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The Story of a New Zealand River


page 228


mrs. brayton sat back on the big lounge in front of her library fire, an open book on her lap, her reading spectacles—the only kind of artificial aid she deigned to use—on the end of her nose. For some time she had sat thus, listening for steps in the garden, the light from her reading-lamp rivalling that of the dancing flames upon her faded silk gown. The night outside was filled with the soft soughing of the wind in the pines, which to-night seemed to the old lady to be more melancholy than usual.

When at last she heard the crunching on the shells a look of animation shot into her eyes and she straightened herself up. When alone, she had to admit to herself that she was growing old, but she was determined that she would not yet be old in public. Her blue eye was almost as keen as ever, and her manner had kept its fire, and her body its poise.

“Come in,” she said, rising at the tap on her windowpane.

Asia entered like a blast of river wind. She was hatless, as usual, her hair tossed about her face, her eyes feverish, her cheeks burning, her breath hurried from her fast walk. She took the old lady's hand, bent and kissed her lace and ribbon cap in a courtly fashion, looked for a moment into her eyes, and with a gesture that was both tragic and comical dropped beside her onto the lounge.

Mrs. Brayton, whom no storms could ever more ruffle, preserved her serene ease, and while waiting for Asia to get her breath, she rose again to put wood on the fire. After a second's abstraction Asia bounded to her feet, took the tongs from her, and fussed with the fire till there was a page 229 fine blaze. The action relieved her. Dropping back into one of her tangled and unlady-like attitudes, she drew her hand over her eyes.

“Thank God!” she exclaimed. “By to-morrow night it will all be over.”

Mrs. Brayton turned to her, prepared to listen.

“I would have come down, my dear, but David said it was better not.”

“Oh, Lord, yes! I've never known anything so awful as these last two days. I don't know what has come to Mother. The pater went to the bush yesterday, saying he would not be back for a week. He hates a gloomy atmosphere. Betty and Mabel are scared to death, and even Bunty is subdued. The house is like a morgue, and that foolish mother of mine like an avenging angel. All because I want to do a perfectly natural and rational thing. Oh, how is it that human beings can be so silly?” She drew herself up, trying to hide her own emotion under a veil of disgust.

Seeing the old lady's eyes fixed questioningly upon her, she went on.

“Oh, I've felt, Granny. But I've felt all I'm going to feel. There's a limit. If she had been different it would have broken me up to go. But she has made me hard. All I want now is to get the beastly business over. What is the matter with Mother, anyway?”

“It's being a mother; that's the trouble,” replied Mrs. Brayton softly.

“Oh, nonsense! All mothers are not like that. I'm sure you never were.” Asia saw a swift pain shoot into the eyes under the lace cap, and realizing that she had scored some never-mentioned wound, she pretended not to see, and raced on jerkily, “I know what I've meant to Mother. I know what she means to me, but I can't live buried in my mother, nor she in me. I want so much more than just one person. And I have waited, and I have suppressed myself. I'm not rushing off at the first impulse. I've done page 230 everything I could to please her, been a beastly hypocrite and lied—ugh! And I've managed her husband for her. And I'm not leaving her alone or in a hole of any kind. Things are better at home than they have ever been—the girls are growing up and Elsie is three and no more sign of babies. I've thought it all out, and I've waited. You don't think I'm a brute, do you?”

“No.” The old lady had recovered her composure under this torrent.

“It can't have come as a shock to her. She must have seen it coming. And she's not going to be alone when she has you and Uncle David. Fancy any woman thinking herself ill-used when she has Uncle David!” She paused, and instantly the silence became significant. Then she turned to Mrs. Brayton with one of her characteristic whirls. “I want to ask you something,” she said.

The old lady's eyes smiled a permission to proceed.

“Have you ever thought about them—wondered?”

“Why, what do you mean?” The keen eyes narrowed a little.

“About their friendship, I mean. I've often wanted to ask you. They're a mystery to me.” She stared abstractedly into the fire.

“A mystery!” repeated Mrs. Brayton.

“Yes. They must love each other. I'm sure they do; but whether there's ever been anything I can't say. And it's been so easy for them—the pater away such a lot and when I have gone out in the evenings I've said where I was going and how long I'd be away.”

“Child!” exclaimed the old lady, aghast.

“What—why—wasn't that sensible?”

“Sensible! Oh, ye gods! And this is the child! The unsophisticated country child!” Mrs. Brayton stared at her, too amazed to be shocked.

“It's the result of your teaching, yours and Uncle David's.” There was a twinkle in Asia's eyes.

page 231

“Oh, child! How can you say that? You have moved, I think, a little faster than either of us suspected.”

“Well, my home has been the sort of place that one would move in, if one could move at all,” replied Asia grimly. “Isn't Mother enough to make you think? And is there anything slow about Tom Roland? Why don't our parents realize that we children have eyes to see and ears to hear? I slept for years with only a thin wall between my parents and me. Slept, did I say? I sat up for hours shivering, sick and faint. I cried, I prayed, I raged. I grew old listening to them. I grew to have a pity and then a contempt for them both, and then just a tolerance. I couldn't understand, and I don't understand now how human beings can be so stupid, and so cruel, and make so much unhappiness for each other. Why did Mother stand it? What good does it do to stand things? She never made him any better. Oh, she's a mystery to me.”

Having nothing to say, Mrs. Brayton sat still.

“Mother has taught me one great lesson. I'm done with misery. I shall have nothing more to do with it as long as I live. I shall train my mind to ignore it. I won't cease to help people, or to be sympathetic, but I'm not going to suffer over anybody any more. I shall be like Uncle David. He never worries about anything.”

“Well, if you can manage it as well as he does,” smiled the old lady.

“Oh, I shall. He's a wonder. He has even improved Mother. She must love him! And if there hasn't been anything between them how—how could she resist him?”

She lowered her eyes, flushing suddenly.

“Child!” murmured Mrs. Brayton breathlessly, feeling as if she were getting out of her depth.

But no water was too deep for Asia, who had more than a nodding acquaintance with deep waters.

“I have loved him, you know,” she went on, taking up one of the shrivelled hands. “Really loved him, I mean—not only the hero-worship business. He could have done any-page 232thingwith me he liked lots of times in the last year or two. I've been quite helpless—that's one reason why I wanted to go away before. I'm getting over it a little now and I know what it feels like, and if Mother feels the same about him and if he kisses her—well——”

Unconsciously she crushed Mrs. Brayton's hand till the rings cut her fingers.

The old lady was astounded by this revelation.

Feeling her silence, Asia turned from gazing at the fire.

“Why are you surprised?” she demanded.

“Oh, child!”

“Didn't you know I loved him?”

“Why, yes, but not in that way.”

“And why not in that way? Don't we all have feelings—passions?”

“Oh, my dear, passion is too strong a term for eighteen to use.”

“But it's a biological necessity that eighteen feels,” retorted Asia grimly. “And why did you lend me books on sex and biology, you two, if you didn't expect me to study the facts of life?”

She glared at the old lady.

“Oh, my dear, of course you may read books——”

“I see, but I must not apply their information rationally to life!”

“Well,” with a suspicion of a twinkle in her eye, “a personal experience is a very different thing from scientific statements in books.”

“Do you think I don't know that?” Asia drew herself up till she towered over the bent figure on the lounge. “But the statements in books are to prepare us for life. You prepare me for life, and then you are amazed that I begin to live. You grown-up people amuse me. You think you own a monopoly over experience, and that you ought to.”

She drew her knees up to her chin without apology, balanced herself on the edge of the lounge, and stared into the fire.

page 233

“It's perfectly natural that I should have fallen in love with Uncle David. Anybody would fall in love with him. All the girls in the place are silly about him. They hang around watching for him—and some of the married women too—— Why, he's the only man in the place! But he never looks at anybody but Mother, and nobody knows how he looks at her.”

“Asia, my dear”—Mrs. Brayton sat up very straight—“I think you are seeing things that do not exist. Your mother and David have a rare and beautiful friendship—a spiritual friendship. You have no right to think into it something that is not there just because you feel too deeply.”

“Why, it's because I feel that I know how they could if they wanted to, and I don't see why they shouldn't want to.”

“Oh, my dear.”

“Look here, Granny”—Asia bounded to her feet, and stood with her back to the fire—“here you have been educating me for years to understand unusual situations, and to discriminate, and now, when I apply my knowledge to the facts under my nose, you try to put me in the wrong. You know Mother does not love her husband. You know he does not love her. You know how he lives. You know that Mother and Uncle David care for each other. You know they have all sorts of opportunities. And you profess to be amazed that I see it, that I understand it, just because I am only eighteen. I'm not morbid about it. I'm not curious. I'm only interested. I'm not jealous. He's the only thing worth while that poor Mother has ever had. I'm only too glad for her to have him. And that's why it's so hard to have her unkind to me——”

Her voice broke unexpectedly, and she dropped back on to the lounge, burying her face in her hands.

Mrs. Brayton put a sympathetic hand upon her knee.

Presently Asia recovered, and tossed back her crumpled hair.

“Granny,” she said grimly, “I am no babe. You know I have told you about some of the men who have begun to page 234 make love to me, and I knew how to take care of myself. I know more about men than you think, more about all of us. The fact is, we human beings are not a lot of book heroes or devils, we are animals, more or less veneered, and the sooner we see it the better. As Uncle David says, Tom Roland is a victim of overmuch vitality. The pity is that he didn't marry Mrs. Lyman instead of Mother. That's just the matter. Good heavens! Why did she marry him? I have never dared ask her since I was a small child.”

Mrs. Brayton had no astonishment left to spend upon this latest wisdom, and she turned helplessly away from the question.

“Can you imagine why she married him?” persisted Asia.

“Why—why do most people marry, my child?” she evaded.

“Do you believe she loved him?”

“I don't see why not. He is very attractive to many women.”

“Oh, I think she was just lonely, and afraid, and he dominated her—poor Mother.”

They sat silent for some minutes.

“You know,” Asia began again, “I have often wondered what my father was like. He must have been a more joyous soul than Mother, perhaps an awful scamp, and that's why she would never speak about him.”


Asia looked curiously at the old lady, feeling she knew more than she would say, and wondering idly what it was. But only idly, for she had been singularly incurious about her father. It had never occurred to her that it could possibly matter what her father had or had not been.

“I'm sure he was a sinner,” she mused, “and Mother has never forgiven him. Sin—sin—the word that has hypnotized the world.”

“My dear, what are you talking about?” Mrs. Brayton turned lightly to her.

page 235

“Treason, Granny. I don't believe in sin.” Her eyes twinkled back.

“By what standard do you propose to live, then, out in the world?”

“I shall do what I want to do, and I won't do what I don't want to do.”

“Hm! It sounds very convenient.”

“That's quite safe, Granny, if you use your intelligence as well as your emotions.”

The old lady laughed suddenly.

“I should call it a very dangerous doctrine, my dear.”

“Well, that's all Uncle David believes.”

“Indeed, are you quite sure?”

“Yes. But he is so nice that he never wants to do anything nasty.”

“I see.”

They sat still again.

“Oh, dear,” began Asia, going back to the old theme, “I do wish Mother would let me go away in peace.”

“Well, my child, she cannot help making this a personal matter. It's quite right for other people's daughters to want to go away, but when it's your own it hurts. There are times, unfortunately, when your intelligence and your emotions conflict. You may manage to escape that disagreeable situation.”

“Oh, I don't expect to always,” interrupted Asia, half laughing, “but I hope I shall always be able to make up my mind to face the inevitable cheerfully, and that's what Mother can never do.”

“Have patience, child. She's learning. You young things are so intolerant.”


“Yes, almost as bad as we are.”

They smiled together, and Asia drew nearer to the old lady, realizing that the evening was going, and that presently the good-byes she hated to think of would have to be said.

page 236

They talked jerkily at intervals, putting off any reference to the end. They were both conscious of the uncertainty of life, and that they might never meet again. As soon as the silence between them became strained, Asia turned.

“You'll go and see Mother soon, won't you?”

“Certainly, my dear.”

Asia stood up, feeling a lump growing swiftly in her throat. Taking up the tongs, she poked viciously at the fire.

“Oh, dear! I am going to miss everybody horribly, and the place and everything.”

“Yes,” said the old lady gently. “I know you won't forget us.”

Asia turned and looked down upon her.

“I can't tell you what you have been to me,” she said nervously. “You have made me—you and Uncle David.”

Mrs. Brayton's eyes were very bright.

“My dear, you know that in that hoary controversy I hold with heredity. David and I may have hurried you up a little—I see we have, but the final result will be almost as if we had never been.”

“Oh, rot!” returned the wise child, stretching out her hands.

She drew the old lady up to her, and for some seconds she struggled for expression. Then she bent quickly with streaming eyes.

“Good-bye,” she choked, kissing the lined forehead. “I will write.” And moving away abruptly, she fled out by the French window, and along the garden path.

Mrs. Brayton stood still, a few unmanageable tears straggling down her cheeks. Then, afraid that her son might come in any minute and see them, she sat down and wiped them vigorously away. She readjusted her spectacles upon her nose and took up her book. But she saw no words upon the blurred pages. Her thoughts had not followed Asia. They zigzagged from a skeleton in her own cupboard to the picture of Alice sitting alone waiting for a feared to-morrow.