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The Story of a New Zealand River


page 397


the sun was setting in a sky cleared by recent rains and fresh winds, which had carried off the smoke clouds and left the hills sharp against the horizon. As Alice waited on the veranda for Asia to tell her that dinner was ready, she watched the colours flame up and deepen in the sky, and as she watched them she felt again the curious vacant feeling that had haunted her during the day. She wondered why the departure of Ross and Lynne two days before had left the place so empty, and she knew that if she noticed it as much as she did that Asia must have been feeling it much more.

The Australians had had a part in her awakening that summer. They had been interwoven, unknown to themselves, into the new material of her aroused interest in the world about her. She had been stirred by their vitality and their enthusiasm. She had begun by resenting them. Now she was sorry to see them go.

She had been ready to sympathize with Asia, but she soon saw that she desired no appearance of mourning. To be suppressed in this direction gave Alice a strange feeling of the artificiality of their relations. She had been in a mood to go deep, but Asia had preferred to dabble in the shallows, and pretend she was unconcerned, and that she was not lonely. This was because she was afraid her mother would over-emotionalize anything that she might say. All day Alice had had a suspensive feeling which she remembered vividly afterwards. She had wondered how she would get through the month or so before Asia left, and still more how she would live on the years ahead.

But the thing that troubled her most was that with David Bruce still left to her, as much hers as he had ever been, page 398 she should be afraid of the future. The “spiritual friendship” had filled her life once. She could not understand why it did not fill her life now.

As she watched the mackerel sky change from gold to rose she saw David Bruce coming along his path, and she was glad that he would be there to dinner. She went down to the gate to meet him.

“Is Tom coming?” she asked, knowing they had been together in the bush.

“He said he was when I left him two hours ago.” He mounted the steps beside her.

“I gave him the letter this morning, David.”

“You did,” he smiled. “I wondered what was the matter with him.”

“Why, what——”

“Oh, he was unusually quiet, that was all.”

They sat down. He began to tell her of a cave one of the men had discovered the day before in the bush. As he talked they heard the beginnings of a rumble about the base of Pukekaroro, and turning their heads, they saw a load of logs break from the low bush and come on down the tramway.

“That will be Tom,” he said, and brushing aside the thought that the boss was driving too fast, he continued his story. “There may be some valuable greenstone in it. It's an old burying place——”

His head shot round, and he sprang to his feet.

Startled, Alice jumped up with him.

The dull roar of the trucks down the hill had suddenly ceased. An instant's sharp silence was followed by a crash of splitting wood, mingled with the snapping and jangling of chains. There was one short echo round the bay and then a piercing stillness.

Straining their eyes, they could see nothing, for the load had disappeared behind the rise.

“My God!” muttered Bruce underneath his breath, as he sprang down the steps.

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As he swung through the gate he saw that she was following.

“You stay here,” he commanded, looking into her frightened eyes. “I'll let you know as soon as I can.”

Asia and the girls rushed through the house as he spoke. Waving them back, he started to run.

“An accident?” Asia looked at her mother's white face.

“Yes,” said Alice faintly, “on the line.”

Asia knew that no man but Roland ever braked a load down so long after knock-off time. She looked after Bruce racing to his shanty for his first aid case. She saw men rush out of the kitchen and out of the cottages, and along the road over the slope that hid the foot of the hill from view. She saw Bob Hargraves and others dash out of the store and run too. She saw women gather in groups on the paths.

“Mother, I'm going, and I will come back and tell you. Go inside, all of you.”

Asia knew she had a right to go because she had helped at many an accident, and had bound up many a cut and broken bone. But she wondered even as she ran if she would be of any use. There had been two wrecks at the curve with men driving recklessly. One of them had been killed outright, and the other had died in a few hours. There had not been wanting predictions that Tom Roland would some day pay the penalty of his carelessness.

Mechanically Alice led the girls indoors and asked them to give the children their dinner and take them outside.

Then she sat down in the sitting-room to watch for the first sign of a messenger. She could not think and she did not try to. But though she could neither imagine nor anticipate a fierce excitement burned her.

Roland was more than half-way down the hill, driving recklessly but not dangerously, before he saw a group of children on the track at the curve below him. The utmost care had always been taken to keep people off the tramway, and during the day a guard was stationed at the tool depot page 400 at the foot of the hill to watch the coming and going from the school. Every family had been warned, and there were signposts at frequent intervals. But after hours the precautions were not taken, as only the boss drove late, and that but rarely. This evening the children of Bob Jones, the head contractor, returning from a birthday party at a neighbour's house, were not known by their parents to be near the line.

Roland jammed on his brakes, but at the rate that he was going they did not hold. He yelled at the children, and the eldest, a boy, started to run, for he knew they had no business there. But the two little girls clutched each other, paralyzed with fright, and stumbled and fell between the rails.

Roland saw that he would be on them before they could get out of the way. As the brakes did not grip, there was only time to do one thing—wreck the trucks and jump for it. He saw that, and knew the risk. But he did not waste a minute.

Hearing the yells, Bob Jones had rushed from the veranda of his house close by. A clump of bush trees that had been left standing because they were ornamental hid his children and part of the line from his sight. But as he ran he saw Roland swing a loose chain end down in front of one of the hind wheels. He saw the load rise over it and sway and keel over. He saw the boss's feet catch as he turned to jump, and he saw one of the two big logs strike him and carry him down, and pin him to the earth. It all happened before he had time to cry out.

Then he saw his crying children, saved with only a few yards to spare.

“God!” he groaned, realizing the cause of Roland's madness.

In a sudden reaction he swore frightful oaths at his terrified children, and roared for his wife, who had run after him, to get them away. Then he ran madly for the tool shed at the curve.

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The first runners from the kitchen and from adjacent shanties reached him as he was dragging out the heavy jacks and levers, and they were about to raise the load when Bruce reached the scene.

The men worked like maniacs, but with faint hope, for one look at Tom Roland's face, which had fallen clear and was unscarred, told them the truth. The rest of him was under the log, something that the most hardened bushman dreaded to see. And when it was, after a few desperate moments, bared to their sight, that terrible lump of clothes and flesh and crunched bones drove most of them to blasphemy to stop the shock of nausea that curdled their stomachs.

But every voice was stilled as quickly as it had been raised. No one of them had ever seen Bruce overcome before, and when he sank on the ground and dropped his head into his hands the men set their teeth on their oaths, and a hush fell upon them, a hush that was broken first by the sobbing of Bob Jones, who began to cry unashamed as he told how and why the boss had done it. In a minute there was not a dry eye left, and other men running up looked and saw and broke down too.

Asia ran up to the group unnoticed. She was the only woman present, and her eyes were the only ones that stayed dry. With one glance round she took it all in, but though she was shocked and sickened she could not cry. She was by no means heartless, but even in that moment she saw that it was a fitting way for Tom Roland to die, that it was the way he would like to have died, and then in a flash she remembered what his death would mean to her mother and David Bruce. Then she looked at him, still sitting with his head in his hands. She saw that all the men stood helpless, stunned as such men are seldom stunned, and that they were all waiting for Bruce to raise his face and lead.

And when at last Bruce did raise his face almost every eye was upon it. They all knew that as Roland's sole partner Bruce was now their head. But they were not all think-page 402ing of their future under him, or fearing changes. So far as they were able to think at all they remembered the whispers that now and again had arisen in the past and died away—just occasional remarks that Roland was away a lot and made things easy for his wife and his foreman, just vague suspicions arising out of nothing but the situation. This and the influence that he had always had over them made them all turn to him.

There were no signs of tears upon Bruce's face, but there was a desperate calm upon it, the result of a fierce struggle for control. He was white under his tanned skin and his eyes looked as if they had tried to retreat back into his head. But what he had been thinking no man ever knew.

He saw no one in particular as he got to his feet. But he was attracted to the man nearest him, whose shoulders were still shaking. Seeing that it was Bob Hargraves, he put his hand on his arm a minute. Then he looked at one or two others, meeting strangely unfamiliar expressions in familiar eyes.

“Get the stretcher, boys,” he said hoarsely. With the words his lips trembled, and he stood still struggling for composure, while sobs broke out again around him. Then when he raised his face he saw Asia. As he walked up to her every one drew away from them.

“You see,” he said, looking calmly into her eyes.

“Yes, I see. What shall I tell Mother?” There was nothing in her tone or her eyes to show that she thought of more than the obvious elements in the tragedy.

“Just tell her he has been badly hurt,” he answered quietly. “I will come as soon as I can. I will have him taken to my shanty.” He gave no more sign than she did that there was anything to think of but the effect of his death upon others.

They both thoroughly understood that any expressions of personal sorrow were unnecessary.

Asia turned to hurry back. She felt much more than she could have showed a sense of shock at the sudden cutting page 403 off of so vital a creature as Tom Roland, but she felt as if it had no connection with herself. She did not even see then that it was pathetic that she should have lived for years in more or less intimacy with a person whose sudden death could rouse no more feeling than relief. She did not pretend that for herself it was any occasion for mourning. She could only feel his death in its relation to others.

Her thoughts ran far ahead of the present as she ran homewards. Her mind became rapidly possessed by speculation as to what it would mean to her mother, what difference it would make to her home. She wondered at once how soon she would marry, and made up her mind to influence her mother to be unconventional about the time of waiting. The more she thought about it the more excited she became. She knew Roland had died worth a good deal, that the quiet way they had lived at the bay was no criterion of his wealth. She knew David Bruce was his sole partner and sole trustee. She knew there would be money for all of them, and she foresaw that her mother would find herself suddenly rich as well as free.

She met Alice at the gate.

“He's very badly hurt, Mother,” she said breathlessly. “Uncle David can't tell how much at present.”

Stooping down, she pretended to take a prickle from her skirt. She had no desire to pry into her mother's soul, or to embarrass her by anything that looked like curiosity.

“We had better get the children away,” she went on, raising herself. “They could stay at the Hargraves' tonight, and go to the Kings' to-morrow. The house will have to be still. I'll get the bed ready.”

And so for the moment she threw her mother off the scent.

But a few minutes later, when Alice stood in front of the dining-room window to watch the procession come over the rise, she saw that it did not come on, but turned by the kitchen towards Bruce's shanty. The swift suspicion that darted into her mind was mingled with a sense of shame page 404 that as a matter of habit David Bruce should be saving her again.

She saw that the quickest way to get the truth was to go after it herself. While Asia was telling so much to Betty and Mabel and getting some of the children's things together, Alice went out of the front door and round to the side path.

One of the men who saw her coming told Bruce.

He met her half-way. There was still no room in his mind for more than the sense of shock and some realization of the grief of the people who had loved Tom Roland. When he had sat sickened with his head bowed he had seen what it would mean to Alice and himself, and seeing it, had dismissed it as something that could wait. He felt no more than this now as he looked at her. But he saw that she was feeling something besides anxiety.

“My dear, you must go back,” he began gravely. “There is nothing you can do, and you cannot see him yet.”

But she looked at him suspiciously.

“David, I will not be saved,” she cried. “I need not see him, if you say not. But he is to come to his own home.” Then something about his eyes told her. “What is it? Tell me the truth, David,” she said very quietly.

“It is the last time he will ever come,” he said, with a sadness he could not help but feel.

“He is dead!” Even though she had thought it, had hoped it and was ashamed that she had hoped it, it was a shock now that it was put into the hard frame of words. The full meaning of it she could not realize. She could not do as Asia had done, let her thoughts run on into the future. In Bruce's eyes she saw nothing personal, and in that first moment there was nothing personal in her own. She did feel even then that death was a thing so much bigger than the desires of any two people that it would have been sacrilegious to obtrude personal feeling upon it. She felt nothing but the shock of a life cut off, a sense of blackness, of inability to move or think.

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“I can't think clearly yet,” he went on quietly. “It will be a dreadful shock to everybody, the men and all. I shall have to think for others. You understand that?”

The light in her eyes grew sharp with a first glimmer of realization.

“Yes,” she said, her voice trembling. “I understand.”

Bruce took a folded letter from his coat and handed it to her.

“Your letter. It was in his vest pocket,” he said eloquently.

A flood of tears blinded her. She sobbed helplessly.

“Don't cry for that,” he said gently.

Then a question formed in her mind. She wondered what had caused the accident, if he were driving recklessly because of a mood brought on by that.

“How did it happen?” she choked.

“He died well, my dear. He wrecked the trucks to save Bob Jones's children who were on the line.”

“He did that!” Her eyes dried as she spoke, and there was a new quality in her voice. Bruce guessed that the manner of her husband's death would greatly affect her feeling about him and her life with him in the past.

“Well, my dear, he never was a coward, was he?” he asked.

They looked into each other's eyes. Though they could not possibly pretend to each other that they would rather Roland had lived, they felt that in dying like that he had earned regrets that they would not otherwise have experienced in coming into their freedom.

“Go home now,” he said after a minute. “I will come as soon as I can. But I shall have to go round the bay first.”

Then Alice looked firmly at him.

“David, he is to be brought home, please, at once.”

“There will have to be an inquest,” he began doubtfully, “and the whole place will want to look at him. His face page 406 is all right, and there is no reason why they shouldn't see him if they want to. But you couldn't stand that.”

“I can and will stand it,” she cried.

“Mrs. Lyman might want——”

“Then she shall,” she answered passionately.

His eyes lit up at her and then grew grave again.

“All right,” he said gently. “I will have him brought home. You had better get the children away.”

“Yes. Asia is doing that.”

With one straight look, in which neither of them tried to show all they felt, they turned, knowing that now that the future was theirs there need be no unseemly haste in seizing it, and that for days at least they would both have to think of others.