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The Story of a New Zealand River


page 343


refusing to think any more that night, Alice dropped into a heavy sleep from which she was startled only by Asia's knock and the usual question as to whether she would get up or have her breakfast in bed. As the door was not opened she merely roused herself sufficiently to say she would have it in her room, then she sank back to doze for some minutes before she remembered that something had happened. At first she could not think what it was. She puzzled over scraps of sentences that danced about in her memory like a spot of light reflected on a wall from a moving mirror.

Then her mind cleared suddenly, and she saw herself back in Bruce's room, and remembered that she had told him her story, and that it made no difference to him. She was not as surprised at this as she might have been. It seemed now as if she had always known that she would tell him, and that he would understand. It was other things in the evening that crowded upon her attention, that stung her to wide-awakeness. She knew she had not dreamt them. She knew they were true. She told herself she had to decide what she was going to do about them.

She stared at her wall as if she saw there in letters of fire that Asia was going away with Allen Ross, and that nothing could stop her, as if she saw there in burning words the reason why she, of all people, was the one least able to help or prevent them.

“Good morning, Mother; how do you feel?”

As the door opened wide Alice jumped, and stared at the familiar face and form that hid a mind so much a stranger to her. She could hardly believe that the greeting and the page 344 tone were the same ones that she had heard with little variation all down the years.

“Oh,” she exclaimed stupidly, startled into temporization. “I must have dozed again.” Her head dropped back, and she pretended to be very sleepy.

As in a dream she watched Asia fix the blinds, regulate the windows, and bring the breakfast table to her bedside. Nothing could have looked more innocent of defiance to the traditions than she did. She was dressed in the simplest of blue gingham frocks, her hair piled loosely on her head. If she felt uncertainty or anxiety she was clever enough not to show it. So far sleeplessness had left no telling marks upon her. She looked as fresh as the early morning, as sweet as an ocean wind, as sure of herself as a river running swiftly to the sea. Seeing her now in the light of her chosen future, her mother could only feel that she was too unreal to be true.

As she finished settling the breakfast table Asia smiled into her mother's eyes with a studied pleasantness. She knew her mother had not slept well, but she ignored the fact as one of those she had made up her mind to ignore. She thought she knew exactly what her mother's attitude was and would be, she felt words on either side would be utterly useless, she hoped they would get through the summer on the mutual understanding that there was nothing to be said, and she meant, if her mother went along without an open break, to talk to her some time later, when they might both speak more calmly with so much of the experience behind them. She thought she knew what it would mean to her mother. But with the terrible ruthlessness of youth, combined with her own hard common sense, she told herself that her mother had had her chance, and that age had no business to cripple the impulses and desires and plans of youth.

She knew that so far her mother had had nothing but suspicions to go upon. She had learned from David Bruce the night before that he had till then said nothing, and she page 345 had supposed he would go on saying nothing, although she had not asked him to.

Alice had seen for some time that Asia was managing her. Sometimes it had amused her; sometimes it had hurt. She had made up her mind several times that she would not let it go on, but she had always succumbed weakly in the end, feeling that for the sake of peace she might as well, that it didn't matter. Now she saw that it might be the easiest way out of this crisis, that if she let herself be managed they might avoid the break that she dreaded as much as Asia did. She could not smile back at her, but she looked past her inquiringly at her dressing-jacket hanging over the back of the chair.

“It's going to be a hot day, Mother. You'd better not work in the garden,” said Asia, as she reached for it.

“Oh, very well.”

“Don't you want to sit up?”

Mechanically Alice drew herself off the pillows, while Asia helped her into her negligee.

“Now, don't let your coffee get cold, Mother,” and with that she was gone, closing the door behind her.

“Don't work in the garden, Mother. Don't let your coffee get cold.” The words rang on in Alice's ears with the dominant insistence of drum beats on a march. Alice had often been comforted by these expressions, which seemed to her the outward and visible sign of an inward care that she loved to think her children felt for her, but now she wondered how much it meant to Asia to say them, whether it mattered at all.

She did let her coffee get cold while she drifted into another conviction of failure so devastating that she would gladly have died as she lay there in bed.

Nothing but the fear that Asia might come in drove her finally to choke down as much as she could. In dismay she saw that there were four slices of toast when she could eat only one. As if she had been destroying criminal evidence she wrapped up the other slices in some paper and page 346 hid them in a bureau drawer till she could dispose of them later.

She dressed slowly and absent-mindedly, doing things in the wrong order, and fumbling as if she were recovering from an illness. After she had aired and made her bed and tidied up her room, she went out to sit in her veranda rocker on the shady side of the house, outside her window. The day was not yet far enough advanced for the heat to be uncomfortable, and a morning freshness still lingered above the river, which lay without a ripple below her. The scent of roses and honeysuckle filled the air about her. Plants and creepers grew and trailed about the veranda posts, so that she looked through a leafy frame away over the low lands into the western haze. The noises from the mill, the eternal reminder of the preeminence of her husband's brains, the embodiment of his vitality and his success, seemed to beat upon her ears with a more than usual arrogant aggressiveness.

For a long time she sat feeling too crushed to face or analyze the thing that had beaten her. All she could feel was that she was beaten.

By degrees she thought backwards over her life, but not in any sort of order or association or logical connection, and out of scrappy scenes she pieced an arraignment of herself, and some kind of explanation for her failure.

She was staggered to realize how little she knew of the people with whom she had lived. “You do not know human beings,” Bruce had said. Now that she was alive to this fact she began to remember things that strengthened it. There flashed among others into her memory the story of a girl who had been found dead in a gully at the foot of Pukekaroro some years before. The case had come before Harold Brayton, and Mrs. Brayton had hinted to her what the girl had died of. But the story had been told her only in a guarded way. She had never taken in the full force of it. She had learned nothing from it. She saw now that page 347 owing to her own attitude stories had always been told her in a guarded way, the decent way, she had supposed.

She wondered if there was any tragedy going on now under her unseeing eyes. “You do not know one-half of what has happened round you in this little place,” Bruce had said. She began to review her life in its relation to the village about the bay. She had seen it all grow out of the rushes and the coarse grass. She had seen every plot staked out. She had marked the progress from day to day of every little home—the planting of the houseblocks, the rapid running up of the frames, the weatherboarding, the roofing. Then she had watched for the families to come in. As it had been her duty to call on them she had always done so early in the first week, making herself as pleasant as she could, especially to the brides and bridegrooms, for whom she always felt an absurd sympathy, as if they were heading for some sorrow which she saw and they did not.

As Tom Roland had prospered, her sphere of benevolence had enlarged. The presents she took to the new babies became more ostentatious. She sent cakes and presents at Christmas time to the poorer families. When the bay school opened she became its patron. She went to the picnics and concerts, and gave out the prizes with nervous little speeches. She had been the Lady Bountiful of the village. She had been pleased to feel that she had entered into the lives of these people, that she had meant something to them in the way of an influence towards refinement and righteousness. She had liked to know that she was welcome in every house, that the children ran to meet her, that chairs were specially dusted for her to sit upon.

But now she saw that she had known only one side of these people, the side that mattered least, the party manner side. She had prided herself that people always behaved in her presence, that they took no liberties with her. She saw now that this meant that no one had ever come to her with a story of sin and shame, that no one had ever come to her with the cry “Help me” hot upon trembling lips. No one page 348 had ever come to her for the understanding that in desperate moments saves souls from despair.

She saw that every one had lied to her and she saw why. She saw that every one had conspired to shield her and she saw why. She saw that because she had shut herself off from life life had closed its gates to her. And she saw that she did not have to flee from life because life had maimed her, that she should have done as David Bruce had done, that she should have reached out to it, taken it with both hands and used it.

Slow tears ran unheeded down her cheeks as she saw that the scheme of respectability that she had preserved in the face of cruel odds was all wrong, that she had laboured for twenty years to build something that had been no real use to anybody, except, perhaps, as a comforting delusion to herself, that it had been merely a pleasant fiction to her, and that others had passed it by because it had touched their lives only in their lightest moments.

She wondered afterwards how she managed to face lunch. Fortunately for both her and Asia, Mabel and the children always came home from the bay school, and in the fuss of looking after them and getting them off again in time strained silences and forced conversations were eliminated.

Alice lay down afterwards for an hour or two, and then, drawing her chair to the east side, she sat down to continue her investigation. She was determined to see herself now as she was. She had thought she had become emancipated from much of her past. She had come home from the plays stirred about many things, her mind a ferment about the “intellectual assent,” the “special case,” individual rights. But her emotional reaction to the situation she had found in her own home had plunged her back into the arguments of Puritanism, to fixed principles, to inevitabilities, to all the bogies that follow in the train of fear and prejudice.

The more she thought about it the more she craved to get away from the people she had failed. She wondered how she could face them again with the full truth of her own page 349 futility crushing her. She asked herself what she meant to the members of her own family. Would Betty or Mabel come to her with their secret thoughts? Physically they were women now. How did they feel about it? She did not know. She had told them one or two essential facts. She suspected Asia had added to their knowledge, but what they realized of life she had no idea.

What was she to Bunty, a healthy roystering boy, at the intolerable age when everything feminine was beneath his notice, when a mother was the dragon who ordered him to wash his face, clean his boots, and go to bed at unkind hours? Would he come to her when life began to puzzle him?

What was she to Elsie, a sweet and gentle child, who played much alone, and never gave anybody any trouble. Did she see her mother as a remote personage who was not to be bothered, as somebody who occasionally graciously condescended to play with her, but who could never play her way? She remembered the child had been taught by Asia and the girls not to trouble her mother with her childish griefs.

What was she now to her husband—an attractive figurehead for the respectable family structure that in his own way he seemed to value, a woman admired by people whose education and position he was bound to respect because he knew they ran the world? If she meant any more to him than this she did not know.

What was she to Asia? She knew that Asia loved her; that she recognized “the bond,” and that she always would. She knew Asia valued her powers of endurance. She knew they were knit together by a common experience that meant inexpressible things to both of them. But what did she really mean to-day to the girl whom yesterday she thought she knew, and to-day saw that she had never known and perhaps never would know? What had she ever done for Asia except question every new move she had made, shake page 350 her head with the advent of each new idea, and oppose more or less openly her free and fearless ways?

She saw herself as an automaton who droned “don'ts” monotonously whenever any one pulled its string or poked it with an inquiring finger. In her imagination she conjured up the figure she thought she must now be in Asia's eyes—a sort of demon of caution enclosed in a wet blanket, with ominous arms pointing ever to disaster. She exaggerated its forbidding aspects till it became a Frankenstein.

She went over the things that she and Asia had talked about in the last few weeks—the garden, the weather, a summer cover for her bedroom chair, her new clothes, the sunsets, and meaningless gossip about people in Auckland and at the bay. She saw now that only bitter personal experience had brought her to realize the truth of Mrs. Brayton's words, spoken years before. In the throes of a momentous experience, torn by doubts and indecisions as her mother knew she must have been, Asia had chattered to her of flowers and the weather.

She began to wonder what she really was now to David Bruce. How could he love her if she was what she now seemed to herself to be? What had kept his affection the warm and beautiful thing it had been? Did she know him? She had been stunned the night before to think he would do the “infamous” things he said he had done. If she did not know David Bruce whom or what in the world did she know?

She asked herself what she was now to believe. She saw she would have to take stock again of her faith. Could she believe that a thing that Bruce would do was wrong? If she did believe it was wrong what was to be her attitude towards him? If she did not condemn him for doing wrong things could she condemn anybody else? How did one judge? What constituted the “special case”? Were Asia and Ross to be classified under that heading? And supposing it really was certain that they would never be found page 351 out, would she be so disturbed about their wrong-doing then? Further, would she not even be prepared to tolerate an action that would prevent their being found out? No, never, she told herself, and then again, yes.

Through all this torture of indecision she wanted passionately to do the right thing. She prayed that she might not settle into indifference, into the easiest way. Though she no longer prayed to gods who were abstractions in the sky, she cried out to something not of herself, to the god in a blind and struggling humanity, the something that keeps it struggling in spite of the blindness.

When David Bruce came to dinner he found her in the front room beside the window. In her eyes he read much of what she had been through, and he saw that she turned as she always had to him for the way out. It was a minute before she saw that he, too, had been scored by the night before.

“Oh, I hope you did not worry about me, David?” as she held out her hands to him.

“I thought about you. I could hardly help that.”

She noticed that his voice sounded tired and that he looked as if he had not slept. She forgot herself in thinking of him.

“Don't worry about me,” she commanded. “You have all got to stop worrying about me.”

A smile flitted across his eyes as he caught the new note of resolution.

He motioned to her to sit down, and took a chair near her. But he made no attempt to talk, knowing they would soon be interrupted. They both sat looking at each other wonderingly, but with the certainty that they meant the same to each other. Bruce was still asking himself how she had kept her story from him. She was still wondering what else there was about him she did not know. But the answers would have made no difference.

They did not talk much at dinner, but the children were accustomed to their quiet moods, and seeing that he was page 352 tired they thought nothing of it. Even Asia, absorbed in her own story, saw nothing unusual about their silence.

The sun was setting as they walked out to the veranda and drew chairs to their favourite place behind the rosetrees outside Alice's window. It had long been an accepted fact that they sat here undisturbed, unless it was by Roland, who occasionally sat there too, when he was at home. Asia had instilled into the minds of the rest of the family that the “elders” liked to be alone after dinner, and it was to her training that Bruce and Alice owed much of the privacy they enjoyed, a privacy they could not have arranged for themselves without attracting attention. Bruce had wondered many times whether it had been done innocently or with design. It was one of the things he admitted he did not know, and he admired Asia the more for being clever enough to keep the knowledge from him.

Soon after they settled themselves they saw her go down past the store, and along the spit to the little bridge that now spanned the channel to the other side. They watched her disappear into the bush, evidently to make her way up to the road and down to the cottage without passing through the mill grounds.

Bruce expected that Alice would make some appeal for sympathy, but she did not. She continued to stare into the sunset while he filled and lit his pipe. Presently he leaned towards her.

“Have you decided what you are going to do?”

She did not move as she answered, her eyes still fixed on the sunset:

“I suppose I must not speak—I see it might be no good—but I don't know what to do. I still feel I ought to do something. How can I sit on here and see her go every eveing—and know—and know——” Her voice fell away to a whisper.

“My dear,” he began very softly. “Don't you think that is just conceit? We are all such infernal egoists that we can't conceive that anything ought to go on without our page 353 assistance or resistance. We will think that we personally are so important to the march of progress, to the defeat of evil. We don't see that sometimes the best thing may be the elimination of ourselves.”

She turned her head slowly, and looked into his questioning eyes.

“You are right, David. That is one of the things that is the matter with me—oh, dear, so much is the matter with me.” Unexpectedly her voice ended in a sob.

He closed his hand upon her arm, and smiled at her.

“So much is the matter with most of us. You have no monopoly over the muchness.”

She recovered herself. She determined to keep her mind clear of emotionalism, for there were many things she wanted to ask him.

“Wouldn't you tell her, David? I have always felt that if a man came into her life she ought to know.”


“Well, it would make a difference to most men.”

“It would make a difference to most of us if we knew everything about everybody. If we didn't have delusions about most people we could not endure the sight of them. Considering we cannot see the whole of people, by all means let us see as much of the pleasant side as possible, and remain in ignorance of the things that might hurt us. I'm not so grim a realist that I would not throw dust in my own eyes if I could. The trouble with me is that I can't, so I have learned to take the truth as pleasantly as may be. But the Lord forbid that I should always be ramming so uncomfortable a thing down other people's throats. I only do it to avoid what looks like something still more uncomfortable. Now, why tell Asia? What good would it do her or Ross to know? What would the knowledge save them from? It would hardly stop them doing what they want to do, which would be your chief object in telling them.”

“But if you wouldn't tell them, David, you must think it would make a difference,” she persisted.

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“Supposing it would. I should call that a good reason for not telling them. If they were likely to find out from others, I might think differently, but they will never know unless you or I tell. What right have we to drop a useless and unpleasant fact upon innocent people?”

She looked at him without attempting to answer.

“The right thing in cases of this kind is the kind thing. And don't let the deception worry you. Deception is one of the kindest methods man ever used. It covers up more ugly sores, helps more people to fresh beginnings, and sees more people into peaceful graves than anything else on earth. There is hardly one of us that could afford to part with it. Could you? Could I?”

She sat very still considering his words. Watching her as he puffed at his pipe, he realized how much she had aged in the past week, and he saw that if she could not be roused she was likely to let herself be crushed. He remembered that she had not worn the brown dress since the dinner, that she had appeared only in her oldest clothes. He contrasted her with other women he knew, who, faced with disasters, got some subtle comfort from their gayest gowns.

“Why don't you wear that brown dress?” he asked abruptly.

“Why, David,” she began, startled, and then her eyes fell before his quizzical gaze.

“You know, you are acting as if there had been a death in the family, when it is instead a matter of life seeking to renew itself. It ought to be an occasion for gaiety. Yes, I mean that. Now you wear your brown dress every second night if not every night, from now on, whether I'm here or not. If you have decided to let them alone, you may as well be pleasant about it.”

Her attempt to look shocked was a failure. Although she would have curbed any desire to laugh outright, she could not help smiling at him. But she was in no mood to be light for any length of time.

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“David, I am going to leave them alone, but I cannot be happy about it, not even to please you.”

He closed his hand over hers.

“All right, but you will wear the brown dress?”

“Very well. I will do that to please you.”

He smiled again, and patting her hand, returned to his smoke.

After some silence she returned to her questions.

“David, you think they are making a mistake, don't you?” She sat up straighter in her chair, and looked at him with almost a judicial air.

“Why, how do I know? Only time can decide that about any action. If they win the world to respect their friendship, it's a success; if they don't, it's a mistake. We will be able to decide in ten years' time.”

“But you think something.” She would not be put off.”

“My dear, I know what you want to know. You want justification for leaving them alone, for perhaps helping them. You want something to say aloud in the night to that conscience of yours. Well, this is what I learned to say long ago to mine. When I am faced with a human being in a mess I am not faced with the problem of compiling rules and regulations for the whole human race for all the ages. That is the thing we forget when we get off our ridiculous remarks about public morality and social order. What have I to do with cumbersome abstractions when I am faced with a specific instance of the cruelty and injustice of ignorant human judgment? If I were lecturing in public on morals, or helping to frame a code, I should talk very differently from the way I do when a girl comes to me with the prospect of a broken life hanging over her. I prevent all the harm I can. I've kept some girls out of it here when I knew in time, and guessed they could be frightened out of going with men by a good talking to. But I did not preach to those who came to me with the harm done. That would have been very useful, wouldn't it?”

Alice dropped her head unexpectedly into her hands.

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“Oh, David, what a failure I have been,” she choked. “I have never helped anybody.”

He tried to comfort her, and to convince her that her self-condemnation was extreme and absurd. But he returned to his shanty feeling that he had not succeeded, and that she would have to work her conviction out of her system in her own way.