The Story of a New Zealand River
the next morning Alice sent Asia for Eliza King who came at once and took the children home with her. It was late in the afternoon before the boss was carried up on a stretcher. He was still too ill to know where he was or what had happened to him. It was Alice's first experience of him as a sick man, and she felt the new sensation of pity for him as she leaned over his white, strangely silent face. For the next three days, while she nursed him, she revolved over and over in her mind Bruce's words, wondering if she could ever become sufficiently indifferent to him to be able to live comfortably, in spite of the incompatibilities.
On the fourth morning, as Roland appeared to be much better, Bruce said he would go to the bush for the day.
“I think he is all right now. He may sleep a good deal. Don't wake him on any account. If you want anything, send for Bob. I might not get down before eight or nine.”
As Alice watched him go, she marvelled that they could have ignored as they had done in the last three days the great moments of that night, and it brought home to her the fact that life was possible after all, that one did not sit down and die so easily, and that the will to live had a useful friend in compromise.
An hour after he had left she went softly to the bedroom door, which was propped open for a few inches. The blinds had been drawn, leaving the room almost dark. Alice listened carefully, but heard no sounds of tossing or moaning. When she came again later she heard the low sounds of the heavy sleeper. With a sigh of thankfulness she returned to the kitchen.
At intervals during the day she listened at the door, al-page 205ways with the same result. When, about five o'clock, she stood once more, something, she never knew what, arrested her, and made her catch her breath and turn sick.
Tom Roland had always slept heavily and noisily, usually snoring and moaning by turns. But Alice detected something entirely new about this breathing, and with a sudden presentiment she rushed to the windows and drew up the blinds. The setting sun, shining straight in and reflected on the river, coloured the inside walls and lit up every corner. She turned to the bed where her husband lay on his back with his mouth open. His face was bluish grey, and strangely loose and withered.
Hardly knowing why, she snatched at the blankets, uncovering an empty laudanum bottle. She recoiled, as if it had been a revolver aimed at herself. Then she stared at it, and from it to him. For some minutes she was utterly unable to think. She stood like a graven image, with sightless eyes turned upon him.
Then by degrees came the questions. How much had he taken, and when had he taken it? Was he dying? Would anything save him? If he died—what then?
And then her cheeks blanched, her eyes hardened, her lips set.
Why not let him die?
She did not know what to do to save him. David Bruce might not be back for hours. Would that time make all the difference? She need not have discovered the laudanum, or suspected the nature of his breathing. She was obeying Bruce's instructions by leaving him alone. Who would ever know if she walked out of that room, leaving things as they had been, and said nothing?
She staggered to the window that looked down the river, and threw up the lower sash, which had been closed to keep the blind from flapping. She saw nothing but the blurred blaze of the sinking sun like a great fringed splotch of crimson upon a grey sea.
Was he dying? Did even the minutes matter?page 206
She drew her hand over her eyes.
“Oh, God!” she groaned. But she was not thinking of God. The vision in the mist that swept over her eyes held the sad, tired, accusing face of David Bruce. She rushed to the door. “Asia!” she called sharply.
“Yes, Mother,” from the kitchen.
“Go down to the store and ask Mr. Hargraves to come here at once.”
As the child ran out, Alice dropped onto the sitting-room sofa, feeling that she would faint, but she pulled herself together as she heard Bob scrambling up the path, and, though white, she was calm as she met him at the door.
“Could you find Mr. Bruce in the bush for me?” she asked.
“Then please go at once and get him here as soon as you can, and do not say a word to any one about it.”
“You may trust me, Mrs. Roland,” he answered anxiously, realizing from her face that it was a desperate business, and without waiting for further information he rushed off for the kitchen and a horse.
“What is it, Mother?” gasped Asia, who panted back as Bob raced off. “Is Father worse?”
“He seems to be. But don't say anything about it. Uncle David will be here presently. You go on getting the tea.”
Alice's voice sounded strange to herself, and in a daze she walked back into the bedroom, wondering if there was anything else she ought to do. She tried to think of some one at the bay who would know what to do, and then she remembered that she dare not tell them. She felt instinctively that it must not get out. The Braytons? She could trust them.
She wrote a hurried note asking for advice, and asking Mrs. Brayton to keep Asia if she could send Harold Brayton back.
She felt terribly alone as she watched the child running up the green hill. Every little sound about the house made page 207 her jump. When she found herself looking back over her shoulder with swift fear she knew it was time to set her teeth against a possible collapse. As she stood in the kitchen again she realized that she could not stay alone in any room wondering what was happening, that she would have to go in and face it.
Once she began to walk to her room she felt better, and when she stood beside her bed she was amazed to find she could look calmly, even coldly, upon the man who lay dying there.
For the first time since her marriage she felt herself entirely detached from him. Up to this time she had been unable to see him to any extent as others saw him. The others had not had to feed him or sleep with him; while, for almost the whole of their married life, she had known him only as an irritable and irregular eater, a restless sleeper, and a man who had made their intimate relations merely a continuous performance of abruptly passionate acts.
They had never read a book together. He did not like music. Once or twice when she had pointed out a sunset to him he had said, “Humph! Not bad,” and had jerked on to something else. His presence had always meant irritation, tenseness, uncertainty; his absence a blessed relief.
And yet she had always known that men trusted him and admired him. She knew that the world saw in him a great driving force, a reliable friend, a generous enemy, the soul of business honour. And she had grown almost to hate him.
She knew, as Bruce had said, that it was because he had made her suffer, because he had dominated her, because she had been afraid of him—that poor thing that lay there dying. She had come in the last three days to see that perhaps, after all, he did not realize how she suffered, that it was, indeed, largely her own fault. And, as she looked at him, she wondered how she could ever have been afraid of him, he looked so pitifully harmless.page 208
And then there was the hard cold fact that she had seen before Bruce had put it into words, the fact that he was not happy, either. What had she ever done for him that could not have been done by a housekeeper or another? And he had certainly expected something more of her. Though this was not the first time she had met this question, it came to her now with the force of a revelation. She had wronged him in marrying him more than he had wronged her because she had doubted from the beginning the results in which he believed and hoped.
But it was more than anything else the fact that he was dying that killed her hostility to him, and the fact that he had meant to die brought home to her the misery he must have faced. Had he been afraid? Had life seemed impossible to him? He had always seemed like life incarnate. She had never thought of death in connection with him, or of fear.
When she turned from him to go out into the dusk her battle with him was more than half won. She knew that if he lived he could never again hurt her as he had hurt her in the past.
As she opened the front door and looked towards the mountain there was enough light for her to see a horseman come out of the bush at a headlong gallop down the road beside the tramway. Something about that mad race against time stirred her out of the coma into which she had fallen, and lifted her spirits. She was ready for action, ready for anything when Bruce dashed up to the gate.
“It's Tom,” as he leapt from the steaming horse. “He's taken laudanum. I didn't know what to do.”
With one eloquent look at her he sprang up the steps, leaving her to fasten his horse.
Pulling the bed-clothes off the boss's body, Bruce put his ear to his heart. He soon saw that he was nearly gone, so nearly that it was doubtful if anything could save him.
As he realized it he pulled himself up, and as he looked down upon Roland his teeth set, his hands clenched, and page 209 the veins stood out on his face. Only he could save the boss, and he did not know that he could. And nobody would ever know if he did not.
For a moment, while temptation strangled his will, he stood stiff. Then he swept his hands across his eyes as if to ward off some unseen terror, and, the power of decision returned, he raised his head quickly to see Alice standing in the doorway with her eyes glued upon him.
He had only to look at her to see that she knew what he had just been through, and that she had been through it first. But he dare lose no minutes then.
“When did he take it?” he asked hoarsely.
“I don't know, David.”
“When did you find it out?” She knew why he asked.
“About five o'clock.” He knew that was true, and he saw that her fight, too, had been short.
“An emetic—mustard and warm water—at once—I'll get that—you find me a big cork——” He jerked the words out as she followed him into the kitchen.
“We must get Brayton here—we can trust him.”
“I've sent Asia—there is some one coming now.”
“It's he. Good.” He looked through the window. “Bob's following. We can trust him. We'll need them both.”
He found what he wanted as he talked, and he was ready when Harold Brayton's horse stopped snorting at the back gate.
Alice's lips trembled as she met him. “Thank you,” she mumbled.
With a sympathetic gesture he gripped her hand, and looked from her to Bruce.
“God! I'm glad to see you, Brayton. Hope you can stay all night? That's good. Come and help me now. Mrs. Roland, when Bob comes, please tell him to fix up Harold's horse in the yard here, and give him a feed, and take his own and mine to the stalls, and then come back.”
Alice sat down dazed, feeling as if she were in a dream. She did hope there would be something for her to do. Then page 210 she remembered that the men would have to eat, and she began mechanically to prepare a more substantial meal than the one Asia had set on the kitchen table.
In the bedroom Bruce looked anxiously at Roland's blue face.
“I don't think he has much of a chance, Brayton. But his extraordinary vitality may die hard. We'll make him sick with mustard and water, if possible, and then we'll have to walk him up and down till he wakes, if it takes all night. We'll get him outside. It's warm enough.”
By the time Bob returned from seeing to the horses they were ready to drag Roland's inert body out of doors.
As he entered the kitchen Bob held out a telegram.
“This has just come from Kaiwaka, Mrs. Roland. It was given to me at the stable.”
Alice opened it indifferently as she looked at her husband's name on the outside. Bob, who stood waiting for instructions, was upset to see that she dropped into a chair on the verge of tears. Hearing Bruce's voice, he went into the sitting-room, still unaware of the cause of this summons. He stopped, startled, when he saw Roland propped up between the two men.
“Bob, you can be trusted, I know,” said Bruce quietly. “The boss has taken laudanum. We mayn't be able to save him, but if we do, and it got out, it would lower his credit pretty badly, shake confidence in him in the future, you understand. So it must never be hinted at.”
“Just help us out with him, and then Mrs. Roland will give you a meal. We shall have to take it in turns to eat and rest.”
When they got outside, Bob told him of the telegram.
“I'll go in for a minute,” he answered.
Alice, who was crying with her head on the table, pushed the yellow paper towards him without a word.
Taking it up, he saw that it was signed by the secretary of the Kauri Timber Company. When he had read it page 211 through he understood why she cried. It told Roland that the company would stand by him in his recent loss, that it would advance payments on its new contracts with him, and finance him further, if necessary, and that he was to go ahead with confidence with the work on his mill.
Saying nothing, he merely put his hand on her shoulder before going outside.
Bob waited for half an hour before going in again. Rather nervously he told Alice that Bruce had sent him for something to eat, and he was almost alarmed when she asked him to sit down with her, for she was not famous for her approachableness. But she began at once with a simplicity and directness that surprised herself.
“Let us talk about something cheerful, Bob. Tell me about the girl you are going to marry.”
She surprised him into shyness, but when he saw after a few questions that she was really interested, he produced a photo from his vest pocket.
Alice looked into the sweet, fresh, girlish face with a sudden swelling in her throat.
“She's far too good for me,” said Bob humbly. “And I hate to bring her to a far-off place like this. But I told her about you. And she said she guessed if you could stand it she could.”
She looked through misty eyes at Bob's young decent face, seeing him afresh.
“I shall be very glad to have her here, Bob. When does she come?”
“Well, I don't know exactly, Mrs. Roland. As soon as I can get the house built, anyway.”
As she handed him a cup of tea across the table she remembered that he was one of the men who were waiting for wages, wages that now he might never get. But at her first reference to it he brushed it aside, and seeing that he was helping her, he continued to talk of his plans for his future home.
As she sat alone after he had gone out Alice wondered page 212 why she had ever been afraid of a strange place and human beings. In a little while Harold Brayton came in, anxiously sympathetic.
“Still a hope,” he said gravely, as he sat down. He did not offer useless sympathy, and being without a cheerful topic that he could suitably introduce, he sat and ate with an awkward silence. He was much more vividly conscious of the tragedy in the house than Bob had been, and less able to be diverted from it. Alice had to exert herself in order to save them both from embarrassment.
After he had gone she began to listen for David Bruce. She heard the slow dragging steps from the front to the back, the pause while they turned, the same shuffling to the front, the pause again. There was something indescribably weird about the low monotony of it, about that desperate tramp to cheat death hovering overhead.
When, at last, she heard Bruce's steps at the back door, she rose to meet him with a curious apathy. But he read the question in her eyes in spite of it.
“I can't say yet. He will not be out of danger for hours.”
As he dropped into the chair opposite her he felt her unusual detachment, and guessed that her mind was so satiated with adversity that she could not suffer any more. In silence she poured him out a cup of strong coffee, and he noticed that she did not look at him as he commenced to eat and drink. After some minutes he felt her eyes fixed upon him with a look that was so insistent that he had to raise his face even though he made an effort not to.
“David, why couldn't we let him die?”
He was startled by her matter-of-fact tone as much as by the frankness of her question. He stopped eating, and looked thoughtfully at the fire for a minute before answering.
“Yes, indeed, why couldn't we? That is an interesting question,” he answered slowly. “You could have done it, and I should never have known. I could do it still, and no one would ever know. And we both want him to die.”
They looked at each other across the table. They were page 213 both dulled by weariness and the recent rapid march of domestic events to a point where they could make no further demonstration of feeling, and yet they felt at that moment, as they had never felt before, that they were united for all time, bound by bonds immeasurably stronger than the kisses of passion, or the vows of emotional moments.
“Well,” smiled Bruce.
She did not try to answer.
“What stopped you?” he asked lightly. “Did you think of God?”
“No. I thought of you.”
“Oh, much the same thing,” he said, with a wicked little chuckle.
She could not help smiling.
“What stopped you, David?” she asked after a minute. She wondered why his face became suddenly grave. “Did you think of me, David?”
He drank two mouthfuls of coffee before replying:
“No. I dare not.” Then looking into the fire, he went on slowly, “I thought of the men who have trusted him, and I thought”—he turned his eyes to hers with a tragic appeal—“I remembered that once, years ago, I let a man die in much the same way.”
Alice did not start, nor did the expression in her eyes change as she returned his look.
The abnormal stillness deepened round them till the sound of the dragging steps outside shuffled back into their consciousness again.
“For a woman, David?” Her tone held no hint of judgment.
“How old were you?”
“Twenty-four—and I had been drinking.”
“Did she ever know?”
“Yes. She never told any one—but—she sent me flying.”
“It was her husband?”page 214
“How old was she?”
“Thirty-five—and you were twenty-four.”
In her tone he read a damning indictment, but not for him. A flash of flame swept her eyes as she got up. Moving swiftly round the table she dropped on to her knees beside him, and put her head on his lap.
He set his teeth against a swirl of emotion.
“Oh, get up, dear, please.”
Alice raised a quiet and tearless face, and without a word she went back to her chair, and looked into the fire. David Bruce knew that henceforth her love for him would be rounded out with fuller understanding.
With difficulty he ate a few more mouthfuls and then he stood up. She rose at once and came and stood opposite him. He thought that pale though she was he had never seen her look as beautiful as she did then with her eyes shining at him.
Seizing her hands, he raised them to his lips.
“God! dear. It is good to be understood and forgiven one's sins.”
Her eyes filled, but she did not try to speak, and he left her, standing thus, her face a beacon for the night.
She sat still by the fire for half an hour before she cleared and reset the table, and made up the fire, knowing it would be her task to wait on the men during the night. When Bob Hargraves came in she sent him to lie down in Asia's room. Later she dozed at intervals on the sitting-room sofa, sleeping more than she could have supposed possible. Once or twice changes were made in the night without arousing her. She felt no excitement, no suspense. She knew long before they brought Tom Roland in at the dawn that he was saved.page 215