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The Story of a New Zealand River


page 385


without seeing Alice, Roland and Bruce left together in the morning for the bush. Though he saw at once that the boss did not want to make any reference to the night before, Bruce could not let it go at that, and as soon as they had cleared the kitchen grounds he said he wished to say something about it.

“Go ahead, then,” said Roland uncomfortably, looking in front of him. “But I've nothing more to say. I said all I think about it last night.”

Something about this blunt discouragement and the boss's comical discomposure amused Bruce. He laughed, but rather harshly.

“Upon my soul, Tom, do you think you can finish up things like that? Good God! You must have done some thinking to come to this, and some suffering. And all I want to say is I know it, and I thank you for feeling about me as you do. There are things that can't be put into words, and I don't try to put them there, but common decency demands that one show something occasionally. And whether you like it or not, I'm going to say I understand and appreciate your attitude.”

The unemotionalism in his tone relieved Roland, who was more pleased by his words than he could have showed. He was perfectly willing to be praised. His childish vanity was capable of lapping up oceans of honeyed words. But he did hate anything that upset his comic-opera view of life.

“That's all right,” he grunted. “There are things I could say if I knew how to say them, but I can't.”

“All right,” smiled Bruce. He saw he would have to find other ways of showing how he felt about it, if any such page 386 were left him. All day his thoughts reverted to the boss, and to his curious inconsistencies. He speculated about his mental processes, his preoccupation with action, his absence of any power to analyse motives or tendencies. Roland had always appeared to settle things easily, guided by some secret spring of intuition that took him straight to a conclusion while other people wrestled painfully with their souls about it. Bruce had always admired his inexhaustible fund of common sense, and he suspected that it was his common sense combined with his sense of fairness, rather than any reasoned philosophy about morals, that had brought him to the point of view he had with regard to himself and Alice.

When they returned to the bay on the third evening Ross and Lynne were staying to dinner, and nothing in the situation was allowed to obtrude itself upon that meal. Bruce noticed, however, that Alice seemed dull, and that she looked at him from eyes that gave signs of sleeplessness.

Afterwards Roland took Lynne off to one of the timber vessels to see a captain who had some good stories to tell. Asia and Ross disappeared. Telling Alice that he had to finish up something at the store and would be back presently, Bruce also went off down the path. When he closed up the office, about half-past eight, he found the lovers sitting outside on the tramway, waiting for him.

“Come on the beach a minute. I want to ask you something,” said Asia.

Wondering what it was, he turned with them. They all walked the few yards to the end of the cliffs in silence. But as soon as they reached the sandy beach, and were screened from sight, Asia stopped.

“What is the matter with Mother? Has she found out about us?” she asked, her eyes fixed inquiringly upon his face looming over her in the dark.

“Why do you ask that?” He returned her questioning look.

“She has been dreadfully worried for days. You have page 387 been away, so you haven't noticed. I don't know of anything else that could have upset her. But I didn't want to say anything until I was sure, for I would have preferred to wait till Allen went away. But if she has found out we both feel we would rather talk it out with her at once. Allen insists on doing his share of it.”

Then Bruce saw that they had both screwed up their courage to face the trying ordeal. He looked away from them, but even in the dark they were conscious of the smile that lit up his eyes.

“Uncle David, why do you look like that?”

As he turned to them again, his glance fleeting back and forth between them, they realized that he had something to tell them.

“Asia, my dear, your mother has known about you and Allen from the beginning. She knew you were going to him that day you left for the mythical Haywoods. She knew when she got you the linen and the jelly.”

He saw plainly how astonished they were.

“What do you mean?” exclaimed Asia.

“Just what I say.”

“She has known all along!” she repeated.

“She has.”

“And you knew she knew?”

“Well, why not?” he smiled.

Asia and Ross looked at each other, and back to him, and back at each other again, saying nothing, but thinking the same things.

“Did you tell her?” she asked, after an eloquent silence.

“I did not.”

“Then she only suspected.”

“No, she really knew. There are some things you can't keep from the people who love you, you know.” His eyes still smiled at them.

“She knew!” she repeated slowly, looking at Ross. “Then she knew when she met us at tea and dinner all the time. I can't believe it. And we thought we were so smart at page 388 putting her off the scent, we were so careful how we behaved, how we looked at each other. And she knew! Uncle David, really——” She broke off, seeing that he was enjoying her amazement.

“And after all, you were the deceived party,” he drawled. “Your poor benighted, out-of-date mother was clever enough to fool you.”

He wished Alice could have seen their faces at that moment. Ross looked humbly at Asia.

“I always felt there was something about your mother we were missing,” he said.

With a flushed face she turned to Bruce.

“I think you ought to have told me about this before,” she said crossly.

But he was obviously amused.

“Why should I? You know I have never talked back and forth between you and your mother. You thought it best she shouldn't know, and she thought it best you shouldn't know she knew. And there you were. What was I to do?”

Ross nodded his understanding.

Asia looked down at the sand, and dug her heels and toes into it for some minutes.

“How does she feel about it then? You can tell me that now.” Her eyes searched his.

“She has left you both on the lap of the gods,” he replied quietly.

He was amused to see that these two people who had been so sure of themselves, so ready to defend their rights and principles, should be so subdued at this information.

“‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,’” he quoted lazily.

And to that they had nothing to say.

“I would talk to her about it when you feel like it,” went on Bruce, looking at her. “You might find out something if you did, and I have come to think it would be a pity if you went away without knowing her.”

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Then he said good night and left them.

It was not until they had talked for some time that Asia remembered that the cause of her mother's recent worry was still unaccounted for.

“There's something else,” she said, puzzling about it. “I wonder what it is.”

“I'm willing to predict, dear, that there are things that you will never know about that mother of yours,” said Ross.

Bruce found Alice, as usual, outside her window. They had not been alone since they had said good night by the gate after Roland had thrown his book of revelations at them. He began without any preliminaries.

“My dear, I have just learned from Asia that you have been badly worried while I have been away. She came to me to know what the matter was. I gave her something else to think about. Now, what do you mean by worrying?”

“I can't help it, David.”

He felt rather than saw that she was torn still by indecision, and he knew that, after all, he would have to help her to settle it. Leaning forward, he peered up into her troubled eyes.

“You must put what Tom said out of your mind,” he began firmly. “I told you then and I tell you again that I will never let you do anything with a doubt in your mind. I believe you will always have a doubt in your mind about living with me. That is the end of it for me. It must be the end of it for you, for uncertainty would put a strain upon us at once. Now to help me, as well as yourself, you must stop worrying about it.”

She looked away from him through the creepers into the night. He did not know that as she sat so still she was overwhelmed with a passionate desire that he would carry her off and force her to do the thing she could have done in no other way. For that mad moment she wished he was not the masterpiece of insight and control that he was. She thought that once the initial plunge was taken she page 390 could settle down to the compromise with a fairly comfortable conscience. It was the plunge she could not face. But if the responsibility had been taken from her she felt she could have been carried along on the wild winds of adventure with a fierce joy. Her heart cried out against its long lean years of hunger and suppression. It beat against the bars of training and tradition. But even while it raged it realized that it would succumb in the end to the something that chained it.

As she sat still and tense, struggling with intoxicating visions, Bruce took out his pipe and began to smoke. Something about the sight of his pipe always restored her sense of proportion. She realized that they were not a cave man and woman, but a pair of persons on a veranda, with a group of innocent children in the house behind them, and all the other appurtenances of a well-regulated environment. She knew she was not finished with mad moments, but she guessed that they would always trail off into safe periods of submission.

“You will say something to Tom,” said Bruce, turning to her. He saw that he had brought her back to earth rather suddenly.

“Oh, yes—that is, I may not say anything, but I will write him a letter. That will be easier,”she stammered.

Late in the evening she asked him to what Roland had referred when he mentioned his reason for thinking they wanted to live together. Bruce told her, and they saw that it was natural that he should have come to the conclusion he had about it.

When they said good night they both wondered if this was indeed the end of their beginnings, if they were not destined for the peaceful ways of middle-age. Neither of them could see that there was anything left to happen.

Alice lay awake most of that night wondering what on earth she was to make of the rest of her life. She could not understand why, now that she seemed to have disposed of almost all the things that could hurt her, she should re-page 391main main restless and unsatisfied. She was at peace and would remain so, she knew, with her husband. She would keep her “beautiful spiritual” friendship with David Bruce still unspotted from the world—and however much she might relapse in mad moments she knew that was the only way for her. She was resigned to Asia's plans; resigned to losing her; resigned to seeing her go her own ways, whatever those ways might turn out to be. But all this resignation left her stranded on a desert strewn with the dry bones of missed adventure, with no finger-post to point the way to the high places of a new experience. It seemed to her that her life stretched out before her a drab and colourless thing fading off into a vacuous old age, wherein she would continue to play her ornamental part, to dress up for dinner, to play the lady bountiful, to sit out so many evenings in the week with David Bruce, to play his accompaniments less and less ably every year, and to be to her girls some sort of a pretty picture of nice old motherhood.

Listening to Asia and Allen Ross that summer had been responsible for much of her intellectual unrest. It was not only her physical energy that had been restored. The Weltgeist that was moving hundreds of thousands of women of her age all over the world to repudiate an ornamental middle-age had got her. She had been stirred by the eager talk of Asia and Ross about socialism and the labour movement. Indeed, their interest in such things at a time when she would have expected them to be oblivious of everything but themselves had had a good deal to do with her changed attitude about their unconventional ways. They had talked with design to distract her attention from themselves, but none the less they were in earnest, and their enthusiasm affected her more than they knew.

Alice had always known that there was a good deal wrong with the world, but she had had no idea that it was in the awful mess it was till she heard Ross and Asia outline its horrors of unemployment, wage slavery and economic inequalities. She had paid little attention to the subject be-page 392fore, though she had listened to many a fruitless argument at her own table between Roland and some passer-by. When she had asked Bruce questions, he had answered lightly, knowing she was not really interested. She had unconsciously adopted in the matter her husband's point of view, judging from his business success that his opinion must be of value. She had seen that there was little to reform at the bay, for apart from occasional emergencies it was one of the most prosperous places in New Zealand. Though Roland snorted at the very word socialism, feeling that its advocates planned to kill just the kind of brains and initiative that he himself possessed, he had been a most generous employer, often paying more than the standard wages, charging only a nominal rent for his cottages and land, making little on the cost price of the goods purchased by his employés at his store, and lending money without interest to those of them who needed to borrow. He had built the school and the dancing hall, had given and prepared the football and the cricket field, and had never opposed a single improvement asked for. No employer in the colony had taken more precaution against accident, or had provided more safeguards for his work-people. When socialism was mentioned in his presence he naturally pointed to his community as a convincing example of the benefits of capitalism, as if that settled the subject for the whole world and for ever, and he always resented and fought in ways at his command such socialistic legislation as was proposed from time to time by the Government.

So Alice saw, as she lay awake that night, that the bay had little need of her awakened desire to start something. She saw that she would continue to sit upon the carefully dusted chairs, to give out the school prizes with a gracious smile at the flushed, upturned childish faces, to be a charming hostess to her husband's clients and distinguished visitors, and to be to the working people that vision of refinement and righteousness that had once been a source of pride. And she saw that every time she got a letter from Asia in page 393 Sydney it would bring home to her her own futility. And she saw that not a week would go by, in spite of all her efforts, without her wishing she could go to David Bruce with all she had to give him.

So it was no wonder, after such a night, that Alice was not ready in the morning to give to Asia's discovery the importance that in Asia's mind it occupied.

Asia, too, had slept little. She thought over the whole summer, seeking to have a complete picture in her mind. She was deeply hurt and humbled to think that she had failed to see how much her mother had altered. She hated to think she had been so absorbed in herself that she had not seen things that she felt must have been obvious. She determined to talk to her mother at once, but now that she was not buoyed up by the thought of principles to defend, now that she had to play the ignominious part of trying to explain her own misunderstanding, she was, for her, uncertain and uncomfortable.

She screwed herself up to face it with two cups of strong coffee, and guessing the time when her mother would have finished her breakfast, she walked in to her, shut the door, and sat down on the bed facing her.

Alice did not even see that she had something important to say.

“Mother,” Asia plunged, “Uncle David told me last night that you know about Allen and me—that you have known all the summer.”

“Yes, I—I have known,” said Alice lamely, with almost the air of having been detected in some questionable occupation. Then she wondered why Asia wanted to bother her about it at that moment. She was almost too tired to think. She looked back at the girl sitting in her fresh blue print dress as if she were something on the wall. She did not notice the significance of the look in her eyes or of her unusually uncertain manner.

Her dispassionateness startled Asia, who saw her face outlined against the pillow as if it belonged to some one else. page 394 For once she felt as if her tongue were glued to the roof of her mouth. She did not know how to go on.

“You have known all the summer, Mother,” she repeated, looking down at her hands.

Then Alice saw that the advantage was hers, but she was so little of a player of a game that she did not know how to use it. She could only look at Asia, wondering why her sureness and decision had deserted her. She felt no sense of triumph at conquering even for a moment so redoubtable an enemy in the battle of wits.

“Yes, I know. I understand,” she said simply, as if she had disposed of it long before, and wondered why the question should have been reopened.

Then Asia saw that something else had swamped the importance of her behaviour in her mother's mind. For a moment that was a shock to her vanity, but she was quick to see the pathos of the whole situation, and she was determined to show her mother how she felt about it.

“Mother, I didn't know you knew. I have misjudged you. I would have told you if I had thought you would understand—I didn't want to deceive you. I thought it was the best way. I had to do it. You could not have stopped me, and I thought it was better to wait——” She stopped feeling that she was saying something superfluous, that her mother knew it already.

“My dear, I think it was better to wait. Now we can talk about it quietly. I could not have talked about it at first. It hurt me. But it does not hurt me now. I see it all differently. I have learned many things this summer. I shall never worry about anybody again. I shall never worry about you or what you do. I know you are going to Sydney. I shall not worry about that. Now you see that I have altered.” Alice had looked out of the window as she spoke in dull, even tones, but with her last words she turned her eyes upon Asia with a sad little smile. Then she saw that she had astonished her. “You are surprised?” she said questioningly.

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Then to her amazement Asia fell forward on the bed with her face in her hands. Never for years had Alice seen her shed a tear, and she did not see why she was crying now. She stared at her golden head in that unprecedented position for some seconds before she spoke.

“What is it? What is the matter?” she asked stupidly.

Asia made an effort to control herself. She sat up, wiping her tears away with her hands. Despising weakness in herself, she was ashamed of this breakdown.

“Mother, what has happened to you?” she asked, trying to steady her voice.

“To me?” Alice looked at her and away again. “Why, nothing. I just see things differently.”

And that was all that Asia could get from her that morning. But the conversation thus begun lasted with breaks and interruptions for a week, an illuminating week for Asia. She had always loved her mother. She had always passionately admired some things about her, and passionately deplored others. She had suffered more in her sorrows than she would ever suffer in her own. She had prematurely matured in the grim crucible of her mother's experience. She had always known that her mother had had a tragedy in her youth. She had always believed it to be the tragedy of some worthless husband. But she could not see why it should have been allowed to darken her life, and she blamed her introspective temperament for much of her reserve and her fear. She thought all the things she did not understand about her mother were accounted for by that temperament.

They asked each other no personal questions. Asia volunteered a lot of information about herself and Ross, what they meant to do, how they proposed to live, but at the end of the week she was no wiser as to what it was that was troubling her mother, or had been troubling her. There was a curious ebb and flow of emotion between them that week. Sometimes they felt very near to each other, and then something dropped like a wall between them. Alice felt she page 396 had got Asia back again—how, she did not know. But Asia felt at times that she had lost her mother, and it was she, who now made the advances, who tried to follow into that lone land of intimate personality that is created out of pain and the thoughts one thinks in the terrible hours before a slow dawn.

But at the end of the week, though they were not yet clear as to what it was that had happened between them, as to how far it was an emotional or an intellectual change, they did feel an immense gain in mutual interest. Alice saw that Asia now asked her questions with a real desire to know how she felt, and the subtle flattery in this was afterwards one of the pleasant memories of that groping week.