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The Story of a New Zealand River


page 278


allen ross stared spasmodically at the small pale blue object, wondering what it was. It had not hung on the door the night before, he would swear to that. He closed his hot tired eyes. But each time that he opened them it was still there. Presently he made out that it was round and woolly. But further effort to account for it became too wearying. Soon afterwards he made another discovery—somebody had taken the varnish off the door. He was glad, for he hated varnish.

After a short doze he once more studied the blue woolly object. He felt sure that somewhere, probably in some former reincarnation, he had been on familiar terms with it. It fascinated and perplexed him. He forced his eyes away from it.

Then he knew he was going mad. Yesterday the paper had been covered with enormous blue daisies attached to greeny-brown rose leaves on a yellow ground; to-day it was grey, with a frieze in pastel shades of blue and rose. Also, Daphne never fled from Apollo on the pub wall. Of that he was certain.

Once more he closed his eyes, trying to realize that he knew the facts of his personality and environment. He determined that, come what might, he would keep sane. He tried to go over what had happened the day before. He supposed it was the day before. They had walked up from the pub. They had seen the cottage. They had met——

His eyes opened and met again the woolly cap. Now he knew where he had seen it before. Now he knew where he had got to. But what had happened? It came back to him slowly—the ride to Kaiwaka on a cranky horse, the long wait for Mr. King, whom he had been determined to see, page 279 the setting out again in the dusk, the onslaught of the storm, the accident, the oblivion, the slow return to consciousness, the discovery that he was off the road, the sickening fight against stupor, the long desperate struggle to reach the river, the stimulus of the red mill lamps, the last drag along the beach below the cliffs, and up the slope towards a light, and, finally, wonderful music.

He was very tired by the time he had pieced it all together, and he realized that he was very ill. He found that he could not move without pain and faintness, so he lay still, trying not to think. But indistinct impressions of people, of faces, eyes, and low voices came and went in his sub-consciousness.

When he was able to open his eyes again they rested on rows and rows of books on plain shelves opposite the foot of his bed. By degrees he realized different things in the room: a Verestchagin print, the very incarnation of loneliness—one big palm tree, one vulture, one tiger, and one heap of a man in a jungle clearing. He saw Boeklin's “Isle of Death.” He saw “Tivoli” and “Venice” and “The Fighting Temeraire” as Turner saw them. And he saw prints and etchings of old masters and cathedrals.

From a corner by the window “The Winged Victory” of Samothrace seemed to be leaping at him, and over the top of an old silver bowl of glorious roses that stood beside his bed he could see the head and shoulders of a small “Venus de Milo” and parts of brass candlesticks and bronze ornaments on a high mahogany bureau. It all seemed so unreal that he had to open his eyes upon it several times to be sure that it was really there beside that lonely river.

Feeling the strain of consciousness and enjoyment, he dropped off into an uneasy sleep just before Lynne stole in again to watch beside him.

Ross had already been ill four days. For the first two either Bruce or Asia had been beside his bed every moment, for his chill had turned to pneumonia. Lynne had been with him all the time, dozing fitfully on an improvised bed on the page 280 floor. He had faithfully obeyed all orders without fuss, and wisely saw that it was not the time to look significantly at Asia, or to take her kindness and hospitality for more than it was worth.

For the first two nights Ross had been delirious, and in his fever, as he tossed and turned, he had begged and implored something or somebody to leave him alone. Over and over again he had appealed with pitiful intensity to that invisible, implacable foe. His misery brought tears to Asia's eyes, and affected even Bruce.

“Poor devil! He has been terribly worried,” he said to her as they watched.

On the sixth night, after Lynne and Asia had watched him fall asleep, the crisis well passed, he thought the situation was advanced sufficiently for him to tell her the story.

“I suppose you know he is married,” he began.

“Oh, yes. I knew that in Sydney,” she answered lightly.

Then, as she appeared interested, he went on to tell her of the wretched marriage to a pretty, heartless girl who thought she had brains and temperament, but who had instead the kind of hysteria that is the hardest in the world to deal with. She could be so charming to the people she hoped to get something out of that there were not many who knew what a hell she made of life for her husband. Finally, he had had to leave her, providing generously for her out of a small private income. But she had pursued him wherever she could, even into his law classes, and to his public meetings, where she had, on several occasions, made disgraceful scenes.

Worn out temporarily with work for his political party, wishing to study law in peace, and sick to death of her, Ross had stolen off to New Zealand, his departure known only to a few friends, who were to try to see in his absence if something could not be done with her.

Most of what Lynne told her Asia already knew, as she had had sidelights on Ross from various angles. She hid her amusement when Lynne tried to make it plain that when page 281 Ross was rested he would return to his law exams, his politics and his career, and that, in future, women would be merely incidents by the way. She was much too discerning a person not to see why he thus casually disposed of his friend's plans. But she let him talk on.

At the end of another week Ross was well enough to take liberties with the situation. But he did not take them. He ignored, whether deliberately or not, Asia could not say, the privileges allowed to the sick. He was an admirable patient, pitifully grateful for all the attention paid him, and patient to a degree that surprised his nurses. He gave numerous signs of which he was unconscious of the trying experience through which he had passed.

While he was very ill he had been indifferent as to who sat with him, but as he grew better his eyes began to follow Asia wistfully about the room, and he kept looking at the door when she was out. But it was not until two nights before Alice returned that he attempted to take Asia's hand as she sat alone beside him.