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The Story of a New Zealand River


page 418


once again Alice watched by her western window for a boat to come through the gap on the river.

It was the first week in May, when in the southern latitudes nature calls a halt between the anticipativemelancholy of autumn and the winter's onslaught of wind and rain, and gives a consolation prize of a week or two of days filled with crystal sunshine and clear stillness, days when life carries one along on winged feet, days of dreams and visions and those wonderful ambitions that are too vast to be ever pinned down afterwards within the narrow limits of action, days when one forgets death and disruption, pain and disillusionment, and sees only that the world is very good.

It was the afternoon, but there was no haze anywhere, and the hills high and low stood out sharp against the sky. There was no motion among the forest trees and only the suggestion of a ripple on the river. Tom Roland had been buried over two weeks, and the bay had taken up its daily round again, so that outwardly it seemed the same. The mill hummed and screamed its dominance through the days as it had done before. New vessels had come to take the places of the loaded ones beside the wharves.

As yet nothing had been altered, but to Alice it had taken on a new form and meaning. It now belonged to her, to her and David Bruce.

As she looked at the low hills that lay like a band of indigo on the western horizon, she remembered the times she had cried out to them, seeing in them the guardians of the water highway that was to her the way out, the road to a vague land of promise about which she had sometimes allowed herself to dream. She had looked at them as a page 419 prisoner in a valley dungeon might look through bars at a neighbouring mountain pass, wondering if he would ever go that way to life and freedom. Now that she knew she could go any day she chose, she wondered why the keen edge of her desire had gone from her.

In that fortnight Alice had shut down her mind for ever upon the past. Apart from the shock of it, her husband's death had given her little to think about that she had not thought already during that summer of revelations. She had made her last review of the past and its blunders. It was to the future she now turned.

And in that turning she was aided and abetted by Asia with an energy and disinterestedness that amazed and delighted her. The day after the funeral Asia had descended upon her mother with an avalanche of common sense and frankness that crumpled up most of Alice's remaining reserves. When she saw her come into her room after breakfast and close the door behind her she knew she was in for it. But these interviews had been shorn of most of their terrors. Alice merely raised herself on her pillows, and then looked expectantly at Asia, who sat down facing her on the bed.

Asia, who had put her own affairs into the background, was now obsessed by her mother's future prospects, and she was not afraid to show how she felt about it. Alice was to learn with much surprise in the days that followed that the years and her absences had made no difference to the girl's realization of her mother's life, that the apparent difference was due to wider comprehension, to a knowledge that even mothers have to work out their own salvation for themselves, and to the fact that the older one grows the more one sees the two sides to every question.

Asia tried not to be flippant or over-decisive, and to remember that the flowers had not yet faded on Roland's grave. But she could not keep her joy out of her eyes as she looked back at her mother's face against the pillow. She did hope that her mother had not got beyond realizing page 420 what the future might mean. She did hope she could begin again with some of the glow of youth in her heart.

“Mother,” she began, “I hope that now at last you are going to be happy. Don't pretend you don't know what I mean. I know you can't announce your plans to the world, but you can at least tell me when you mean to marry Uncle David. I want to be at your wedding.”

And having it thrown at her like that, Alice had blushed like a girl, and had turned her face away.

“Really, Asia, it is too soon——” she stammered.

“Oh, don't be conventional with me, Mother, please. I can't be quiet about it. I can't pretend to be mourning. You know your husband was nothing to me, though I appreciated his good points. We both did all we could for him while he was alive. Now we can leave him. And you don't have to wait a year to marry Uncle David, or any of that rot. Three months at the outside—”

“Oh, Asia,” gasped her mother with a touch of impatience, “do let us arrange that for ourselves.”

Then Asia had the good sense to see, even while it hurt her vanity, that this was really her mother's affair, and that she ought to be left to plan for herself.

But that started them, and now that the future had got into their blood they found it difficult to keep up before Betty and Mabel that air of soberness that they decided should be preserved before them for a week or two at least. In the days that Bruce came to dinner before he went to Auckland they tried to do the things that the bay expected them to do. They went round the little homes trying to make everybody feel that their world would not be wrecked. They listened humbly to eulogies of Roland that even he could hardly have heard without a blush. And then when the girls and the children had gone back to school, and they had seen Bruce off to Auckland for a week of preliminary arrangements about the will and the boss's estate, they began in good earnest to plan what they would do with their money.

page 421

Roland had left Asia a sum independent of her mother's trusteeship, but as his own children were all under age Alice had the control of the rest of his property, and was, with Bruce, trustee for them. Asia was surprised to discover that her mother had already formulated well-defined plans for the future, that she had thought of a maternity home in Auckland for unmarried mothers, and a scheme for sending them to Australia and starting them in places where no one knew their story. In these evidences of her modernity Asia saw much more of her own influence or the effect of her own actions. That week completed the rapproche-
begun before Roland's death.

At the end of it they knew that judgment was at last entirely eliminated between them, that any sense of ownership that might have lingered on was dead for ever, and that now their youth and age might clasp hands across the bridge of years.

The only thing that had troubled Alice in that week of waiting for Bruce to return was that she could not be as sure of Asia's future as she now felt of her own, but before she could frame a complete sentence on the subject Asia stopped her.

“Now, Mother, you can't settle our future because you are settling yours. Allen and I are just as likely to be happy with uncertainty as you are with certainty. At any rate we can't tell beforehand. And whatever happens to us we won't wreck society or let ourselves be spoilt. That's all we owe the world. And if the experiment doesn't work, whether we can marry or whether we cannot, we will hurt each other as little as possible in the ending of it, and we will come through with understanding and respect.”

And Alice heard her without any smile of superiority, or any predictions of disaster.

Now, as she sat by her window waiting for the first sign of a boat beyond the gap, Alice knew that she was happy. She felt an immense contentment in thinking of her future life with David Bruce. She thought it was curious that page 422 the mental and physical restlessness that she had felt for months had entirely left her. She was by no means in the fine frenzy of emotionalism that Asia would have had her show; as far as her marriage was concerned she was calm. The sex relation had no longer for her that glamour of mystery that so stirs and fires the feelings and imaginations of youth. She knew that though it promised to be in the future a very different thing from that of her life with Tom Roland, it would be incidental, balanced as it had never been in her life before.

She hoped as she sat waiting for the boat that in working and planning how best to spend her money she would lose finally the sense of wasted years that had so troubled her that summer. The real great passion of her heart now was the idea of work with David Bruce, and, realizing that, she understood more than she had before the cementing element in the friendship of Asia and Allen Ross.

When at last she saw something move against the right cliff, like a fly at the bottom of a wall, her speculations suddenly ceased. She snatched up a field-glass and strained her eyes through it. She could easily distinguish the launch and two heads above the gunwale.

Then for a minute her heart leapt to her throat. In all the times she had watched for returning wanderers there had been no craft laden with the promise of this—no time when love, peace and happiness together sailed the swift current of expectation.

She knew by the sign of the foam-crested wake billowing up from the bow of the boat that Asia was driving it at full speed. She could hear the sharp pit pit of the engine above the conglomerate noises of the mill. As they came racing on, something about the impudent fury of that little American machine screaming its effectiveness at the hills got into Alice's blood, and she sprang to her feet, her eyes aflame.

After watching it tearing at her she turned to her mirror to see that her cheeks were scarlet. She smiled at her-page 423self like a girl. She powdered her nose. She rearranged her best old lace about the neck of the brown dress, which Asia had insisted on her wearing that day instead of black. She told herself that she was still young, that the years that the locust had eaten were no more now than an ugly dream.

When she looked out again the launch was level with the point below the mill where Ross and Lynne had lived that summer, and just for the minute she wished again that she could see the end of that story too. Then she saw that Asia was standing up by the engine.

She ran out on to the veranda, forgetting that some one might see and interpret for himself the reason why she waved her handkerchief. She waved harder than ever when she saw Bruce swing his hat above his head. She would have liked to have gone down to meet them, but she decided that would be too conspicuous. When they reached the landing-stage beside the booms she went into the hall. She found she could not be calm now, that anticipation could still raise a ferment in her. But the minute she heard Bruce's voice outside the gate she became still again.

Asia walked off round the garden path, leaving him to enter alone.

It seemed to Alice that his brown eyes held only the old quizzical smile as they met hers, that he came to her with the calm assurance of a husband rather than with the fire of a lover, and the wish half formed in her mind that he would seize her. But she forgot it as he drew her into her own room, that one room in the house in which he had always forced himself to be impersonal.

There as he looked at her before throwing his arms around her she saw in his eyes what no words can ever adequately express, that fierce longing of the human soul for something that it can never get in itself, that something part physical and part mental that completes itself, that tantalizing something that one-half of humanity is always page 424 searching, and that the other half is always questioning when found.

Alice and David Bruce sat in a luxury of silence, and it seemed now to her that there was more magic in the language of his eyes and of his hands than there could have been in any words. After all, what had they to say to each other that could increase the emotion of that hour of freedom? The phrases common to lovers in the first stage of mutual soul searchings would have been stale, flat and unprofitable.

Sounds in the hall first arrested their attention.

“The children home,” he said, raising his face from hers.

“Don't move. Nobody will come in,” she said.

They sat on till they heard steps outside the door.

“Mother,” called Asia. “I'm putting dinner for you and Uncle David in the sitting-room. Now do eat it while it's hot.”

“Oh, Lord!” groaned Bruce. “Dinner! We can't even get through a day like this without dinner. And it must be hot too.” He sat up in disgust. “No use, dear. I've been dreaming of freedom here with you in my arms. But we are not free; we will have to eat dinner every day of our lives. Even if we want to go without it some idiot will impose it on us. And if it isn't that it will be something else.”

She laughed so spontaneously as he drew her to her feet that he looked at her.

“I see,” he said, “I must make you laugh oftener.”