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The Story of a New Zealand River


page 180


bruce was the only man who could not sleep long that morning. He had not fallen like the rest of them into a heavy slumber. He had merely dozed and tossed feverishly, his mind tormented by the vision of Alice's hard sleepless eyes, and by the struggle he knew was ahead of him, complicated for the time being by another of his periodical fits of fever and depression whose only cure seemed to be oblivion. He had hoped that the storm and the fatigue might help him to work off for this time at least that horrible urge towards a climax that swamped out his will. He had given up arguing with himself about it, but he had not given up, nor did he intend to give up the fight.

Twice in the last eighteen months he had gone under, after struggling to a point where something broke in him. He had ridden off, to return in a few days with the ghastly sensitiveness of the man who feels that lack of control is the unpardonable sin. He had kept away from Alice, who, he knew, condemned such lapses, and had no understanding of their mental or physiological bases, until he had lost all signs of the madness. But he always hated meeting her again with that brand upon his soul.

Though he knew it to be disease, it did not alter the fact that it was the tragedy of his life. And now, as he tossed in bed, he saw it was coming again.

Unable to rest, he got up, gave himself a sponge bath, and exercised for half an hour to try to take some of the stiffness out of his limbs, and to tire the hot aliveness of his mind. Then he stood for some minutes in his doorway, staring up at the cabbage trees, more scraggy than ever now that they had lost half their long leaves in the storm.

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Looking at his watch, he saw that it was half-past eight, and he wondered if the cook would be ready with something to eat. He walked round to the front of his shanty. There he stopped short to look at the damage wrought by the storm.

Roofs had suffered everywhere, and not a fence had escaped. The one that Bob Hargraves had just put up round his section, the nearest to the boss's house, was nowhere to be seen. Catching the wind as it curled round the cliffs, it had been scattered in all directions.

Sheets of zinc, palings, boards, tins and cans of every description were littered about between the cottages, along the paths, among the bushes in the field. Two brick chimneys had collapsed into shapeless heaps, and the big zinc one at the kitchen had been twisted as if the demons of the gale had tried to wring its neck. Further along, boats that had been torn from their anchorage lay smashed on the spit, or were carried high and dry up the banks. Timber stacks were levelled, and a shed on the spit had been wrecked out of existence.

But the waters of an innocent and peaceful river lapped gently about the boundaries of the great booms. Every log was safe and sound.

An unnatural stillness hung heavy over the bay, where by day there was now always a constant flow of bustling activity. There was not a sound about the cottages or the kitchen, hardly a column of smoke from a chimney. Bruce guessed that every house would be still till the exhausted men awoke.

Looking towards the boss's cottage, he saw Alice in the yard. He knew that the sooner he faced her and continued their normal ways the better. With the half-formed thought that she might help him he went to her.

She took her cue from him and greeted him naturally. He looked from her round the devastated yard, and at the children, and at the baby, Bunty, as Asia had nicknamed him, tucked under her arm.

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“Tom?” he asked.

“Asleep, thank God! He has not waked. I fed the children out here, and shall keep them out till he wakes.”

They walked to the end of the wash-house, and looked at what was left of the garden and the fence.

“You didn't sleep long.” Alice was thinking more of him than of the wreckage.

He did not look at her. He was afraid she might guess what he was coming to. And he knew she would understand it less than ever following on the incident of last night; that, like all women, she would think that caring for her ought to keep him out of all temptations, and revolutionize his natural tendencies.

“No, I was overtired. But I'll sleep presently. Where's the cow?” His eyes sought her in the field.

“She got out in the night. Asia has gone to look for her.” She felt that he was shutting himself away from her, and she thought he meant to show her that they must not return to any significant expression of their feelings. It hurt her that he should think she might become weak and demand any change in their friendship. She registered a vow to show him that she could be just as strong as he could. “Have you had any breakfast?” she asked.

“No. They seemed to be asleep at the kitchen.”

“I'll bring you out some.” She smiled lightly up at him. “Will you hold Bunty? I daren't have him inside.”

He took the baby, glad to be diverted by him, and while tossing him up and down he took stock of the damage in the yard. He was glad to see that the wash-house had held, and that beyond the fence and the spouting there was nothing that could not soon be mended.

Then he went into the shed, and sat down by the rough table on which Alice put her wash-tubs. Bunty, who chewed his thumb contentedly with unusual good humour, gazed up into his face in a way that amused and arrested Bruce, who began to speculate about his future and his unknown possibilities. As he did so, he heard piteous weep-page 183ing in the yard. Startled, he jumped up, and as he reached the corner of the shed he met Asia, who raised a streaming, utterly hopeless face.

“Good God, child! What is it?” With his free arm he pulled her back into the wash-house.

“Something dreadful has happened,” she choked, “worse than anything. I don't know what we will do.”

“Tell me,” he commanded. He was more upset than he could have believed possible at the sight of her break-down.

“The cow is drowned,” she moaned. “Our dear Daisy drowned!”

“Drowned!” repeated Bruce.

“Yes, drowned. She got out in the night and she was so hungry she went down to eat the mangroves. And now she's drowned.”

“Are you sure?” he asked, a lump now in his own throat.

“Yes, quite sure. She is stuck in the mud. I went out and poked her—she never moved. And her eyes are just awful. She's quite dead, I know.” She was heart-broken. “Oh, what will we do?” she sobbed.

“Oh, child,” Bruce soothed her, “don't cry any more. She isn't hurt now. And we will get another cow.”

“But we have no money, not any at all.”

“Never mind. Mr. Brayton will give us one.”

“But it won't be Daisy. I loved her. Oh, why did she have to die?”

Just then Alice stood in the doorway with a tray.

“What is it now?” she cried.

“Sh!” Bruce held up his hand. “It's nothing. It's only the cow.”

“The cow!” she exclaimed, putting down the tray, and staring at Asia's miserable face.

“Yes, she's drowned. Now don't—”

But it was no use. For Alice, Asia's break-down was the last straw. She dropped onto the bench beside her, crying helplessly.

“Oh, Mother,” Asia threw her arms round her, “poor page 184 Daisy! It must have hurt her so. Her eyes are awful.”

Bruce looked at them for a minute, and then, swept by an impulse he could not and did not want to control, he dropped Bunty on the floor, and gathered them both into his arms.

He saw that Alice recovered almost immediately. He felt the short experimental pressure of her body against his, and then she sat still, but he could feel excitement working in her. He made his soothing gestures less significant, and then, as she grew calmer, he closed his hand upon her shoulder.

As he sat thus, with Asia clinging to him on the other side, he thought of Tom Roland, lying inside asleep, and beguiled himself for the minute with the bitter humour of the situation. Alice wondered at the change in his expression, and did not understand what there could be in it to amuse him. To her the incident was a milestone on the road of emotional experience. It would have hurt her badly to feel that it did not mean a great deal to him. But she knew that outwardly they must ignore it, and she thought the change in his manner was meant to remind her of that fact.

As she raised her face to his to give him the look she could not resist, her eyes fell on the tray, and his breakfast, fast becoming cold.

“Oh, David, we are selfish,” returning to her normal manner. “Asia, get up, dear, and have some breakfast with Uncle David.”

Then she and Bruce saw that Asia was more in need of comfort than they. Haunted by the dead Daisy's glazed eyes she could not eat, but kept sobbing at intervals in a way that wrung Bruce's and her mother's heart.

To help her they went out and began to clean up the yard and the garden, and there they all worked, keeping the children quiet and busy till it was time to have another picnic meal outside.

By the middle of the day the bay began to show signs of life. After lunch Bruce went to direct the men on odd page 185 jobs of straightening out the wreckage. Then he went up to the Braytons for another cow. When he got back at five o'clock he found Roland had just waked up, delighted to hear that one of the tug steamers was coming up the river for his precious logs.

Half an hour later the spit and the booms were alive with men preparing rafts to be ready for the morning's tide.

It was eleven o'clock when Roland and Bruce finally left the captain. When they reached the store, Bruce said he had to get something out of it. The boss turned from him, ignoring his manner.

“Hm!” he said to himself, as he went up the bank. “Poor devil! He's got it again.”

But Roland wasted no time moralizing about his foreman, or judging him, or feeling sorry for him. He accepted his weakness as something that was there, and that was the end of it.

Bruce unlocked the store, meaning to get himself some food. As he picked out a tin of meat and some jam, he startled a mouse, and took up a stick to kill it, but was not quick enough. He moved boxes and bags, hunting for it, but continued to miss it. Then, forgetting what he had come in for, he went out, locking the door behind him, and walked along the bank to the beach below the cliffs.

He meant to pace that sand till he tired himself out, even if he walked all night. He was amazed afresh at his own vitality, at the heat of the liquid that flowed through his veins. He did not try to argue about the good or the bad of it, but set himself to fight it. But, as before, his mind grew frenzied in the hopeless struggle against his body.

The still river and the fresh night did not help him. The silence of the hills only mocked his fever. He craved for the only thing that could help him to break the weight of the accumulated suppression in him, the only thing that could still the beat in his brain. He could feel flames licking round the inside of his skull, eating up everything in page 186 his head. He felt them burning through his body, galling the nerves in his legs, stinging the soles of his feet.

But he fought on till he thought he was too tired to feel any more. Climbing round the base of the green hill, he picked his way among the rushes behind the boss's house. When he reached his shanty, however, something blazed up in his brain, and a hundred nerves snapped through his body. The thought of going in and getting calmly in to bed was too flat, too banal to be endured. He knew he would burst if he tried to force it on himself.

As if pursued, he strode to the place where his horse always stood tethered. He saddled it, mounted, and galloped off into the night.

He only meant to ride and ride, and let his horse take him anywhere it would.

But in less than half an hour it had landed him at the Point Curtis public house.