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The Story of a New Zealand River


page 89


for a week Alice hovered between life and death, knowing nothing. In that time there was a hush upon the bay. Bruce had stopped punt building on the beach, and hammering and clanging in the blacksmith's shop and on the tramway. The men were careful not to call or shout within hearing of the house on the cliffs.

Alice learned by degrees afterwards how everybody had rallied round her, and how well she had been cared for. Mrs. Brayton had sent Eliza King for Betty and Mabel, prepared to keep them all with her indefinitely. Dorrie Harding came at once with the messenger Bruce had sent by the river, and she and Mrs. Brayton together made broths and jellies equal to anything a city hospital could have produced.

It was well in the second week before Alice dimly realized that Bruce was one of the people who moved about her in that misty world of fact that encompassed her bed. She was not surprised to see him, or annoyed to see him, or glad to see him. She accepted him as she did the others as part of that reality that her mind struggled at intervals to catch, but always failed to grasp with any degree of clearness. She was a body only. She felt merely pillows moved about her, warmth put to her feet, aches and pains soothed, wetness and dryness upon her skin, an interminable succession of teaspoons put into her mouth.

At the end of two weeks she had her first lucid moment. She clearly saw Dorrie Harding in the chair beside her bed.

“You here,” she whispered faintly.

Dorrie leaned forward, smiling.

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“You mustn't talk,” she said softly.

“Have I been ill?” Alice disobeyed.

“Yes, but you are getting better. Now be good.”

Alice's eyes closed and her mind grew foggy again. An hour later she recognized Mrs. King as somebody she had never seen before, but she was too weak to speculate about her. As her moments of consciousness increased she began to watch them moving about the room. In a day or two she seemed to be looking for something. Her eyes often wandered to the door. Her head turned at sounds. She missed something, but she did not know what it was she missed.

“Asia,” said Bruce, when they told him. “Let her go in and hold her hand. But she mustn't talk.”

But Alice continued to look for something. One night she remembered what it was. She had not seen Bruce for days. He had been in her room, but only when she was asleep. She could not yet remember what lay behind her illness, what the cause of it was, or about the baby, or anything of her former relation to Bruce. She only knew that she wanted him, that it was as uncomfortable not to have him as it was to be cold or faint.

“Hasn't somebody else been here?” she asked Mrs. Harding the next morning.

“When?” asked Dorrie.

“Last week when I was very ill—— I thought there was some one.”

“Oh, no, dear, just Mrs. King and I; we are taking care of you.”

Dorrie lied according to agreement. In the first week she and Mrs. Brayton and David Bruce had held a cabinet meeting on the situation, all deciding that it would be best for the present that Alice should not know the details of her accident, or that Bruce had been alone with her when the baby was born. They all felt that would be rather too large a dose of life for her to swallow without some preparation. They agreed to let her think for as long as possible that Mrs. King had been at once available, and that Dr. Mount page 91 had come when he was sent for. Mrs. King, Asia, and Roland, when he returned, were all duly drilled in the story to be told.

But Alice crept back to convalescence haunted by that memory in the shadows. And as her questions were answered, and as she began to remember, she felt more and more hurt that David Bruce, a doctor, had never been near her. Though she would have been startled had he actually appeared, the thought that he did not come began to obsess her. Once or twice she felt a little suspicious about those two blank weeks, and wondered if they were telling her the truth.

Asia had been allowed to look in at her mother early in the illness. Bruce saw that it would help her to see that she was really there, still looking like herself except that she was very white.

The illness had intensified her feeling for her mother. She was consumed with a passion of sacrifice for her because she had suffered. She formed resolutions of patience and usefulness that would have amazed her elders. But, as she stood beside the bed looking at Alice, Asia felt fearfully that in some way the accident had taken her mother away from her, and set her apart. It was her first conception of the infinite loneliness of human beings.

But she had exaltations as well as sorrows. She learned what a wonderful thing it was to have Bruce and Dorrie Harding praise her, and to see their eyes smile at her resourcefulness. There were days when she floated on air, dizzy with the passion of sacrifice. In those two weeks she experienced emotions that aged her by years.

Roland had returned in the second week. The telegrams that Bruce had sent after him had failed to reach him for days. When he got them he rode furiously from Auckland in an almost impossible time, ruining a good horse in the process, to find he was only a cipher in the crisis. He had to live in the men's kitchen, and was not allowed to see Alice till the third week. He behaved perfectly, and made page 92 no trouble for anybody. In a situation where he knew he was no use he was surprisingly tractable.

In telling him of the accident Bruce spoke plainly:

“Your wife ought never to be left alone. She is far too highly strung.”

“Well, she doesn't have to be. I didn't know she was nervous. She never said anything. In future you'd better look after her when I'm away.”

Bruce had not expected this. He had thought of Eliza King. He could not help smiling at Roland's simple and natural suggestion.

“Mrs. Roland might object to that,” he said.

“Oh, pooh! She's got to get used to it.”

“Well, Bob Hargraves or somebody would always be available. And there's another thing. You won't mind my saying it. No woman ought to do heavy lifting. We men are damned thoughtless about those things. I found Mrs. Roland lifting that camp oven the very day of her illness. That alone might be enough to injure her for life.”

“I see,” said the boss gratefully, “she doesn't have to lift it. If she'd only told me——”

“I know,” said Bruce.

Roland had this conversation in mind the first time he was allowed to talk to Alice. As she sat propped up in bed he sat affectionately beside her, holding her hand. The fact that he had missed the telegrams because he was having a honeymoon with an adventurous widow drove him to an excessive demonstration of care. He was always beginning afresh, seeing very clearly himself that he was about to improve. His way was paved with good intentions. But he forgot that when other people looked behind they saw not even the ghost of a good intention, but only the substantial footprints of ill-considered deeds. He was now in a mood to make all sorts of amends.

“Why didn't you tell me you were nervous?” he plunged. “You don't have to be alone. Whenever I'm away you can have Bruce here. I've told him.”

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Wildly startled, Alice stared at him.

“But you know that can't be,” she exclaimed.

“Can't be! Fiddlesticks! Why?”

“Why!” She did not know what she meant. “Think how people would talk,” she added lamely.

“People! Bunkum! Where are they? The men, do you mean? I'd shoot any damned one of 'em who ever mentioned the subject. But they won't mention it. They've got some sense. And even if they don't know you they know Bruce. There's nothing to worry about in that.” And that was all he saw in it.

Alice lay back gasping.

“And look here,” he went on, “for God's sake tell me when you want that camp oven moved. You can't expect me to think of everything, and I don't know when you want things done unless you tell me. You don't have to lift it, or anything else. And when I'm away there are plenty of men about. You can trust 'em. They're not savages.”

He thought he was doing quite well, and he could not understand why she lay back white and cold. He began to tap his feet nervously. With a glimmer of understanding Alice began to ask him questions about people they knew in Auckland, and in return he tried to be newsy. But when Mrs. King told him it was time for him to go he got up with a sense of relief, and whistling cheerfully to hide his conviction of failure, he went out, resolved to go to the new cottage of Bob Jones, his head contractor, to see if he could assist the newly arrived bride, a buxom and cheerful girl, to get settled.

Later in the evening Dorrie reported to Bruce that Alice had some fever.

“Lord! I hope he didn't tell her anything. If she is wakeful give her a powder,” he advised.

Alice needed the powder. After her husband left her, her thoughts began to whirl in circles round her brain. She could not think a sentence to the end. Bruce had talked about the camp oven. Every one knew she was nervous. page 94 Bruce had never been near her—had he been? Why didn't he come? She didn't want him to come. What had he said about the camp oven? Why had he said it? Who had found her that night? It must have been Bruce—was it Bruce? Who sent for Mrs. King? Had Dr. Mount really come? Who was the man in the shadows—had there been a man? Who buried her baby? Who was the man in the yard? What made her ill—was it the camp oven? Why didn't Bruce come to see her—just as a doctor? And so on; a maddening medley, without beginning and without end.