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The Story of a New Zealand River


page 425


it had been a fancy of Alice's, after they had decided that they would move to Auckland to live, that they should leave the bay in the spring, on the anniversary of the day they came down the river in the black punt. Even Asia said it was a nice idea, and Bruce, who was determined that Alice should now have a few of her whims gratified, said it should be arranged that way if it meant chartering the Ethel specially for the occasion.

And it did mean that in the end, for the anniversary did not fall on a regular steamer day. The imaginations of the captain and the crew were fired by the magnitude of this enterprise. It was the first time the little steamer had ever been hired for a private undertaking. They cleaned her up for the occasion, and flew the New Zealand flag, which they displayed only for such events as the King's birthday, Empire Day, the owner's birthday, Labour Day, and the anniversary day of the Auckland Province. And for long afterwards they dated various happenings as so many days or weeks before or after “the week we took Mrs. Roland and the family from the bay. Special trip, Mister. Nobody else on board. Cost 'em thirty pounds.”

Almost the entire female population of the bay and a few of the men gathered about the private landing at the side of the tramway and the booms to see them off. The Ethel was to get away about nine o'clock, on the top of a high tide which allowed her to get up to the launch wharf over the mud flat.

The morning was fresh and clear, with a winter tang still in the air, and the river rippled to a light western breeze charged with ocean ozone. The zinc roofs of the cottages glinted in the sun. The shallow waters of the bay page 426 sparked in patches where they were torn by the hurried movements of shoals of little fish fleeing from some enemy, real or feared. The white line of the sandspit glowed from the narrow channel by the mill side to the foundations of the store. All round the horizon, the hills, high and low, cut sharp into the rain-washed sky, not yet warmed up by the sun. Pukekaroro and the bush walls behind the mill were brilliant with spring colour, clumps of rata red and kowhai gold and new fern greens. But nowhere now was there silence, and rarely could one hear the song of a solitary bird calling for its mate. Not a tui had been heard about the bay for years, and even the enterprising wekas had been driven further into the forests.

Everywhere that morning the daily business of the place was going on as usual, with its accompanying agglomerate of sounds; for, however much the women of the bay were interested in the departure of the late boss's family, David Bruce had not seen that it was an occasion for sentimental interest on the part of the men. Only those who could, like the old head carpenter, conveniently leave jobs on the spit or about the store, and Bob Hargraves, now promoted to be local manager, were there for last words or final instructions.

While the last of their baggage was being put aboard, Alice sat in a chair on the Ethel's deck with a favoured few gathered about her. In her arms she held a huge bunch of spring flowers that Harold Brayton, with nice feeling, had gathered in the now neglected old garden in the pines. His quiet presentation of them had brought to Alice's eyes the first of the many tears she was to shed that day. Hovering over her, divided between tears and jokes meant to sustain her own and everybody else's courage, was Mrs. King, white haired and fatter than ever, and sure of her supreme right to claim most of the last moments of the whole family. In contrast to her, her daughter Eliza stood silently by, still in deep mourning for her drowned lover, but trying to smile at her mother's sallies. Mrs. King had a powerful rival in page 427 the person of Mrs. Bob Hargraves, who had been trying vainly for a week to hide her immense pride in her husband's promotion, and in the fact that he was now to have the house on the cliffs as a residence, with a good deal of the old furniture and fittings intact. She now stood on the other side of Alice with an air of owning the whole family almost as pronounced as Mrs. King's. On the fringe of this familiarity, with a somewhat precarious hold upon it, stood Mrs. Bob Jones, who was uncomfortably aware that the boss's wife had never liked her, although Alice had always courteously acknowledged her position as the wife of one of her husband's most important and trusted heads, the second, indeed, only to David Bruce. Mrs. Bob Jones felt in her secret soul that her husband should have had the boss's house for residence, and she also felt in her secret soul that he would have had it but for the unfortunate fact that Roland had on and off throughout the years paid her certain attentions in her husband's absence, until his final complete absorption by Mrs. Lyman. She had seen sadly in the last weeks that her chickens were coming home to roost, and she wondered how much of what she had called mere flirtations with the boss had got to Alice's ears and how.

On another part of the deck Betty and Mabel held court with some of their elder pupils, and with those few of the better class younger country folk, who as old school-fellows had some claims upon their friendship. The two girls, who had resigned their positions as teachers to follow their mother's desire that they should get degrees at the Auckland university, were wildly excited at the prospects of life in the city, which they knew only from short and tantalizing visits.

To a little group of boys Bunty outlined with flourishes reminiscent of his father the impression he intended to make upon the town school that would be favoured by his attendance. Listening to him, but not with that amount of ad-page 428miration he would have liked, stood Elsie, shyly holding the hand of Lily Hargraves, her favourite playmate.

Asia alone had no particular group to smile upon, but went from one to another on the wharf, shaking hands, promising not to forget them, and telling them that she would write, because it was kinder to lie than to tell the truth. The bay knew that she was the person it was really saying good-bye to, for she had told all frankly that she was going to Australia to live, and that she might never see the place again. Bruce had not packed up, or said a word about going except in the ordinary course of business, and Alice had said that she would often return, so that the farewell emotions really centred on Asia, who saw that she had meant to the place more than she ever imagined.

There was more than grief and a sense of coming loss mixed in the emotions of that farewell. Nobody had told the bay that Alice and Bruce were to be married soon after they got to Auckland, but everybody felt in their bones that something of the kind was to happen, and their whispered speculations and their anticipations added a pleasant excitement to their other feelings, and caused them to look for signs. But in this respect they were doomed to disappointment, for Bruce talked on the wharf to Bob Hargraves till the captain called out “All ashore” as the last box went aboard. Then in the scramble of final hand-shakes and good-byes, the excitement of seeing the gangway drawn and the ropes thrown off, they forgot to see if Bruce looked at Alice or if she looked at him, for they were trying as people do at a circus to see every way at once, and to catch the eyes of all the family in turn for that last look and smile of recognition that seemed at the moment to be so important.

Alice stood, unashamed of the tears in her eyes, looking back at the faces blurred before her, and hoping that she had really been something more than a pleasant picture for them to talk of after she was gone. If she could have seen into their hearts and realized how much they really did page 429 reverence her as a pure, wronged and gracious lady, even though their estimation of her meant an unconscious criticism of her dead husband, she might have felt, as Asia did, that it was pathetic they could feel so about a person they did not know.

The family group stayed still while the Ethel moved out into the channel. Betty and Mabel and the children continued to wave to their friends on the wharf till they were opposite the mill. Then there was a diversion. The mill siren blew three long blasts as a salute, and the mill flag was run up and dipped in their honour, while the men gathered on the wharves cheered loudly as they passed by.

Swelling with pride at the greatness of the hour, the captain of the Ethel answered with such steam power as his machinery could muster, and there ensued a duet of laughably uneven quality till they had passed the mill grounds.

“We came in fear and trembling; in glory we depart,” murmured Bruce, as if he were quoting something, as he turned his amused but sympathetic eyes upon Alice.

“Oh, David, don't make fun of it. I'm sure they mean it,” she said, wiping her eyes.

“Of course they do,” he answered.

He had looked on at the whole morning scene, seeing with amusement the rivalries that had crept into the leavetaking, the local jealousies, the obtrusion of claims upon his and Alice's favour, all the ebb and flow of ordinary human feeling and motive into any situation, humorous or tragic. But outwardly he had shown no favours, but had given as usual the impression that he was the same to every one, that supreme achievement of diplomacy among average people in a small place.

When the Ethel reached the main channel out in midstream, and the faces on the wharves were no longer to be distinguished, the family group dissolved. Bunty and Elsie went off to explore the steamer in the care of the first mate, and Betty and Mabel found seats that suited them where they might flirt unseen with the second mate, page 430 who was a fresh good-looking boy they had met before.

Alice, Asia and Bruce continued to stand near the stern, looking up the river. They had forgotten the people, and were thinking of the place. They looked at the mountain cleaving the sky like a giant wedge of earth driven into the heavens, at the gap through which Tom Roland had brought his dreams of wealth and glory to fruition, at his self-made monument, the mill, roaring and screaming its efficient way through the crystal morning, at the long streamers of smoke drifting away from it on the breeze, at the cottages clustered by the water, and at the house above the white line of cliffs, now half buried by shrubs and trees.

“I never thought I should feel like this about coming away,” began Alice.

“We are not leaving it,” he smiled. “We never really leave anything behind.”

“No,” she admitted humbly. “I am bringing away all it has taught me. Why are you smiling, Asia?” she added, catching a gleam flitting across the blue eyes. “I suppose you want to tell me not to be sentimental.”

“Wrong, Mother. I was thinking of the secrets locked up there in that little place, the whole of life in a nutshell,” nodding her head back at the bay in general. “I guess you are the only person who knows them all, Uncle David.”

“Probably,” he smiled.

“Let them die,” said Alice quietly, looking out over the low swampy southern bank at the Brayton pines that were now coming into view behind the green hill.

She thought of some that Asia did not know, and Asia thought of some that her mother did not know, and Bruce thought of some that neither of them knew.

Thinking of one in particular, Asia moved away from them to a place where she was out of sight for the moment. She wanted to look her last upon the place in the bush above the point they were now passing where the two men had lived that summer. She thought of the page 431 story the little cottage hid, and of the tale it would never tell. Her eyes softened as she looked up into the fresh spring greens, and at the dark rocks reaching out unevenly into the tide below. She felt passionately that her summer story had been a great thing to her, and she could only hope that it was a story that would never be spoiled. She had learned, perhaps too soon, that lives are not finished performances, or any series of rounded-off experiences, but a flow of endings dovetailing into fresh beginnings, of abortive experiments, of searches, of reachings out after alluring signs, of retreats, hurts and disillusionments, the whole apparently bound by a cohesive thread, sometimes lost sight of, a thread that seems to lead somewhere, but about which no wise man will dogmatize.

She stayed alone till they reached the gap. Then she looked for her mother and Bruce, who were still where she had left them, looking back up the river.

“I wish,” Alice was saying, “that I had a picture of the old black punt. I always meant to have some one take one before it broke up.”

“For a family crest?” inquired David Bruce, amused at her sentimentality.

“What more appropriate thing can you suggest?” she demanded, her grey eyes lighting up.

His story-telling eyes alone answered her.

And then they turned with Asia to see the last of the bay. They did not speak as bit by bit the gap cut off the familiar features of the place. The mill side of the river went first; then the bay, their old home and the mountain; then the green hill, the Kaiwaka heights behind it, with the spot where Tom Roland lay buried; and last, the black pines of the Brayton farm.

But they knew, even when the gap had cut it all out of sight, that they had not left the river and the hills behind them.

Asia felt that she would carry the freedom of them with page 432 her to Australia, into her work with Allen Ross for the intellectual dynamiting of the unthinking masses.

Alice told herself that she would carry the inspiration of them with her into the refuge she planned for the remaking of broken lives.

David Bruce had a fancy as he stood there that he would like to come back to them to die, if only he might be buried as lost diggers were by the sweet fern on some hillside under the open wind-swept sky. But even as he pictured to himself that free and pleasant ending for his bones, he suspected that Alice would see to it, if he died first, that every horrible trapping that civilization has devised for the disposal of a defenceless corpse would be heaped upon his in the name of reverence and respect.

And smiling at his fancy, he drew Alice with him towards the captain, who was beginning to think it was time somebody recognized the importance of his part in the events of the day.