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The Story of a New Zealand River


page 407


late that night David Bruce stood alone in Bunty's room beside Tom Roland's body. Outwardly it looked like any other body laid out beneath a sheet, except that there were no hands to fold upon the breast. Bruce and one or two of the men had had a sickening task trying to make it look presentable, but they had succeeded so well that there was no aggressive sign of the mangled thing it had been. The white face looked extraordinarily dead, lacking the fierce eye fire of the living man. Only his reddish hair, now dulled with grey, bristled still as if it would make a fight for life. His square jaw was set in death as it had been in life, but there was a pathetic sensibility upon his strong features that now softened his expression, a something of appeal that arrested Bruce as he leaned over him to pin the handkerchief to the pillow.

Since the body had been carried there no one but Bruce had seen it. Alice, knowing she could not bear to look upon him, had stayed in her room, asking Asia to see that she was left alone. Not even Bruce was to be admitted to see her that night. Asia broke the news to Betty and Mabel, who, remembering only their father's more generous and cheerful years, were stricken with this first contact with death, and went to bed to cry in each other's arms. They were only too glad to be assured by Asia that no conventions required them to look upon their father's body. Asia saw no reason why she herself should see it. She would have done anything for it that had to be done in the name of decency and respect, but she could not pretend that she had any sentiment to spénd upon it.

Bruce went in for more reasons than one. He knew the body had lain alone, and he had sentiment about it. He page 408 had just come from going round the bay. He had visited every family, had talked to most of the men, and had given such consolation as he could. He knew that if Tom Roland's body had lain in any house but its own it would have had a weeping crowd about it all night long, that the only dry eyes were those of the two women who had known him best, and that, while every other home about the bay was crushed with shock and helpless with grief, here there was already the sense of immense relief and the beginnings of readjustment.

This aloofness of his family from him in his death struck Bruce as one of the saddest things that he had ever known. The fact that he understood the reasons for it did not make it any the less sad. He knew well enough that any show of feeling on the part of Alice would have been indecent. All she could do was to be still. But he himself had been the boss's friend, curiously partial though that friendship had been. He had not yet recovered from the shock of seeing that dominant thing wiped out in an instant. It still seemed incredible that it should be gone. He realized that the stillness that hung over the house was more than the stillness of death, that it was also the stillness of the passing of Tom Roland.

And thinking of it, he wondered what Roland's death meant to himself apart from the freedom it gave to him and Alice. He did not feel personal grief of the kind that makes one wonder how life is to be faced without the friend now gone. He felt as if some landmark he had cared about with the affection one can bestow sometimes upon an inanimate thing had been suddenly destroyed by a storm. He had the sense of loss one has at missing a familiar object that one has had around for years. It was more physical than mental. Roland's energy had always been a stimulus to Bruce, like a strong wind ever blowing and forcing one to move with it.

Bruce surveyed their partnership as he stood there. They had had a certain kind of intimacy that went deep, that had page 409 rarely found expression in words. It was the understanding of two men, male animals, for the physical problems they had to face. Tom Roland had always felt that David Bruce understood as no one else did the goad of his own rampant vitality. For that understanding there was little he would not have done for his partner. But only on the evening in Bruce's room had any evidence of feeling on the subject come up between them. Now Bruce knew that the boss had loved and respected him with probably the finest feeling that had entered into his mixed emotions.

Their business relations had been their common ground of interest. In the main they had agreed about their plans, and they had readily compromised where they differed. They had the same sense of justice and of fairness. They had respected each other's judgment. They had been amused at the same things in the men, at the same incongruities in the happenings of everyday life. Business had inspired them with a mutual admiration for work well done, for promises promptly kept, for adjustments honourably made, for problems pluckily met and solved. In all their years of association they had never had a dispute. They had been a splendid working team. Bruce had supplied more of the ideas than any one ever knew, but he was more than willing to let Roland have the spectacular part of putting them into effect. Bruce was interested in the idea; Roland in getting credit for the result. Both had been satisfied.

Intellectually they had never met. As far as Bruce knew, the only book the boss had read in years was The Letters of a Self-Made Merchant to His Son. He had never had any ideals for humanity. Such improvements as he had made at the bay were those of the benevolent despot who finds a vast emotional satisfaction in the praise and gratitude of immediate dependents. Roland had loved doing good only where he could be sure of getting the eye-shine and hand-shake in return. The great movements of the world had left him not only untouched, but absolutely ignorant page 410 of their tendencies and power. But he had met what he called the fads of young people without hostility, with a good deal of tolerant amusement, and with the remark that they might as well do what pleased them for a while, because he was certain that as they grew older life would round them up and put them in the safe line of sober judgment.

Though Roland had responded, apparently without forethought, to his own impulses, he had been generous, as far as Bruce knew, in dealing with the results. He had paid well for all his fun, and he had kept his respect for the women and girls he had lived with, having, as his one radical accomplishment, a single standard for the sexes. He gave women the right to do as he did, and when it came to the supreme test of his philosophy, he was prepared to take, as he had shown, the same stand towards his wife.

These things David Bruce thought over as he looked upon him, and he wondered that with so much known so much should still remain unknown about him. After fixing the window and seeing that nothing would rattle or blow about if a wind arose, he went out, locking the door behind him.

He found Asia in the dining-room waiting to give him something to eat. They began to talk at once of how they were to manage the inquest and the funeral, and not a personal word was said. Then Bruce lay down as he was on the front room couch. As they all lay awake they could hear, at intervals, the sounds of hammering on the spit, where the head carpenter and his staff worked all night on a labour of love, the coffin, the most elegant coffin the bay had ever seen, made of the choicest bits of mottled kauri from Roland's private collection.

As Asia thought, and remarked only to Bruce, the boss would have been delighted with the stir caused by his death. Glorified details of his dying were telegraphed all over the colony, to become the subject of many a sermon. Resolutions of sympathy for the sorrowing family were passed by dozens of organizations. One man sat at the store telephone page 411 for two days taking down the telegrams that poured in upon Alice and Bruce. An urgent wire arrived the morning after his death from Auckland to say that fifty leading business men of the city would come to the funeral, and later in the day a message was received to say that a big delegation of timber men would come by launch from the Wairoa.

After breakfast people began to flock to see him. Asia took upon herself the task of receiving them and showing them into the room where the body lay, and of seeing that they did not stay too long, and of managing them generally. That was something Alice felt she could not face, and she spent the day sitting in her own room, listening to the ceaseless procession of steps up and down the hall. In the afternoon a party of fifty children from the two schools, with their teachers, all carrying wreaths and crosses of wild flowers, came awed and sobbing to look upon the face of the man who had always been the life of the school picnics, the donor of most of the prizes, and as an amateur conjurer the most applauded of their entertainers at the concerts at night. To many of them, in whose homes he had been a little god, he was Uncle Tom, the lovable deity who always had a threepenny bit to spare, and who made jumping bunnies for them and shadows on the wall. It was this procession of children that brought to Alice's eyes the only tears she shed that day. And she wondered how a man who had always been so irritable with his own should be so loved by the children of everybody else.

It was not till the evening of that first day after the accident that Mrs. Lyman appeared. As they sat trying to eat in the dining-room, they saw her drive up in her well-known little yellow gig. With a quick look at her mother, Asia got up at once. But she was surprised to see Alice rise and wave her down.

“I will meet her,” she said quietly.

Asia shot a look at David Bruce, who refused to see any-page 412thing, for Betty and Mabel were no longer oblivious of signs. So she was left to her own speculations.

Alice and Mrs. Lyman had met at shows, where the florid, black-eyed landlady of the Hakaru public house had somewhat paraded her ascendancy over the boss in a manner that had more than once disgusted his wife with him as well as with her. Alice had seen in Mrs. Lyman nothing more than a vulgar harridan who was only one stage removed from a prostitute. She had felt at times in years gone by, when her husband's infidelity had hurt her, that she could have understood his carrying on with a beautiful or seductive woman, but she never could see how a man who had been attracted by her could also be attracted by a type so utterly different from her own.

But her feeling about Mrs. Lyman had altered. She knew she was as vulgar as ever as she looked at her standing in the doorway, dressed ostentatiously in black to show the world that she considered she had as good a right as any one to mourn for the dead. Once Alice would have called her mourning brazen, but now she wondered if it were not a sign of a real courage. The bay and the countryside had always forgiven the boss his sins in so far as it was aware of them, but Alice knew from Bruce that Mrs. Lyman had been pretty generally ostracised for years by all the members of the community who claimed to be respectable. Alice knew the bay would condemn her, but she herself felt only a pity for this primitive woman who was willing to take risks for the man she loved, and who was now left bereft of the one human being upon whom she had lavished her affections for years. She wondered if it were not greater to dare all deliberately for a thing beloved than to deny feeling as she herself had done. Who was to judge?

Mrs. Lyman glared at Alice. She had hoped Tom Roland's wife would be in retirement. She knew David Bruce would receive her courteously if he were there, but she had been a little afraid of Asia, even though Asia had never snubbed her, and so, partly in self-defence, she had page 413 brought a large cross of white hydrangeas that she had taken half the day to make, feeling that that offering could hardly be refused. She was amazed to see Alice come forward and hold out her hand.

“Come in, Mrs. Lyman,” she said gently. “It was kind of you to come.”

Kind! Mrs. Lyman wondered if she had heard aright, and her courage, ferocious in attack, evaporated immediately before the possibility of having nothing to do. She could not even frame the first sentence she had planned. All she could do was to hold out the cross.

“That is beautiful,” Alice went on, “but you would like to see him, and put it with him yourself, wouldn't you?”

“Yes, please,” choked Mrs. Lyman, dissolving into tears at this unexpected reception. Feeling that something had put her dreadfully in the wrong for the moment, she followed Alice to the door of Bunty's room.

“I will see that you are not disturbed for a while,” said Alice, and as she spoke she put her hand for a minute on Mrs. Lyman's shoulder. Then she motioned her to go in, closing the door behind her. And for some time afterwards Alice felt as if she had at last got into the flow of the great human current that carries all men, great and small, towards some goal of understanding and goodwill which they see as in a glass darkly.

At the end of half an hour Mrs. Lyman stole out like a guilty thing, her veil drawn over her face. As she stumbled on to the veranda she came face to face with Asia and Bruce, who were talking to people waiting there to view the body. Asia at once held out her hand, and Bruce walked round with her to help her into her gig.

Suffering a reaction from her temporary humility, Mrs. Lyman tried to console herself as she drove home.

“I must say I didn't expect that from 'er,” she said, “and 'er the cold thing she is. Oh, Lord! Why did 'e 'ave to die? The only thing I 'ad. I ought to 'ave been 'is wife, not 'er, if things 'ad been as they should be. And 'e knew page 414 it. It was me 'e wanted, not 'er, and 'e would 'ave married me if 'e could 'ave got a divorce from 'er. That's this world for yer!”

One of the things Mrs. Lyman had never learned from Roland had been his thoughts about his wife, other than the bare fact that she did not love him, nor had she ever heard from him a hint as to the possible relations of his wife and Bruce. Roland had had his delicacies of feeling and his points of honour.

“Poor soul,” said Bruce, speaking of her later in the evening to Alice. “She loved him, and she never looked at any one else. She will be the loneliest thing in the place for some time. And she did something for him. She was a good cure for polygamy.”

“David!” Alice was shocked, though she could not have said why.

“Well, my dear, she really has kept him monogamous, I believe, for the last three years. Don't you think that's a good thing?”

She gave him a strange look.

“I am glad he had her, David. I'm glad he had something he really wanted.”

She looked down at her hands.

They were sitting in the front room, expecting no one else to come that night. Asia had retired a few minutes before, and the house was now still. It was filled with an overwhelming conglomerate smell of the flowers that had been brought in that day, and although all the windows were open the air was heavy and sense deadening.

Neither Alice nor Bruce had any intention of coming to themselves so soon, but the mention of Mrs. Lyman had brought to her mind something she had thought of many times that day.

She had guessed there would be plenty of money, and already her thoughts had turned to it and to what she could do with it. Although she had never seen her husband's will she knew from Bruce that he had made one, page 415 and she knew that whether he had or not, under the New Zealand laws the bulk of his money and property would belong to her and the children.

“David, do you know if he left her any money?” she asked, raising her face.

“Mrs. Lyman?”

She nodded.

“Not in the will I've seen, the only one so far as I know.” He looked curiously at her. Her face looked whiter because of the black dress she was wearing, but there was something about her eyes that held him. He was interested in the way in which she was keeping herself and him in the background.

“There's plenty of money, isn't there?” she asked, and he saw what she was coming to.


“Then, David, I'd like her to have some, to think he left it to her, quite a good sum, please. Can you manage that?”

Full of her own thoughts she did not see the significance of the light that shot across his eyes, or notice the quality of his tone as he answered shortly:


Soon she saw that his thoughts were not concentrated as they should have been upon the carrying out of her designs. His eyes were fixed upon her face with one of his inscrutable expressions, a compound of hunger and tenderness and the sternness of voluntary, renunciation. She looked back at him doubtfully till his eyes flamed suddenly, and then she rose with him and felt herself melt into his arms.

But he had not held her crushed against him for many minutes before he remembered. Stiffening, he stood still, merely holding her face against his. Then he drew away from her.

“Oh, Lord!” he exclaimed, disgusted with himself. “Poor Tom. I did mean to wait till after the funeral.” Then he regarded her reproachfully, as if she had been to blame. page 416 “Keep away from me,” he said with a comical sternness. “It will be at least two weeks before I have time to deal adequately with you.”

For days he carried with him the memory of the smile with which she had answered his words.

Roland's funeral far outshone that of Mrs. Brayton. To the people she had been a vision, a luxury; but the boss had been a plain fact, a necessity, something that went with their food and clothes and simple pleasures.

The entire population for a radius of twenty miles came to it. In the mellow warmth of the still late autumn day they sat out in the field, and along the spit, and on the tramway. Those who drove were in charge of a committee of men who placed them in the order of their coming to fall later into line for the Kaiwaka cemetery, where, as the day was fine, Alice and Bruce decided that the service should be held so that more could hear it.

It took Bruce and Harold Brayton and Bob Hargraves and Asia, and a committee working under them, four hours to arrange a programme that should provide for all who had not seen the coffin to see it, and to place all with some attention in the funeral procession. By midday everybody had been disposed into groups and their order fixed. Then they waited only for the arrival of the Auckland merchants, who had telegraphed their progress at intervals along the road. When at last their three big brakes drawn by teams of four horses were seen swinging round the base of Pukekaroro, there was a stir through the whole crowd of mourners, and a feeling of relief at this break in the tension.

At one o'clock the procession started.

Roland's coffin, loaded with flowers, and followed by three buggy loads of wreaths and crosses, was carried in relays on the shoulders of the oldest workers. The first eight, which included Shiny, were men who had grown grey in his service, all having been with him since the month of his beginnings in that bush. Round them in a sort of page 417 square marched the other pall-bearers. Immediately following them walked David Bruce, Harold Brayton, Bob Jones, who sobbed at intervals, Bob Hargraves, and Asia, the only member of his family who was present. She did not want to go, but she felt she ought to represent her mother, to whom it would have been an ordeal so trying that they decided she should not go.

Following this little section of the people nearest to the dead man walked the Auckland and the Wairoa delegations. Then came the lines, over a quarter of a mile long, of engineers, saw men, mill and bush hands, tramway and general workers, and behind them their families. The school children with their teachers followed, and after them the general public, among whom Mrs. Lyman drove, heavily veiled, in a long, straggling wave of vehicles. Seen from the house on the cliffs the coffin was out of sight on the road at the base of Pukekaroro before the last buggies had fallen in from the field.

The ministers of four of the local denominations assisted to bury Tom Roland, and to hold him up as an example of a noble and successful citizen, pointing a moral for all in the heroic sacrifice of his end.

Immediately after the funeral a public meeting was arranged to consider plans for the erection of a monument to his memory. At this meeting it was decided without argument that the anniversary of his death should be a public holiday in the bay school for ever, and that the story should be told every year of how and why he died. There was a three months' dispute as to whether the monument should be erected on the spot where he had died or above his grave. Finally the advocates of the cemetery won the day.