Bliss and Other Stories
It was the first time that Lottie and Kezia had ever been out so late. Everything looked different —the painted wooden houses far smaller than they did by day, the gardens far bigger and wilder. Bright stars speckled the sky and the moon hung over the harbour dabbling the waves with gold. They could see the lighthouse shining on Quarantine Island, and the green lights on the old coal hulks.
" There comes the Picton boat," said the store-man, pointing to a little steamer all hung with bright beads.
But when they reached the top of the hill and began to go down the other side the harbour disappeared, and although they were still in the town they were quite lost. Other carts rattled past. Everybody knew the storeman.
" Night, Fred."
" Night O," he shouted.
Kezia liked very much to hear him. Whenever a cart appeared in the distance she looked up and waited for his voice. He was an old friend ; and she and her grandmother had often been to his place to buy grapes. The storeman lived alone in a cottage that had a glasshouse against one wall built by himself. All the glasshouse was spanned and arched over with one beautiful vine. He took page 9her brown basket from her, lined it with three large leaves, and then he felt in his belt for a little horn knife, reached up and snapped off a big blue cluster and laid it on the leaves so tenderly that Kezia held her breath to watch. He was a very big man. He wore brown velvet trousers, and he had a long brown beard. But he never wore a collar, not even on Sunday, The back of his neck was burnt bright red.
" Where are we now ? " Every few minutes one of the children asked him the question.
" Why, this is Hawk Street, or Charlotte Crescent."
" Of course it is," Lottie pricked up her ears at the last name ; she always felt that Charlotte Crescent belonged specially to her. Very few people had streets with the same name as theirs.
" Look, Kezia, there is Charlotte Crescent. Doesn't it look different ?" Now everything familiar was left behind. Now the big dray rattled into unknown country, along new roads with high clay banks on either side, up steep, steep hills, down into bushy valleys, through wide shallow rivers. Further and further. Lottie's head wagged ; she drooped, she slipped half into Kezia's lap and lay there. But Kezia could not open her eyes wide enough. The wind blew and she shivered ; but her cheeks and ears burned.
" Do stars ever blow about ?" she asked.
" Not to notice," said the storeman.page 10
" We've got a nuncle and a naunt living near our new house," said Kezia. " They have got two children, Pip, the eldest is called, and the youngest's name is Rags. He's got a ram. He has to feed it with a nenamuel teapot and a glove top over the spout. He's going to show us. What is the difference between a ram and a sheep ? "
" Well, a ram has horns and runs for you."
Kezia considered. " I don't want to see it frightfully," she said. " I hate rushing animals like dogs and parrots. I often dream that animals rush at me—even camels—and while they are rushing, their heads swell e-enormous."
The storeman said nothing. Kezia peered up at him, screwing up her eyes. Then she put her finger out and stroked his sleeve ; it felt hairy. " Are we near ? " she asked.
" Not far off, now," answered the storeman. " Getting tired ? "
" Well, I'm not an atom bit sleepy," said Kezia. " But my eyes keep curling up in such a funny sort of way." She gave a long sigh, and to stop her eyes from curling she shut them. . . . When she opened them again they were clanking through a drive that cut through the garden like a whip lash, looping suddenly an island of green, and behind the island, but out of sight until you came upon it, was the house. It was long and low built, with a pillared verandah and balcony all the way rounii. The soft white bulk of it lay stretched upon the green garden page 11like a sleeping beast. And now one and now another of the windows leaped into light. Someone was walking through the empty rooms carrying a lamp. From a window downstairs the light of a fire flickered. A strange beautiful excitement seemed to stream from the house in quivering ripples.
" Where are we ? " said Lottie, sitting up. Her reefer cap was all on one side and on her cheek there was the print of an anchor button she had pressed against while sleeping. Tenderly the storeman lifted her, set her cap straight, and pulled down her crumpled clothes. She stood blinking on the lowest verandah step watching Kezia who seemed to come flying through the air to her feet.
" Ooh ! " cried Kezia, flinging up her arms. The grandmother came out of the dark hall carrying a little lamp. She was smiling.
" You found your way in the dark ? " said she.
" Perfectly well."
But Lottie staggered on the lowest verandah step like a bird fallen out of the nest. If she stood still for a moment she fell asleep, if she leaned against anything her eyes closed. She could not walk another step.
" Kezia," said the grandmother," can I trust you to carry the lamp ? "
" Yes, my granma."
The old woman bent down and gave the bright breathing thing into her hands and then she caught up drunken Lottie. " This way." page 12Through a square hall filled with bales and hundreds of parrots (but the parrots were only on the wall-paper) down a narrow passage where the parrots persisted in flying past Kezia with her lamp.
" Be very quiet," warned the grandmother, putting down Lottie and opening the dining-room door. " Poor little mother has got such a head-ache."
Linda Burnell, in a long cane chair, with her feet on a hassock, and a plaid over her knees, lay before a crackling fire. Burnell and Beryl sat at the table in the middle of the room eating a dish of fried chops and drinking tea out of a brown china teapot. Over the back of her mother's chair leaned Isabel. She had a comb in her fingers and in a gentle absorbed fashion she was combing the curls from her mother's forehead. Outside the pool of lamp and firelight the room stretched dark and bare to the hollow windows.
" Are those the children ? " But Linda did not really care ; she did not even open her eyes to see.
" Put down the lamp, Kezia/' said Aunt Beryl, " or we shall have the house on fire before we are out of the packing cases. More tea, Stanley ? "
" Well, you might just give me five-eighths of a cup," said Burnell, leaning across the table. " Have another chop, Beryl. Tip-top meat, isn't it ? Not too lean and not too fat." He turned to his wife. " You're sure you won't change your mind, Linda darling ?" page 13" The very thought of it is enough." She raised one eyebrow in the way she had. The grandmother brought the children bread and milk and they sat up to table, flushed and sleepy behind the wavy steam.
" I had meat for my supper," said Isabel, still combing gently.
" I had a whole chop for my supper, the bone and all and Worcester sauce. Didn't I, father ? "
" Oh, don't boast, Isabel," said Aunt Beryl.
Isabel looked astounded. " I wasn't boasting, was I, Mummy ? I never thought of boasting. I thought they would like to know. I only meant to tell them."
"Very well. That's enough," said Burnell. He pushed back his plate, took a tooth-pick out of his pocket and began picking his strong white teeth.
" You might see that Fred has a bite of something in the kitchen before he goes, will you, mother ? "
" Yes, Stanley." The old woman turned to go.
" Oh, hold on half a jiffy. I suppose nobody knows where my slippers were put ? I suppose I shall not be able to get at them for a month or two—what ? "
" Yes," came from Linda. " In the top of the canvas hold-all marked ' urgent necessities.' "
" Well you might get them for me will you, mother ? "
" Yes, Stanley." page 14Burnell got up, stretched himself, and going over to the fire he turned his back to it and lifted up his oat tails.
" By Jove, this is a pretty pickle. Eh, Beryl ? "
Beryl, sipping tea, her elbows on the table, smiled over the cup at him. She wore an unfamiliar pink pinafore; the sleeves of her blouse were rolled up to her shoulders showing her lovely freckled arms, and she had let her hair fall down her back in a long pig-tail.
" How long do you think it will take to get straight—couple of weeks—eh ? " he chaffed.
" Good heavens, no," said Beryl airily. " The worst is over already. The servant girl and I have simply slaved all day, and ever since mother came she has worked like a horse, too. We have never sat down for a moment. We have had a day."
Stanley scented a rebuke.
" Well, I suppose you did not expect me to rush away from the office and nail carpets—did you ? "
" Certainly not," laughed Beryl. She put down her cup and ran out of the dining-room.
" What the hell does she expect us to do ? " asked Stanley. " Sit down and fan herself with a palm leaf fan while I have a gang of professionals to do the job ? By Jove, if she can't do a hand's turn occasionally without shouting about it in return for . . ."
And he gloomed as the chops began to fight the tea in his sensitive stomach. But Linda put up a page 15hand and dragged him down to the side of her long chair.
" This is a wretched time for you, old boy," she said. Her cheeks were very white but she smiled and curled her fingers into the big red hand she held. Burnell became quiet. Suddenly he began to whistle " Pure as a lily, joyous and free "—a good sign.
" Think you're going to like it ? " he asked.
" I don't want to tell you, but I think I ought to, mother," said Isabel. " Kezia is drinking tea out of Aunt Beryl's cup."