The Story of a New Zealand River
alice awoke one morning a few days later with a feeling that something was in the air. The first thing she remembered was that her husband was leaving early for Auckland, and that she must get up and pack his bag, one of the few wifely duties left to her. Then she remembered that she had heard the girls say the night before that Lynne was going by the same boat to meet a Sydney friend who was on a visit to New Zealand, and that he would be away a week or two.
Without waiting for Asia to call her she began to dress. Whenever she was well she rose for breakfast if Roland was leaving early to be away for any length of time. Along with a few things that she always did for him, such as darning his socks and putting his clothes away, she had carefully preserved certain courtesies. She accompanied him to the gate when he left for more than a day or two, and came to the door to meet him on his return. If she was away she telegraphed to tell him the day she was coming home. She continued to consult him about small purchases about which she knew he was now generous and indifferent. He had never remarked upon these things, nor had she. She did not know whether he would have missed them if they had been left undone.
The whole family sat down together to breakfast, which was in itself a sufficiently uncommon occurrence to brand the day as unusual. When he was home Roland rarely arranged his habits to suit the hour the children had to eat in order to get off in good time for school. As he was either early or late he usually ate alone, though when she felt like it Asia took pity on his loneliness and ate with him. But she had never made a habit of doing so. When she was page 358 away Betty and Mabel together shouldered the task of looking after him.
Breakfast with him had always been a difficult and unsatisfactory affair. Although he was not hard to please at dinner, his morning appetite was as uncertain as a choppy wind, and the person who had waited on him always had a sense of failure at the end of the meal, and a feeling of thankfulness when he left the table. He was more than usually irritable this morning because he had not been able to find his cheque-book, and a twenty minutes' search on the part of the whole household had failed to locate it. He swore he had not left it in the store—where it was found just as he was leaving—or in the bush, or with David Bruce. So they all sat down with the disagreeable sense that they were under suspicion for gross carelessness. The one person who did not really mind was Asia. Any sort of fuss or diversion, pleasant or unpleasant, meant that nobody noticed her, or made her more conscious of what lay ahead of her.
Alice minded the breakfast atmosphere less than she usually did. Once she would have allowed the pressure of her husband's irritability to weigh upon her. Now it struck her as being trifling and unreal. What did a lost chequebook matter? The scene moved before her as if she were looking at a picture. She felt an extraordinary detachment as she watched the members of her family. Tom Roland fussing every few minutes about his book, Betty and Mabel hurrying nervously because they were a little late, Bunty subdued and sulky because his father had accused him of mislaying the lost property, Elsie meek and silent because she shrank into herself in an uncongenial atmosphere, and Asia, the most unreal of them all, outwardly calm and managing, trying as she always did in such scenes to pour oil upon the troubled waters.
That two streams of events, the known and the unknown, could flow together under the same roof in the manner they were doing there before her eyes seemed to Alice to be incredible. She saw they were all mysteries to each other. page 359 She began to wonder what kept them together, whether anything ought to keep them together, whether “the bond” were not the most artificial of ties. And speculating about it, she ate more composedly than any one else. Though she did not dare to scrutinize Asia, she was aware of her poise, of her apparent elimination of herself, and she wondered how she could possibly be so normal with such a personal crisis hanging over her head.
An hour later Alice sat on the front veranda to watch Tom Roland and David Bruce leave in the launch. She followed them till she saw them stop at a point below the mill where two men got aboard. That puzzled her till she guessed that Ross would accompany Lynne to Point Curtis, and then return with Bruce. But when she saw the boat coming up the river again there was only one person in it, and it did not stop anywhere. It was not till the afternoon that she saw that this was part of a plan arranged beforehand.
She stayed out all the morning, making a pretence of gardening in the shade. She heard Asia humming and whistling as she worked inside, and wondered if she were doing it to keep her courage up, or to impress her mother, or whether it were the spontaneous overflow of real happiness. Alice felt no anger now against the lovers. Though she would still have stopped them if she had believed she safely could, she had made up her mind to be blind. She was now like a puppet; she would not move till they moved; and when they pulled the string she would dance to their tune, not enthusiastically or energetically, but, still, she would dance.
At lunch-time she managed to be more normal than she had expected she could be, and the quiet meal with Mabel and the children was such a contrast to the restless breakfast that both she and Asia remarked upon it with smiles. But they both avoided looking directly at each other, and each hoped the other did not notice it. Asia remembered vividly afterwards that her mother was pathetically gentle and soft, and that she had looked a great deal out of the page 360 window. They were helped to keep up by Mabel, who was in a vivacious mood, and talked of what she had to do for the school concert and picnic that was soon to close the term and inaugurate the summer holidays.
After lunch Alice lay down for an hour, but she could not even doze with the suspense hanging over her. She had to make an effort to stay in her room for the time she usually spent there. Then she took some sewing to the eastern veranda, and sat down facing the village and Pukekaroro. But she could not sew. Her hands fell limply into her lap, while she stared vacantly at one thing and another moving about the bay. She saw women take in their washing from the yards. She saw two men lazily fixing something on the tramway under the hot sun. She followed a rider down the road beside the line until he disappeared behind a low rise beyond the kitchen. She saw him reappear on the crest of the slope and ride slowly to the stables and dismount. Although she saw men ride thus every day, she wondered idly who he was.
She heard the children screaming through their afternoon recess in the school grounds, and the noise of hammers about the boat shed on the spit, and as a background for these sounds, the mill, its belts and saws and chains. Once, when a truckload of logs broke from the bush near the base of Pukekaroro, she roused herself to a keener attention. It seemed to her it was coming too quickly. She had learned to know the different kinds of roar made by the load coming fast or slow, and she always listened in some anxiety, for some of the worst accidents had occurred at the curve at the foot of the hill to men driving carelessly. But she saw she had anticipated as usual. The trucks disappeared behind the rise only to come merrily on across the flat and be braked to a standstill beside the booms.
Alice wondered how everything could be going on just the same. It seemed to her incredible that nothing should be altered there now that she had seen something of what went on below the surface. She wondered if any other page 361 mother there were facing the tragedy of seeing a child plunge into uncertainties.
After four o'clock she heard steps through the house and the front gate click. Stung to wide-awakeness she swung her chair round. She saw Asia go down the path to the store. But she was still wearing the blue print dress she had worn that morning, and she went hatless, with nothing in her hands. Presently she returned laden with packages of groceries. Instead of taking them straight inside she came round the veranda to her mother. She was breathless, apparently from hurrying up the hill.
“Mother, a man has just come up from a new family below Point Curtis to ask for help. His wife is very ill. I said I'd go.”
She said it so naturally that for the moment Alice believed her.
“Oh, dear”—she raised her face from her sewing—“who is it?”
Asia did not hesitate as she looked into her mother's eyes and down at a slipping package.
“Haywood; he said the name was. Uncle David said I could tell what it was, and send for him if necessary.”
“Oh, yes.” Alice bent over her sewing with a curious feeling of perplexity.
“Mother, if it was typhoid or pneumonia or anything like that I might stay for a few days. You can get Mrs. North or Eliza King. But there won't be much to do. I did some cooking this morning.”
Then Alice saw.
She ran her needle into her finger, and leaned down while she put it in her mouth. Prepared though she thought she would be to meet the trial when it came, she felt a rush of pain through her body. But she was able to answer in a voice that did not betray her state of mind:
“Certainly. You must stay as long as they need you.” Something in her rose to play the game. “You will need page 362 some old linen, and you had better take some jelly—I'll get it.”
She got up quickly, dropping her sewing in the chair. She felt she had to move, to do something. Asia turned with her, walking a little ahead. Her face was flushed, and she could not look at her mother. She kept arranging the packages under her arm as if it were difficult to carry them.
“Now, don't do any work, Mother. There's no necessity——” she began, as they entered the hall.
“Oh, Asia, will you cease worrying about me—I—I—really—I can look after myself.”
Asia was arrested by the irritation in her mother's voice, and she was misled by her manner into thinking she suspected nothing. It had the effect of diverting her for the moment, and clearing the air between them. She really thought her mother was becoming more independent, and that she now disliked being fussed over.
“Oh, all right,” she answered, in a tone meant to placate, and walked on to the kitchen.
Inside her room Alice pressed her fingers into her temples to ward off the blackness that swept before her eyes. She took up her smelling salts, which helped her to steady herself. Mechanically she began to look for old linen, with a reactionary feeling that she need not have gone so far in aiding and abetting the lovers. But she made up a bundle, and taking it to the kitchen, she found two pots of jelly, and placed them with it on the table. Calling out where she had left them, she returned to the veranda, praying that Asia would get ready and go quickly. She hoped this would be one of the times when Mabel and the children would go up the Kaiwaka road to meet Betty, and that it would be over before they got home.
A quarter of an hour later she heard Asia come to the front door, put something down, and come on round the veranda. As she turned the corner Alice saw that she had changed into her plain old navy suit, and that her hair was neatly arranged under a sailor hat. She was dressed and page 363 looked exactly as she always did when she went on such visits as the one she had described. Alice dared not look directly at her, but she was stupidly conscious of her carefully quiet manner and her extraordinary poise.
Steeling herself, she determined to be equally calm.
“I hope you won't find it very serious.” She looked past Asia's face, pretending to be attracted by something on her hat.
“I hope not.” Asia could not elaborate the statement. Cool though she appeared to be she was inwardly seething with emotion, and anxious to get away as soon as possible without seeming too abrupt. “Good-bye, Mother. Don't garden in the sun, and don't bother cooking hot meals for the children. Give them cold stuff till I come back.”
This further solicitude almost upset Alice. She dared not speak; she merely nodded her head as she put out her cheek for Asia to kiss. The caress was one of the most perfunctory they had ever bestowed upon each other. Hardened by the dread of reaction neither of them dared make even a show of affection. Without another word Asia turned quickly and disappeared round the veranda.
Alice stood in a daze watching her go down the path. She saw that she carried a light straw case, and that she walked as she always walked, with a free swinging stride. Just before she reached the blacksmith's shop she turned round, and seeing her mother looking after her, she waved her hand.
Tears gushed from Alice's eyes as she waved back. That the familiar greeting should not have been forgotten in that tragic moment touched her to the core. She began to sob, and, sobbing, walked inside to her room. She did not want Asia to think she was watching to see where she went. She saw her cross the spit bridge and enter the bush at the accustomed place. She did not know that once she was alone out of sight among the ferns and trees Asia sat down on her case and shed sad tears, not on account of anything ahead of her, but of sorrow for that she had left behind.page 364
Alice had stood staring into the bush for some time before she felt the deathlike stillness of the house creeping upon her like some ghostly invisible presence. She tried to put it out of her mind. She told herself the house was just the same, that the children would soon be home, that everything was as it was that morning. But an incurable restlessness seized her. She went out into the hall, meaning to go outside, but instead something drew her to Asia's room.
As she looked round it she could not see that a thing had been changed. There was no sign that its owner had departed in a fever of unrest. Flowers freshly cut the day before filled several vases. The windows were open and the blinds fixed to let in the sun and breeze. The evidences of Asia's taste and individuality impressed her as if she were seeing them for the first time. She looked round at the pictures, the furniture, the books, the ornaments. She began to wonder why she had always associated certain material things with certain modes of thought, certain ways of living, as if one would commit murder or not according to the kind of furniture one owned, be immoral or not according to one's taste in colour and line.
She had expected to feel in Asia's room as if she had seen her coffin carried out of it, but there was something so reassuring about its sunshiny freshness that she could not cry. She walked to the window looking out upon the river to lower the blind, as the sun was streaming straight in. Her eye caught the light sparking from a bit of the zinc roof of the cottage across the river. It fascinated her. She wondered if Asia had reached it. Then she saw she had no business to follow her there, no business to try to visualize the lovers, no right even to think about them.
As she turned back into the room she wondered what clothes Asia had taken with her. On a sudden impulse she turned the handle of her cupboard, to find it locked. She tried the drawers of the bureau. They, too, were locked. It was the first time, as far as she knew, that any of her girls had locked up their things, for she had taught them such page 365 respect for each other's property as to make the precaution unnecessary. And she had never heard that the trust had been abused.
It struck her with the force of a blow that she was the person Asia had suspected, and there she stood convicted. And although Asia would never know that she had spied, she had believed that she might, and she was right.
Hot from head to foot with humiliation she hurried from the room out into the garden, and, unseeing, along the back path among the vegetables. There were mean things in her life of which she was ashamed, things she could not bear to think about, but she had never felt worse about anything than she did then. Her self-condemnation roused her out of the insensibility she had been cultivating for days to a determination to redeem herself in her own eyes, to redeem herself not by passivity, but by something positive, both in attitude of mind and action.
With her eyes hard and bright she made a contract with her soul that henceforth she would be no man's judge, and the censor of no one save herself.
Mechanically she stooped down and pulled a little clump of weeds from a carrot bed. When she raised herself she saw Betty and Mabel and the children coming along the path behind the cottages. She hurried inside to get tea ready for them. When she opened the cupboards she saw that Asia had cooked a stock of food to last for several days. She wondered why she was surprised and touched at this further evidence of consideration. She saw she had been supposing that Asia's whole character would be altered because she had chosen to do one thing forbidden by the conventions.
At tea she told the girls that Asia had been called away to a sick family. As this had happened before, they asked no inconvenient questions, nor did a suspicion enter their minds. In answer to a question, Alice told them they could not under any circumstance call upon Allen Ross in Lynne's page 366 absence, and she forbade Bunty to cross the river or go near the mill till his father returned.
After tea, as Alice went to her room to change, she remembered that it was the turn of the brown dress. She knew she had to wear it, for David Bruce was coming to dinner. But almost guiltily she took it out and laid it on the bed and looked at it. To wear her best finery on such an occasion looked at first like sacrilege to her. Then she told herself it was part of playing the game she had determined to play. Still, it was not without a few regretful tears, tears for the pity of it all, that she put it on. However, when she looked at herself later in the glass, she felt a little glow of triumph that she had so far conquered herself as to keep up appearances in that manner.
She rose on the front veranda as David Bruce came up to the gate. He kept his eyes upon her as he entered and mounted the steps. Without a word he took her hands, held her off at arm's length, and looked at her. She saw by his eyes, where laughter and the mistiness of tears were mingled, that he understood the criss-cross of her emotions and decisions, and her feeling about the dress, and that he knew what the day had meant to her.
It was not till they were in the sitting-room that she turned to him with the words that had been on her tongue as he came up the path:
“You know she has gone to him, David?”
“Yes, I know.”
That was all they said about it before dinner.