The Story of a New Zealand River
alice sat on a box in the back garden looking down the river. The sun had set, but opaline ghosts of clouds still trailed their “ravelled fleeces” across the pale lemon of the western sky. The cliffs of the river gap were fast merging into the wall of haze that deepened and spread from the horizon. The river ran silently undisturbed by leaping fish. The wekas were just beginning to shriek from the forest.
Alice drew her heavy cape around her, for the tang of winter was still in the air. She had seen that day the glow of a yellow kowhai in the bush, and had heard the croaky call of a tui trying out his throat in readiness for his flute song on the first real spring day. Bees had buzzed about their new garden, and Asia had declared that morning that she had found the first daffodil bud in her own little flower-bed. But the promise of spring had failed to inspire Alice. There was no response in her as she sat there looking down upon the river. She had spent a winter of glorious discontent.
The more she had tried to prop herself against her gods, the more she had tried to console herself with fixed principles, the more inadequate she had found them. They had not kept her from looking through the windows to watch for David Bruce as he came and went along the paths about the bay. They had not kept her from listening to his violin. They had not kept her from flushing when she met him unexpectedly.
The biggest cause of her uneasiness was that she had begun to question the verities. If you live beside a river sooner or later you have to. You can't help sitting beside it, and listening to it, and watching the water go by. And page 112 then you wonder idly where all the water comes from and where it goes, and when it began to run and why, and if it will ever end and why. And your thoughts run with it and change with it. And you go out at night to look at the stars reflected in the dark depths of it, and then you look up at the stars themselves, and you ask when and why again. And little by little you wonder if all that men have said about them is true, and who the first man was who said it. And you would like to be quite sure that he was inspired by God.
And that brings you to God. Is he up there, and what does he look like? And when you begin to wonder what God looks like you have reached the half-way house to the heights of scepticism. He must look like something or somebody, but whom and what? And does he really hear your prayers, and does he really care? And if he does not hear your prayers, what then? And if he does not care, what then?
Alice had reached a stage of mental convulsions when she no longer clearly saw God in His heaven and all right with the world.
Other fears, too, had been closing in upon her, fears that she could not crush or sweep aside. She had never been really well since her illness in the autumn. Lately the conviction had grown upon her that the first blow had been struck at her fine health. She was getting nerves. She became more and more nauseated by the terrible vitality of her husband. It was being stimulated this very day, she knew, by the sportive widow who had recently bought the Hakaru pub. Roland had not disguised the fact that he was going to see her. She was a good sensible woman, be said, and he wanted her to pick out likely men among her customers, and send them to him for jobs. Alice had not remarked aloud that it took a good many visits to arrange this simple matter.
Then, for two weeks now, she had feared that she was going to have another child. She had not expected to feel page 113 so badly about it. She had married knowing she would have children, that it was her duty to have them, that God approved of large families, that she ought to love and welcome all her children, and that she ought to feel a renewed exaltation in the knowledge that another was to come. But now she did not feel any of these things. She felt only a dumb rage, a sick helplessness, a fierce rebellion. And she had wondered more than once if it really was as wicked as she had been told to rebel against the word of God.
Everything immediately around her this Sunday conspired to drive her to distraction. The children had been unusually exasperating, and Asia, who could have helped her, had been away, Alice did not know where, the whole afternoon. She had merely asked her mother if she could go for a walk along the beach. For some time Alice had not been alarmed about her, thinking she might have gone to Mrs. Brayton. But now it was dark, and she knew the old lady would not have allowed her to stay so late. She fidgeted on her box, straining her ears for the sound of returning footsteps. Her fear soon got the best of her. She began to walk round the house listening and looking, and feeling worse every minute.
On her second round she stopped, her eyes turned towards a new shanty standing by itself at the foot of the green hill, well away from the back of the men's kitchen. Bruce had moved into it only a few days before. Alice had learned from Asia, whom she had allowed to go to see it, that he had a “carpet,” a stretcher bed, books, tables, a cupboard for his clothes, and a special box for his violin. She had looked so often in its direction that she hoped no one had noticed. She could not tell now whether he was home or not, for she knew that his western window had a thick green blind.
As she looked she felt a sudden desire to go to him, and then an equally strong determination to fight this desire. She looked upon her attitude to Bruce that winter as her one great achievement. Although it still upset her inwardly page 114 to meet him, she felt that outwardly she had gained in poise. She had met his naturalness with what she thought was naturalness in return. She had been pleasant, but she never relaxed her vigilance as to the beginning. She had never asked him in. She never let conversation linger. She always assumed that he had urgent business with her husband. She knew that he must think it extraordinary that she had never referred to her illness, that she had never thanked him for what he had done for her. She had never sent for him. She had never stayed in the sitting-room on the evenings when he had worked with her husband. It tortured her to think that he must despise her, but she saw no other way of going on.
Now, however, the temptation to send for him grew more irresistible every minute. The better to fight it she went inside. She paced restlessly from the kitchen to the front room and back again, torn between her fear that something had happened to Asia and her craving to go for the man who could best help her. She looked into her room to see that Betty and Mabel were safely asleep, and had turned into the kitchen again, distracted, when Asia rushed in, bursting with excitement, her eyes aflame with adventure, far too preoccupied to notice the state of her mother's nerves.
“Oh, Mother,” she panted, “we've found a cave, and Maori shells and bones, and this beautiful bit of greenstone.”
But there was no response to her enthusiasm. Alice's reaction was swift and overwhelming.
“We!” she said sternly.
Asia felt a sudden chill. “It was only Reggie Broad, Mother. I met him on the beach. We explored some bush, just like a real party. It——” But the words froze on her lips. She could no longer face her mother's eyes.
“Reggie Broad went with you into the bush!”
With a sinking feeling Asia felt that it was an awful accusation. Reggie Broad was a coarse, rough boy, the son of the Kaiwaka storeman, who had recently come up from page 115 Auckland. Alice realized his type, but to Asia he was a mine of information and amusement. They had had a thrilling and innocently joyous afternoon. That was all she knew. She faced, her mother squarely.
“We didn't hurt anything,” she said.
Alice moved a step towards her. She was now thoroughly unstrung.
“How long were you with him?”
“Oh, I don't know, Mother,” she stammered, “since dinner.—I—we didn't do anything wrong.”
“You've been for hours in the bush with that boy!”
Asia choked as her mother seized her by the shoulder, and hurried her into her own room. Then she left her, shutting the door behind her, only to return a moment later with a strap. As the child saw the horrible thing that was about to happen she became faint.
“You wicked girl,” cried Alice, grasping her arm. “How could you go away like that with that boy? You should have come to ask me—I don't know what's come over you lately—you must not do things unless you ask me. You must never speak to him again. Do you hear me—you are never to talk to boys or go anywhere with them. I must make you remember it——”
The suddenness and the inexplicableness of this first beating turned Asia into a raving little demon.
“I hate you! I hate you!” she shouted at her mother. “I hate God! I don't believe there is any. I like Mr. Bruce better than you—he wouldn't beat me for nothing. What have I done? Go away! I hate you! You'll never be my mother again. I won't live with you! I hate you!” And then howls and shrieks of rage.
“Oh, you wicked girl!” gasped Alice, astonished and frightened by this outburst.
Asia did not realize for some minutes afterwards that she was alone. She screamed and howled, goading herself to frenzy. When she had exhausted herself she staggered to her window, cautiously pushed it up, and dropped out. page 116 She shot off in the dusk to the cliff where she scrambled and slid down by the roots of the big totara to the sand, and with nothing in her mind but the desire to get away alone she ran sobbing and whimpering along the beach to a little wooded dell, a fern-bowered spot, beloved of yellowhammers and moreporks and tuis, and enlivened by the cheerfullest of streams that trickled over polished stones into the tide below.
The dell was Asia's Bible. If the babies had been very cross she stole off to it to calm her fretted nerves. If she failed to reach Alice's standard of patience in looking for the cow or in keeping the fowls out of the vegetables, it was to the dell she went to have it out with her turbulent soul.
She reached it now breathless, falling down in the grass on a small headland that stretched out into the mangroves. There she lay dazed for over an hour. Then her lips began to twitch, and with a rush came the scalding tears.
“She beat me!” she choked at intervals, broken-hearted. “She beat me.”
She drew up her aching body, and sat with her chin on her knees, trying to find a reason for it, trying to believe it all a hideous dream, trying to think of the mother she had known that morning, the mother she now felt was gone for ever. She turned her swollen face up to the stars.
“Oh, why did she beat me?” she moaned. “I can't understand it a bit.” She kept her face strained upwards to the stars, hard as crystal in the cold sky. But they did not comfort her, or divert her from the tragedy of her wrecked world. She looked wildly round the dell, and on to the still river, both things she had grown to love, but there was no comfort there either, no voice to reassure her, or tell her it was all a mistake. As she sat on anger began to take the place of bewilderment and sorrow. She felt the beating had been unjust. It had fallen upon her out of a clear sky. She had not known it was wrong to go away with Reggie. And why was it wrong?page 117
She puzzled over this till she realized suddenly that it must be very late, later than she had ever been out before. She sprang to her feet, and turned mechanically homewards. Then she remembered that her mother might be angry again and beat her again. It never occurred to her that Alice might be anxious about her. Suddenly she felt she could not go home. She did not love her mother any more. She could not bear to face her. She wondered if she could not sleep in the monkey-house she had made for herself in a ti-tree in the dell. But it was cold, and she was shivering. She began to weep pitifully, like a lost child. Then she remembered Mrs. Brayton.
It was eleven o'clock, and the old lady was undressing when she heard a step on her veranda and a knock on her window-pane.
“Who is it?” she called.
“Asia,” in a voice hardly recognizable.
“Good gracious!” Mrs. Brayton hurried with her candle to the front door. “Child,” she cried, “what has happened?”
Poor Asia stumbled in with a fresh rush of tears.
“She beat me,” she sobbed, clinging to the amazed old lady.
It was some time before anything else could be got from her, but bit by bit Mrs. Brayton pieced together the story.
After closing the door upon Asia, Alice went into her room, and fell into her rocking chair, crushing her hands into her temples. Paralyzing reactions always followed her rare outbursts. It was some minutes before she could think. Then a wave of remorse swept over her. She knew she had been cruelly unjust, that she had done the child a wrong she could never right, and that it would haunt her for years. The sight of Asia's agonized and bewildered face, distorted out of all recognition, danced before her, and the things the child had said rang in her ears. Was it possible that her own lack of control had so affected Asia that she raged blindly, or was she saying what she believed? page 118 The thought appalled her. She pressed her fingers into her eyeballs to blot out the sight. She closed her hands over her ears to shut out the sound of those defiant cries.
Then she began to cry, and all the pent up feelings of that day and the weeks before it found an outlet in her drenching tears. She told herself she was a wicked woman, and that she deserved to suffer. At last, weak and pulverized, she got up, bathed her face, and went to make up the kitchen fire which had burned low. The tea that she had prepared stood untouched, the two chairs ready for herself and Asia. Alice was faint with hunger, but she could not eat alone. She knew that before she did anything else she must apologize. An apology was to her an absurdly momentous affair. An apology to her own child was entirely outside her experience. It was the first time she had ever felt called upon to make one. Nobody could ever know what it meant to her to walk to Asia's door, open it and go in. It meant so much that it was a minute or two before she realized that the room was empty.
“Asia,” she muttered stupidly, staring at the open window.
As she was sure the child must be somewhere near she went outside and round the house, calling softly. She looked in the woodshed, she walked to the back fence, and she called up into the field and over towards the cliffs. Then she wondered if Asia had gone to David Bruce. The thought that she might have told him the story filled her cup of humiliation to overflowing. But when she went inside and saw that it was long after nine o'clock she knew this had not happened, for Bruce would not have kept her so late. For some time she fought the suspicion that kept coming to her mind. She walked from room to room with the restlessness of a wolf in a cage, getting more worked up with every step she took. At ten o'clock, as she stood desperate in the kitchen, resolved finally to go for Bruce, she heard steps. For the minute she thought they were his, but it was Roland who opened the back door.page 119
“Hullo!” he began gaily. “What's up?” His face was flushed.
“I can't find Asia. She has been away for hours. I'm sure something has happened to her.”
“Oh, nonsense!” he replied, failing to gauge her state of mind. “You're always alarmed about nothing. She'll turn up presently.” And moving forward with some show of affection, he put his arm round her and tried to kiss her.
She sprang from him, her eyes blazing.
“What do you mean?” she cried furiously. “Do you realize that my child may be lying drowned in the river? She has been away since midday”—the lie was deliberate—“will you go out at once and get men to look for her, or must I go myself?”
He stared at her for a few seconds, too astonished by her outbreak to speak. She was something totally different from anything he had thought her to be. He was startled by the hate and disgust in her eyes. But he put that down to the frenzied state that he now saw she was in.
“Heavens, yes! Don't get excited. I'll get them,” he said impatiently.
It was not till he got outside that he realized what a business it would be trying to find any one at that time of night. But he went to the kitchen, where the men were nearly all in bed, and asked for volunteers.
Every man got up, and started out with what lanterns there were to search the bay and the bush around it, the boss leading.
A little after eleven o'clock Bruce rode up to the stable near the kitchen, and unsaddled and fed his horse. He had been away all day at Kaiwaka at a bad case, and was tired and hungry. As he saw a dim light through the kitchen window he decided he would get something to eat before going to his shanty. When he opened the door he rubbed his eyes to see if he were awake or dreaming. One nickel lamp, burning low and smelling vilely, intensified the unusualness of the scene. The place was silent with the un-page 120canny silence of a schoolroom at night. Not a man was visible. The dark blankets and night shirts of all kinds trailed over the sides of the beds and on the floor, telling of unexpected haste and confusion. The green eyes of the kitchen cat surveyed him suspiciously from a deserted bunk.
“What the devil!” exclaimed Bruce, backing suddenly, and running to the corner of the building. He looked at once in the direction of the boss's house, and saw that it was lit up. He caught a glimmer of two lights in the bush across the bay, and heard what he took to be a distant call and an answer. Without waiting to encourage his presentiment he began to sprint for the cottage. As he neared it he saw that a figure standing by the front gate turned swiftly and moved towards him.
Bruce was not prepared for his reception. Rushing up to him, Alice clutched his arm with both her hands, her hot eyes boring the darkness.
“Oh, have you found her?” she cried.
Startled though he was, the healer in him came automatically to the surface. He caught and held her hands, and looked down into her face.
“What is it, Mrs. Roland? I've been away all day; just got back. What's happened?”
“Lost! How? Where?”
“I don't know. She ran away—she may be drowned. For God's sake do something——”
He still held her hands, and she looked as if she was about to fall against him. She had never consciously been so near to him before. He saw that her reserves had melted. But, as that was not the time to speculate, he gripped her hands a little harder and spoke quickly.
“I can do nothing till you tell me more. When did she run away, and why?”
“It's my fault,” she choked, the confession bursting from her, her pride gone. “I—I whipped her. She was away all the afternoon with that boy—Reggie Broad. She came page 121 home about six and I was so nervous—I didn't think what I was doing—I beat her. It was all wrong. And when I went to look for her she was gone. She may be drowned——”
“She is not drowned or lost,” he interrupted firmly. “It would never occur to the child to drown herself. She has gone out and cried herself to sleep somewhere, that's all. Are they looking for her?”
His conviction and his presence steadied her, and she was conscious that he was still holding her hands.
“Yes,” she answered, dropping her eyes.
“Oh, all about, I think, but they haven't found her——” Her voice broke again.
“Has any one gone to that little dell along the beach?”
“I don't know.”
“Or Mrs. Brayton? Did you think of that? She might go there?”
“But she would have sent to say.”
“Yes, but it would take time. Mrs. Roland, go in and get hold of yourself, and stop worrying. I'll get my horse. I know she is somewhere about. She is neither dead nor lost. She will be found soon.” He gripped her hands intentionally.
And, believing him, Alice felt the fever go out of her as she watched him run back to the kitchen. She stood listening to the sound of his galloping horse as it pounded along the path to the store, and on round the beach. Another kind of excitement welled up in her as she realized the significance of this meeting. She knew it had done something to her, snapped some restraint. At that moment she did not care what the results might be. Worn out, but calmer, she went inside and lay down in Asia's room, confident now that Bruce would bring her back.
Before he mounted Bruce had looked into his shanty, as it occurred to him that Asia might have gone to him for comfort. As he rode along the beach he guessed many of page 122 the reasons for this tragic blunder. Although he had not looked for signs he knew Alice might at any time find out that she was going to have another child, and that the knowledge of it and the fear of it would spell disaster to her nerves. He knew, also, that Roland had paid several visits to the Hakaru pub, not to drink, for he was almost a total abstainer, but because he found the florid Mrs. Lyman a very amusing and flattering person. He did not blame Roland. He understood why he went to Mrs. Lyman.
Bruce had speculated with more or less chagrin that winter why it was that Alice continued to remain aloof from him. At times it amused him. But always it vaguely annoyed him. She was his first real failure in his management of human relations. He knew that more than one thing was responsible for her attitude. He refused to believe that embarrassment alone kept her from acknowledging adequately his service to her. He was not looking for thanks, but he knew she owed them to him. He had wondered lately if she behaved as she did because she could not bear to meet one who must know how her husband was acting, because she could not meet eyes that saw too much. But then, she obviously loved Mrs. Brayton, who knew and saw as much as he did.
David Bruce knew that he attracted women, though h[gap — reason: unclear] never traded on the fact. But it had not occurred to him that he had attracted Alice Roland, because he did not see sufficient opportunity. Now, however, as she had stood near to him in the starlight, he had seen something in her eyes that was not the frenzy of fear, had felt something about her yielding hands, had sensed something about her that arrested him. But he did not take it very seriously. He was more concerned just then with finding Asia.
He passed two men returning from the dell, and heard that, as far as they knew, no one had been to Brayton. To be sure, he searched the place thoroughly himself. He was afraid the child had fallen asleep somewhere, and the nights were still much too cold and damp for that to page 123 happen without dangerous results. When he had gone over every bit of the dell on foot, he led his horse through the barred gate in the beach fence that divided the boss's property from that of Mrs. Brayton, and then rode at a fast canter up the hill to the pines.
The front door opened as he ran along the shelled path.
“She's here,” called the old lady, guessing the errand of the midnight runner.
“Thank God! I'll go right back——”
“Oh, David, wait a moment. I've just sent Harold—as soon as he got back from his meeting. He went ten minutes ago.” Mrs. Brayton lowered her voice as he came up to her. “And you had better take her with you, hadn't you? She wouldn't go with Harold.”
Bruce looked into the eyes of the old lady, who was still half dressed. She did not realize what a quaint picture she made.
“Poor child! Is she very upset?”
“Oh, she's been heart-broken. I've never seen anything more pitiful in my life. She hasn't the faintest idea why she was beaten. And she says she won't go home. David, what is the matter with her mother?”
“More than one thing, I should say, and I suspect another child. She was a wreck herself.”
“Oh, dear! And Harold says he heard Roland was out riding with Mrs. Lyman this afternoon.”
“Hm! Quite likely.”
“David! You don't seem disturbed. Do you expect people to go on like that?”
He smiled at her.
“It's not a matter of expecting. I've noticed that they do. Now, where's Asia?”
He followed her into her kitchen, where the child sat worn out with her head upon her arm on the table, the remains of a chicken sandwich and a glass of hot milk beside her. She roused herself as they came in, and when she saw Bruce she jerked herself up defiantly.page 124
“I won't go home,” she said fiercely.
Bruce drew a chair beside her, and put his arm round her.
“Would you be glad to know that your mother is dead?” he asked gravely.
She drew away from him, stiffening, while every drop of colour faded from her face.
“My mother dead, my mother!” she choked, her hate suddenly gone, her lips quivering.
With a swift gesture he threw both arms round her and put his face into her hair as if she had been his own child.
“No,” he said quickly, “she is not dead, but she has been very ill to-day, and she was worried about you, and she really did not know what she was doing when she beat you. We will all have to be very good to her for a while, and you must not do anything without telling her. She won't beat you again. Don't be afraid of that. And you must forgive her, for she is very sorry.”
She raised her face, her eyes now shining. Her tangled hair fell about her grimy cheeks and tired shoulders.
“Poor mother. I didn't know she was ill again, or I would not have run away. I will go home.” Mechanically she straightened her torn and tumbled brown wincey dress. Then she looked up at him again, and impulsively threw her arms about his neck and clung to him.
“Come on,” he said after a minute. “We must get back as fast as we can. She is waiting for you.”
Mrs. Brayton walked out to the pines with them.
“Tell your mother I will come to see her very soon. And take very good care of her, my dear,” as she kissed the child.
“Yes, I'll tell her,” answered Asia gratefully.
Bruce hoisted her on to the front of the saddle, jumped up himself, and with one arm round her, started off.
She was too tired to enjoy the ride, which at any other time would have been a great adventure. Before they had gone far she was sound asleep.
As soon as he got within speaking distance of Alice, who was waiting at the front gate, Bruce told her all was well. page 125 Then he dismounted and lifted Asia down into her arms. As he did so he saw that, perhaps, at last she was prepared to take down her barricades as far as he was concerned. She said not a word, nor did he as he turned away to lead his horse back to the kitchen.
But he had gone only a few yards along the path when he heard steps behind him. Alice stood alone, Asia having tumbled sound asleep onto the front steps.
He saw that she had rushed after him on a sudden impulse, and that she didn't know what to say, as she stood trembling. He had no theory to account for the state of emotion he saw she was in. But he felt extraordinarily near to her as she stood there, and he knew that she needed him very badly. Quite deliberately he held out his hand and took one of hers that was holding her cape together.
Just as he was about to speak her reserve gave way.
“Oh, forgive me——” she choked.
“I do,” he said simply, not pretending that there was nothing to forgive.
“That's enough,” he smiled, interrupting her. “You don't have to say it twice, or vary it. I am acquainted with the synonyms. I know all you want to say. I do not understand why you have been afraid of me, or why you have misunderstood me, but all you owe me now is a fresh beginning. And don't talk about it. Just begin. I think I can help you, and we'll talk about it some day, but not tonight. You have had a bad day, and you get to sleep just as soon as you can. Tell me”—he was still holding her hand, and she was staring into his face—“did any one give a signal that Asia was found?”
She was startled by this transition.
“No—at least Mr. Brayton—yes, I think he told some one.”
“Did anybody, blow a horn or anything?”
“Oh, yes, a whistle.”
“Are they all back?”page 126
“I don't think so. My husband isn't.”
“All right. Now, please go in and forget everything unpleasant. You can, you know.” He knew she couldn't, but he knew this would make her try to. He did not know that she wanted to throw her arms round him, but as she turned quickly away he felt as if he had rescued a child from the dark.
He continued his way along the path to the kitchen till he heard voices on the spit. Then he turned suddenly, as if he had remembered something, and led his horse down to the store where he met the boss. Roland was hot and irritable.
“Where the devil was she?” he demanded.
Bruce guessed Alice had not told him the whole story, so he took chances on what he might say.
“She was at Mrs. Brayton's. She'd gone to sleep in the afternoon, woke up in the dark, and lost her way.”
“Holy Moses! What a fuss about nothing!” he exclaimed, taking up a lantern put down by one of the men who had walked on.
“Well, it looked bad,” said Bruce rather indifferently. “By the way, as your wife was very badly unnerved, I gave her a sleeping powder. She ought not to be disturbed till she is thoroughly rested.”
Roland shot a quick look at him, wondering if he meant anything by this. But he could make nothing of that noncommittal face, on which the weak lantern light cast shadows that brought out the lines. He noticed instead that his foreman drooped as if he were very tired. He knew where Bruce had been all day. He could not help wondering if Bruce knew where he had been. At first he told himself he did not care a damn if he did. Then he hoped he didn't.
“Is there a spare bunk in the kitchen?” he asked abruptly.
“Several. But take my shanty for the night.” Bruce answered as if there were nothing unusual in the boss's question.
“No, no, thanks. I'll go to the kitchen.”page 127
They turned together along the path.
“Your wife's going to have another child.” Bruce still used his weary voice.
“What! Damnation!” blurted out the boss.
“Well, they have a habit of coming,” drawled Bruce.
Roland laughed uneasily.
“I suppose they have,” he grunted, kicking at a tuft of grass in the path.
They walked on some yards in silence.
“Walker told me to-day,” said Bruce in the same level tones, “that that boy of his who's had some engineering would be glad to have a job with you. He might be worth trying.”
Roland was instantly diverted.
“That so? All right. I'll try him.”
And business details occupied them till they separated.