looking into his tired, lined face.
“Now, don't think I'm a hero out of a story book. I'm page 88 just a mere mortal. And you've been a fine brave girl. Now go to sleep, because there will be a lot for you to do to-morrow. Good night.” He kissed her on the forehead.
He was relieved to see five minutes afterwards that she was already asleep.
Feeling pretty much of a wreck, he went to consult with Mrs. King. When he saw that the patient was resting safely, he threw himself down on the inadequate sofa in the front room to get a little rest before daybreak.