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Man Alone

Chapter XII

page 100

Chapter XII

The new year came in. Rua went away for the night to a dance somewhere to celebrate it, and after that came a hot January and February, and time to muster the sheep again for dipping. It was hard to tell what was happening in the country outside. Little news came into them and only stray bits of gossip. Prices had not risen and the country was as poorly off as ever only that it seemed better in summer for men who had no money and no homes but a camp. There was no end to the slump; there was no end that anyone could see. Men had got past the time when they thought how things would be once this natural calamity had passed. They had settled into an apathy which was not despair but resignation. To Johnson, living there, none of these things mattered any longer. Stenning thought and talked about them sometimes, understood the Government's moratorium which would ultimately settle the question of his unpaid interest and the mortgage on his farm; he argued, with no one contradicting him, questions of exchange and currency. But neither to Johnson nor to him were these things at all real. What was real was the battle they were both fighting with the land they worked. So long as they could live there and were left alone, it was a battle that they could carry on, even while the world sank outside them.

The small world in which Johnson lived might have gone on like this for a long time, but it broke unexpectedly. It was in February, just before they mustered the sheep for page 101 dipping. He was in bed one night sleeping, and it must have been about eleven o'clock and quite dark, when he was wakened by someone calling. What he heard was not just the sounds of loneliness which settled on the farm once the sun had set, the bush-hens calling, or the native owl crying mournfully across the valley, or the sound of wind in rustling manuka. What he heard was more real and closer at hand. He turned over, still sleepily, and then was wide-awake, listening. He heard Rua's voice again, screaming shrilly from the house. He lay in bed wondering what he should do and then heard a door banging and the sound of footsteps running. The next moment Rua was hammering on the door of his whare and crying to him to let her in. He got out of bed and opened the door and she fell forward over the steps clutching at his knees. She was sobbing and held on to him so that it was difficult for him to move. He bent down and lifted her up.

‘What's the matter?’ he said sharply. ‘What's the matter?’ and when she did not answer shook her roughly by the shoulders. After a while she got her breath and seemed calmer. He could not see her face. She said:

‘He'll kill me. He said he'd kill me. He said he'd cut my throat.’

‘What's the trouble?’ Johnson asked. ‘What's the trouble? What's it all about?’

She began to speak again, but her voice choked, and she would have begun to cry, but he shook her, still holding her shoulders with both hands. At last she said:

‘He's a swine. He's a dirty swine. He'll kill me. I know he'll kill me.’

Johnson said, talking to her quietly as to a child: ‘He won't kill you. Now, listen, he won't kill you. He wouldn't do anything like that. He's a good fellow. He wouldn't really hurt you. Now what's all the trouble anyway?’

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She would not tell him but repeated. ‘He's a filthy bloody swine,’ yet she became calmer. He sat her down in the doorway and held her arm until she steadied herself and became quiet again. Then he said:

‘I'll take you back now and we'll see that everything's all right.’

She made no answer to this, but stayed where he had left her while he put on some boots and a coat. The air outside was quite warm and the night still. Then he took her by the arm and helped her up.

‘We'll go back now,’ he said, and holding her arm they walked back up the path together. There was a light in the house. Rua clung to his arm tightly, but her breathing was quiet and she said nothing. When they got to the house they saw Stenning standing in the doorway in his shirt and trousers, and with bare feet. He did not speak to them. Rua, after hesitating a moment, let go Johnson's arm and ran up the steps; she brushed past Stenning without a word and disappeared into the house. Stenning still said nothing. The light was behind him so that his face was in the shadow. Johnson still waited, uncertain what to do or say, and at last Stenning said: ‘Good night,’ speaking quietly and normally, and turned, going into the house, and shut the door behind him. Johnson walked slowly back to his whare and, getting into bed again, rolled himself a cigarette. After a while, watching through the open door of the whare, he saw the light in the house go out. He finished his night's sleep without being disturbed again.

Nothing was said the next morning when Johnson went into the house for tea before milking. Down in the cowshed with Rua, he said to her, trying to break the silence which had become worrying to him, half-jokingly:

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‘You all right, Rua? I thought there was murder being done last night.’

Her face was composed and quiet, but her eyes still showed that she had been crying. She gave him a look that was long and sulkily penetrating and said:

‘I'm all right.’

Then, surprisingly, she smiled at him in a way that was more friendly than anything he had known before.

Out on the hills that day with Stenning, cutting scrub, they rested for lunch in the shade of tall manuka and it seemed to Johnson that Stenning was embarrassed, wanting to say something. Johnson waited, not able to encourage him. At length Stenning cleared his throat. He kicked moodily with his leg in front of him. He said:

‘I guess Rua was a bit upset last night.’

‘She was a bit,’ Johnson said.

‘She's just a kid. You don't want to take any notice of her. She gets wild ideas in her head.’

Johnson said nothing.

‘You don't want to worry about her. We don't often quarrel. I guess it gets on her nerves being alone here so much. I'm sorry she disturbed you like that. You were needing your sleep, too, I reckon.’

‘That's all right,’ Johnson said.

‘She's just a kid really. You wouldn't think she wasn't twenty-one yet?’

‘I thought she was more than that.’

‘She's not twenty-one yet. You can't expect them to settle down, not after living the way she has with all that crazy family of hers. It beats me why she won't settle down more all the same. She ought to have children and settle down.’

‘Doesn't she want to have children?’

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‘I don't know. Seems not,’ Stenning said, and relapsed into silence again. He was playing idly with his slasher, digging it into the ground in front of him. After a while, he said:

‘You ought to get married you know, Johnson, if you're settling here. You'll want someone to keep your house if you get settled in across the river there.’

Johnson grinned. ‘I'm not the marrying sort,’ he said.

‘You ought to all the same,’ Stenning said. ‘There ain't nothing against it. There's quite a lot for it.’

‘Who do you think I could marry?’ Johnson asked, still smiling.

‘Well, there's plenty around. There's Rua's young sister now, she's a nice kid. That'd make company for Rua here.’

‘I guess it wouldn't work so well with me,’ Johnson said. ‘I've always lived alone.’

‘Sure, I know,’ Stenning said. ‘I've lived alone most of my own life, but it ain't so good, not when you're settled in one place and working hard. You want to think that over, now.’

‘I'll think it over,’ Johnson said. ‘I'll think it over all right, but I guess it wouldn't suit me so well.’

‘Well, think it over,’ Stenning said, and they stopped talking for the time.

Johnson did not worry very much about Rua. It wasn't his business to worry whether she was happy or not with her husband. It was easy enough, he knew, for two people living continually in that quiet and solitude to get sometimes so that they might want to kill or hurt each other. He did not envy either of them very much in their relations; Stenning, middle-aged and almost ugly, bent with work and engrossed in his farm, or Rua, young and still almost pretty, bored and slovenly and lazy. He did begin page 105 to worry when, after that evening's disturbance, Rua began to take a friendly interest in him.

When he first came there she had resented him; after that she had gone on to ignore him. It had been clear enough at first that she did not like his being there. The companionship and the interest that he had there was with Stenning in their work and in the farm. She had a habit whenever they were in the house together of always interrupting Johnson when he spoke. She always helped him last at meal-times, so that it should be plain that he was their servant and not one of them. Johnson remembered how angry she had been when Stenning made the offer to him of a third share in the farm, though she had not dared to speak of it directly to him, and if she argued with Stenning against it her talking had had no effect. If Johnson had asked himself at all, or cared, he would have agreed that she still disliked him and wished him gone.

Now, when she first began to behave friendly towards him, he thought that it was just gratitude for his having helped her when she was frightened. When it went on he reckoned it must be just boredom and devilment and perhaps a line she was working on Stenning. A little later he still reckoned it was only boredom and devilment, but he could see that it might be serious for everybody before she had finished. He himself hadn't ever liked or disliked Rua. He had taken no notice of her except to be irritated sometimes by her noisiness and slovenliness. He disliked dirt, preferring to be clean himself, and in the welter of smells that belonged to the farm, from the reek of stale milk to the greasy smell of wool, he would probably have admitted that Rua had a dirtiness of her own. He was annoyed now to have to take notice of her seriously for the first time.

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The new behaviour began with a greater politeness. It went, too, with a tendency to change sometimes in the evenings and to do her hair. Johnson thought this was all for Stenning and guessed Stenning thought so, too. The house was cleaner and tidier than it had ever been. It was a general period of good behaviour. He refused to realise that most of it, and probably all of it, was for him.

February ran into March and March into April. Johnson had been there a year. In the long days, with the sun still hot and so much work to do, it was easy for the days to go by and to miss things that happened gradually. In a company of three people, to whom an outsider was an event, it was true that personalities could be magnified until they became unbearable; it was equally true that they could be drowned in the monotony of continual intercourse. Johnson and Rua were together milking the cows for an hour and a half each day. It got to be a habit for Rua to finish first and to stand beside him talking. After that she wouldn't hurry to begin separating, but would wait so that they finished up and walked back together. One day, while he was separating in the small dairy-house at the side of the sheds, she came in. He turned to take the bucket from her and emptied it into the bowl. When he had done so, and had put the bucket down, she leaned forward suddenly, and, putting one arm round him, put up her cheek to his. It was an odd gesture, half-loving, half purely Maori in welcome or greeting. Johnson had not touched a woman since he left Auckland. He put his arm round her and kissed her fully on the lips. She stayed there for a moment, then turned and ran out of the dairy. Johnson, feeling no more than bad-tempered with himself, finished separating, and took the buckets up to the house.

After that, kissing Rua became a habit. Sometimes he liked it, sometimes she bored and irritated him, generally page 107 he thought both Rua and her kisses silly. He said to her once:

‘You better start and behave yourself, Rua. One of these days Bill's going to see you doing this and he won't like it.’ He used Stenning's Christian name only when speaking of him to Rua. She laughed, shrugging her shoulders.

‘He won't see me,’ she said. ‘If he does he wouldn't care.’

‘He'd care all right,’ Johnson said, but she laughed again. If she had to take Stenning seriously she clearly wasn't prepared to do the same with Johnson.

In mid-April Stenning got a contract with a farmer on the main road to do some metalling in preparation for the winter's mud. The money involved wasn't very great, but it was cash, and would be useful. Cash was a Government commodity with which farmers had otherwise little acquaintance. It was a week's work and for that week Stenning rode off alone down the road for the day. The first day Johnson was out riding along the telephone wire looking for a break. He found it where the branch of a burned and dead tree had taken the single wire and its post to the ground, and spent most of the day repairing it, getting home late in the afternoon. The second day he was at work clearing a small patch of scrub near the house. It was a hot day, more like summer than autumn, and he worked through the morning cutting manuka and laying it so that it would burn when they fired it. The hot sun played on his back as he worked and the morning seemed long. At lunch-time he heard Rua call and was getting ready to go up to the house when he saw her coming across the fields towards him. She had a basket and a teabilly with her.

‘I thought we'd eat down here by the river,’ she said. ‘It's hot in the house.’

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Johnson boiled the billy by the river and they ate there. It was a better lunch than usual. Rua sat beside him on the patch of sand while they ate. It was warm there, but not too warm. The sun had gone farther north; it was not the real summer sun that made shade necessary. The fine river sand was warm and soft, and the river looked cool and green going by. While they ate Rua was in good spirits, making little jokes and laughing at the things that amused her. After they had eaten she put her arms round him and her face up to his and they lay together on the sand.

Johnson felt grateful and kindly towards Rua as he had never felt before. She was good to him there and he felt clean and refreshed. Lying there in the clear sunlight and with the air fresh around them was pleasant; it made him feel stronger and more alive. Rua sat up, smiling down at him. She ran her hand through his hair and laughed softly.

‘You've got nice hair, Johnnie,’ she said. When her voice was gentle and soft like this it was the thing about her which came nearest to being beautiful. After that she bathed in the river while he watched her, swimming across to where it ran deeply under a bank of fern and green moss and back against the stream, coming out to dry herself in the sun. The light brown of her body was very pure and natural looking and attractive with the water glistening on her clean shoulders. Then she came and sat down beside him again. After a time, Johnson said:

‘I better go back to work.’

Sure, you better go and get some work done,' she said. While he was gathering up the lunch things and packing them in her basket, he said to her:

‘You won't be able to do this sort of thing too often, Rua.’

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She laughed again. She was very cheerful.

‘Why not?’

‘There'll be trouble,’ Johnson said, ‘and trouble's not worth having, not even for you.’

‘There won't be any trouble,’ she said. ‘You see, there won't be any trouble,’ and then she added, laughing at him, ‘you better run along and do some work now. I'll take the basket back.’

Johnson went back and cut scrub through the afternoon, working heavily with a slasher into manuka that was thick enough to need an axe. He was still working there at five in the afternoon when Stenning came home and rode over the field to him. Johnson stopped work to talk to him.

‘That's cleared that all right,’ Stenning said. ‘That's a good job done. There's only the little patch by the corner left and we'll have this paddock all in grass. It shouldn't ever have been left so long.’

Johnson nodded, leaning on his slasher. Sweat was running down his bare forearms and his face was red and hot with sun.

‘The little bit won't take long,’ he said. ‘How's the road?’

‘It's all right,’ Stenning said. ‘We're half done. It's going to be a job to make it last the week,’ and he grinned. ‘I'll get the cows in for you,’ he said, and rode away.

Johnson got his coat and sat down for a moment to roll a cigarette before walking up to the shed. The sun was well down now in the west, but the air was still warm. Taking it all in all, he reckoned this was Rua's day.

There was another fine day of scrub-cutting after that and they had lunch again down by the river, then the last two days of the week were overcast and wet. Johnson worked in the wool-shed, making gates for a new yard, and went to the house for his meals. In those days it was not as good with Rua as it had been on the first day; it page 110 was not as good to him again. Rua was happy and more contented than he had ever seen her, but he felt himself sick with her and with what they were doing. It was, he knew, not ever going to be as good again as it had first been, and he did not want it to continue. He did not want trouble. He was not afraid of it, but he did not want it. In the life which he had there now, with Stenning and the farm, he did not want to be disturbed by Rua, who did not matter to him at all. On the Friday, the last day, he said to her:

‘I reckon that's the end now, Rua,’ and he pulled her head down close to him so that he could look at her, saying: ‘Listen, now, Rua, that was all right, but it's the end of it now, and you and I, we're both going to forget it, see.’

She smiled at him, rubbing her cheek against his.

‘I won't forget it,’ she said. He gripped her arm more tightly and was about to say something more to her when she said: ‘It's all right, Johnnie. I'll behave myself, Johnnie, all right. But I won't forget it,’ and she smiled again. She had a confidence and a cheerfulness which surprised him.