A Maori Maid
Archie was perfectly correct in his remark that Ngaia was fast becoming as useful as any hand on the run. Her limitation was of course her lack of muscular strength. That, however, was soon more than compensated for by her marvellous faculty, a legacy of her Maori origin, for remembering places, and for her skill in handling her horse and the dogs. She became, so the stockmen on Te Henga boast to this day, fully as clever as Archie himself at rounding up a mob of sheep and working cattle or cutting out a beast.
There was no nonsense between the two. He took her frequently on expeditions that would otherwise have required another man to assist him. He would tell her exactly what he wanted of her, and, sending her off with the dogs over one hill, would himself ride across to some other whence, working in conjunction with her, he would head off the sheep or the cattle in the direction that was required. All she had to depend upon to summon him to her assistance was a whistle he had given her capable of travelling farther than her voice possibly could. She never had need to use it, and he never had cause to complain of the way she carried out his instructions.
In one respect his treatment of her as a man, as a fellow-comrade, delighted her. She never felt herself a nuisance or an annoyance to him. He seemed to her to talk and chatter to her as he did to no one else on the station, and she was intensely happy in the belief that her company was at least a pleasure to him.page 220
His was to her; and every day, every hour more emphatically so. She loved him, she worshipped him for his kindness and consideration towards her; for his strength; for his quickness at the least suggestion of danger to stand by her and protect her; for his treatment of her as a lady, as his equal; for the deference that bespoke his respect for her. It is the salt of life to woman, man's courtliness to her.
Despite her effort to believe in its utter futility, the first impulse of her love, the earliest dream of her acquaintanceship with him was that he might grow to care for her and take her for his wife. It was not fear of perpetual spinsterhood, it was love of the man. And, as often happens with women, she, in the overwhelming fear lest he should suspect her love, betrayed her secret to the one or two who most frequently saw her in his company. Perhaps, just at first, he never looked for it; perhaps they did.
Gradually, as day after day went by and he continued in the one even path of unassuming kindness towards her, she grew to question the possibility of any realisation of her dream. As it were she awoke to the true meaning of his warning and its necessity; and she passed from a hope of the achievement of her dream to an acceptance of its impossibility.
The prayer of her life changed.
"Pray God let him be happy always, and let me, too, be happy just a little longer."
"Just a little longer!" Until the day came when he would have taken up his own run and have chosen some girl of his own rank in life to be his wife!
Meanwhile there was no wrong, there was no crime in her loving him. All that she had to do was to hug her secret and keep it from him. In her gaiety and lightness she strove to accomplish this.
And soon failed—without realising it.
The understanding harassed him both in its delight page 221and its distress. No man, fit naming as a man, but walks the world lighter and moulds his doings on a higher plane when he has learnt that a good woman has deemed him worthy of her love. A trust has passed into his keeping involving the happiness of a creature infinitely more sensitive, infinitely more delicate, a thousand times better than he is. She has deigned to notice him. She has even stooped to love him. Him! him!! And as he passes along, the roll of carriages, the clatter of horses, or maybe the rustle of the trees, the hum of the insects all chant a paean to the loveliness of life and to the ecstasy of being loved. What a debauchery is a marriage devoid of love, based on a bank balance!
Ngaia's love was Archie's delight.
Could the love of Jake Carlyle's daughter be anything but a matter of regret, an unwelcome gift? How could he marry into such a family? If only she was any one else's child there would be no questioning and but little hesitation.
So he reasoned and propounded platitudes. Then he fell back on himself and on his common sense, then on his fierce, irresistible inclination and desire. As she was she was, he told himself. If another man's daughter she might, she unquestionably would have been another Ngaia; and not a single hair of her head could possibly be changed or altered for the better. She was a lady, she was pure and good and generous. She was all a man might ask in any woman. In the rustle of her dress and the whisper of her voice it almost seemed that he heard the sound of an angel. She was sweet; she was charming.
She was more.
She was the one woman in all the world he had learnt to worship.
In that realisation she stood out from her surroundings, page 222no longer Jake Carlyle's daughter but the sweetest woman he had ever met.
With the selfishness of hugging a new delight he for a while kept his secret from her. He revelled in her love, which he had guessed, and in his own, which she had not. In tiny ways he teased and pleased her, driving the sunshine and the shade across her face as his moods would prompt him.
Then he grew ashamed of his cruelty and was lost in admiration of her bravery. Through the long day by the Wainui with Jack and himself he watched her and he realised in numberless ways her devotion and her care, so womanly, so desperate to guard her secret. She helped them in their task of mending a stretch of broken fence, driving the staples and holding the strainer. She covered far more ground than either of her companions did when rounding up the stragglers that had passed through the gap. Over at the bush where they were busy felling she became essentially a tender, sympathetic woman in the discovery of a poor wretch temporarily disabled with a bad cut. She unwound the coarse bandages and bathed the wound and bound it afresh.
"Thank 'ee, miss; it's wery kind o' ye. I ain't used to this sort o' job. Sellin' noospaipers in the Strand's more my line, though I don't see as 'ow I'll ever taike it on agin," said the man, a low-typed cockney who had drifted across the world in some inexplicable manner. With blotched, pasty face and narrow chest he was right in imagining that the rough fare of the bush was less suited to him than the squalor of the Strand gutter. Tadpoles die in the wide, open ocean.
On her way home Ngaia was persuaded to stay at the Quarters for tea.
"I'll ride over with you to the cottage afterwards," promised Archie.
She stayed, and old Brown came across and sought page 223and obtained permission to form one of the party. He was lonely by himself, and without slackening his hold of the young fellows he enjoyed their company and they his.
"Come in, by all means, sir," said Archie.
"Good-evening, Ngaia," said the old gentleman, seating himself in Archie's vacant chair next to the girl. She glanced up and caught the young fellow's eye and something in his answering look made up for her disappointment at the loss of his immediate company.
"I'm thinking I've ta'en your seat, Archie my lad?"
"Not at all, sir."
"Ngaia'd rather have you alongside her than an ould fossil like me, eh, Ngaia?"
"Certainly not. You're not to imagine such a thing, sir. I've been riding with Mr. Deverell all day and— and I'm tired of him," she answered with a glance across the room to where Archie was standing facing her that belied the truth of her assertion.
"I'm going to take the Quarters in hand and have it properly tidied up, Mr. Brown," she said presently.
"Eh, but they've my sympathy. They'll no find onything they'll be wanting. It's no meet for women to tidy men's things, for tidying means hiding. I hae ma douts aboot the wisdom of the idea."
"Mr. Brown, you haven't half sufficient belief in my powers. Tidying isn't hiding."
"I'll sacrifice mesel' and ye may try on my habitation, if ye please, first. It'll serve to show the lads the danger they're running," said the old man with just the suspicion of a smile on his face.
"Oh, I understand," said Ngaia laughingly; "I really thought you meant what you said just now. You want me to do the same for you?"
"Including the stoppage of trifling gaps that dodge the ends o' my socks and sichlike."page 224
"Mend your things for you! I will with pleasure, I'm going to spend a whole day doing the Quarters and I'll do your rooms too—except," she added with a smile, "except that I mustn't tidy, eh?"
"I'm no so sure, for ye may be an exception to the ordinary lass. Ye are in maist things and mayhap ye be in this. But ye mauna touch ony papers or my office."
She did prove an exception, at least old Brown asserted so, and still maintains it with much pride.
"She's just as marvellous as she's bonny and she's some man's ideal wife. I'm thinking it's Archie's. It ought to be," he said. Yet what ought to be and what is is not always the same. The waters of the world sometimes stretch between and sometimes a man's life or a woman's or both.
The tidying and the mending were no light tasks, but once accomplished they were comparatively easy to maintain. One and all were pleased. Naturally. The hand of a woman on a man's living-room is like a gleam of sunshine on a flagged courtyard. It softens and lightens and refines. The dinginess of dirt and the commonplace are swept away for trifling touches of sweetness and prettiness. It may be a bunch of flowers, a white curtain, or a few tiny nick-nacks. It is the gentleness of humanity fostering the best phases of man's nature.
Archie saw the girl home, though he scarcely spoke a word to her on the way. Both were lost in thinking, and in thinking on the same trail, but away and away from each other.
For she had seen an alteration in him towards her and her fear had whispered that the end was coming. The great house was nearly completed and perhaps Archie had determined to seize the hour of some changes that would follow to leave and—marry.
He too was thinking of marriage—marriage with page 225her; and he was rejoicing as he had never rejoiced in his adoration of her. He was thinking he would speak to her during the ride they had before them on the morrow, and then when she had promised he would write to his father and would at once see about the choice of a run for himself with a home for his lovely bride.
He helped her unsaddle Mignon. He put away the saddle and bridle for her and held the swing-gate open and shut it after her. She seemed taller than usual, so perfect in form and figure, so proud and graceful in her bearing, as she walked by him and stood before him. He bade her good-night and almost yielded there and then to the spell she had cast upon him, and the impulse of snatching her to him and kissing her. Yet for the first time he was frightened of a woman. It seemed such a presumption to claim so much from such a girl.
"Good-night, Mr. Deverell," she answered, and her eyes dropped, and not for all the wealth of ages would she have lifted them to his.
"I'll call for you to-morrow afternoon after dinner. We can just ride across to No. 8. Mignon 'll be all the better for a spell in the morning. Good-night again."
"Good-night," she answered, and he climbed into the saddle and cantered quickly off.
The ride was, however, postponed. A message came down from Archie to say that Mr. Brown wanted him in the office to go over some accounts likely to occupy him all day. He would call, however, shortly after breakfast the following day, as some sheep were wanted in from over by the Hautapu ford.
There was plenty of work for her to do at home. Although the cottage was infinitely cleaner than she had originally found it, it showed a tendency to relapse.
Jake returning early from his work was in a more page 226than usually evil frame of mind. He had had an uncomfortable hour or so in the office, and he quickly made it evident that there was little peace for the unfortunates over whom he held sway at the cottage.
He sat down to tea in sullen displeasure, and made especial efforts to vent his spleen upon Ngaia. He hated the girl, and with the inhuman hatred of a low wretch, he suddenly conceived the idea of wounding her where his instinct suggested that he might pain her most deeply.
He had finished his tea. Ngaia was clearing away the things. He was seated on a chair by the corner of the table nearest the fireplace, cutting up some black tobacco for a still blacker clay pipe. Ka was squatting on the floor near the hearth, smoking and spitting into the fire. Waina and the two boys were away down at the kainga.
"They're gettin' on with the big 'ouse like a chimney afire," said Jake. "It's a-going to be a fine place, I reckon."
"Yes, it certainly seems likely to be so," answered Ngaia, to whom the remark was addressed.
There was a pause.
"I 'ear young Deverell's a-going to leave," Jake remarked presently, looking at the girl from under his heavy, matted eyebrows.
He saw Ngaia stop in her work as though struck. Then she flushed a fierce, burning flush.
"I 'eard he's a-goin' for good."
Ngaia felt instinctively that her father was watching her, and she hurried to complete the clearing of the table.
"'E's a-going pretty soon, I fancy. 'E's a-going to buy a place for 'imself when 'e gets back from England, though I reckon it's more'n likely 'e'll never come back when onest 'e gets 'ome. 'E'll get married and stay there."page 227
Ngaia said nothing.
She picked up the basin in which she had collected the dirty tea-things, and carried them off to the kitchen-house to wash. She wanted to get away by herself, to be alone, to think.
Archie was going away never to return; to England, to be married.
It was what she had expected. Yet the prospect appalled her. She sank down on to the floor by the dying fire, and resting her chin on her hands she tried to realise. The water in the basin grew cold, the few things she had washed grew dry, the fire smouldered out to a few grey ashes, and the streak of moonlight, quivering through the door, passed along and along until it fell athwart her. Yet she sat motionless and heedless, battling with her grief.
She had no mercy upon herself. He had warned her, he had told her. She had taken her happiness, knowing her weakness and conscious of the price she would sooner or later be called on to pay. Yet after all it is one thing to believe that a thing is impossible and another to know it. Hope always lingers to cast a sweet, softening shade over the sadness of the unattainable. There is nothing to break the blinding misery of that which has actually come to pass.
It was that which she had now to face; and with her indomitable pluck she braced herself to be brave to the end
"He's not gone yet; he's going out with me tomorrow. He will be with me just a little longer and I'll enjoy his kindness whilst I may—until she comes. I wonder—what she'll be like? A great lady, whilst I—oh, how silly it has been," she murmured with a sigh. "I'm—I'm good fun—I talk to him of the books he likes—and he's read all I've read and heaps and heaps more. And I mend his clothes and tidy his room—and—I'm a half-caste and a drudge. It's only page 228his kindness that has made me feel his equal, though
I would have been worthy of him; I—pshaw——" she exclaimed, standing up and passing her hand across her eyes. "It was sweet to dream of it all, it's comical to think about it. Ugh! how cold it is! The fire's out, the water's cold. Heigho, I must wait till to-morrow. I'll wash up to-morrow and—oh, I'll enjoy to-morrow, and every hour and every day until he tells me himself that the end has come. Pray God let me be happy just a little longer."
Unrequited love is agony to a woman. She is so helpless. A man can have the satisfaction of constantly asking and constantly being refused, with the odd chance of an acceptance just for the sake of peace and quietness. But a girl——
The fire on the hearth had smouldered to a warm ash and the little household had retired to rest before Ngaia stole softly to her room.
Jake heard her as he lay in bed.
"By 'eavens, she's fair knocked," he murmured with a chuckle, rubbing his hands and grinning in the darkness; "she's gone on 'im, dang me if she ain't!" and in his delight he dug Ka with his elbow and she grunted and rolled over.