A Maori Maid
In the first grey haze of dawn Archie was astir.
"Lie a bit longer, sweetheart," he insisted, and he slipped into his clothes and made up the fire and had the billy boiling by the time she was dressed. Then he brought back the horses from their short wanderings in search of food.
"We must keep a sharp look out for pigeons, Ngaia. Sling your gun over your shoulders, and we'll see if the clods of clay at Te Henga and the shooting gallery at Napier have proved a good school."
"I nearly ruined the poor old man in Napier towards the end," she laughed. "I'm afraid, however, shooting one's lunch or tea in the bush is quite a different matter."
"Watch for them on the meru-trees. You won't get them on the wing, the bush is too thick. They'll not be very fat, either. There are not many berries just yet. It's too early. Now then, I'll strike the tent."
"I'll wash up and pack away the—the silver and— er—breakfast things. It sounds better than dishes and billy and pannikin."
Two hours' steady travelling, still along the bed of the creek, brought them to the fall. It proved to be their first big difficulty. The banks were steep and thick with heavy timber. Both Ngaia and Archie set to work to find the easiest track down to the lower level. Ngaia, by nature as good a bushwoman as her page 301husband was a bushman, found an easy track. Half an hour's hacking and hewing on the part of Archie enabled him to make it possible for the horses.
"Now we must keep a sharp look out; the track turns off somewhere below here."
"We'd better stop every few hundred yards and see if we can pick up any sign of it. I doubt whether we will."
In this manner they made slow progress for a mile or more.
"I'm getting a bit anxious, sweetheart. We ought to have picked it up by now. I'm going to have another look."
Climbing up the bank they left the horses nibbling at the ferns and scraps of grass, and plunging into the bush on the left bank they recommenced their search.
Picking up an old Maori track is always difficult, sometimes it is an impossibility. There is nothing to indicate that a defined path ever existed. In one sense perhaps it does not exist. Cutting a line through the apparently virgin forest which seems easier than any other is the only realisation one has that the track has been picked up; that, and the fact of its avoiding sundry insuperable obstacles.
Suddenly Archie heard Ngaia coo-ee. Answering her he pushed through the scrub and came up to her.
"See there, Archie."
He turned in the direction in which she pointed, and his eyes fell on the trunk of a huge totara. It had grown in a curious, unnatural manner. A long, narrow strip, almost black with exposure, was bare of bark. On either side the trunk, with its long, stringy covering, had grown out and around, until it seemed as though the bare strip was gradually receding into the heart of the tree.
"That patch has been stripped of bark ages ago page 302by some Maories out bird-hunting. It never grows afterwards and the rest of the tree has been growing round it."
"The track must be about here."
"Not necessarily, but—I believe we're just about on the track. It's not half as over-run a bit farther on."
"Let's try it. We know where we want to get. Let's try, Archie."
"I think it'd be better to turn off a little lower down."
"You get through and I'll go back and bring the horses down."
"All right, sweetheart," answered Archie, and he pushed on through the scrub in a line parallel to the stream.
They turned off, and the most arduous portion of their undertaking commenced. Without the horses there would have been no great difficulty, but their presence with the packs rendered it necessary to cut a comparatively clear track. Under the circumstances they made wonderful progress. Twisting and turning to avoid this tree or that patch of scrub, they forced the horses to clamber fallen logs and huge roots, and to slide in and scramble out of sundry creeks in a truly marvellous fashion. It was hard work, for horses are silly and timid and not easily to be persuaded.
Archie realised that they were making a long and gradual ascent, until it was apparent they had reached the summit of the spur. Descending the farther side they kept more to the east than they had.
Day after day they persevered, and so far without illness or serious mishap beyond scratches and bruises. Already they had been over a week in the bush, and every hour they were expecting to see the shade lighten and to find themselves on the bank of the river they were aiming for. At any likely creek they would stop and wash out a pan of dirt, only rarely finding page 303even the colour of gold. The treasure, if it existed, lay farther towards the ranges!
Ngaia had withstood the hardships of the journey marvellously well, and was in the best of health and the wildest of spirits. Whatever uncertainty might have occasionally tapped at her heart, she never permitted herself to appear otherwise than confident of ultimate success. She cheered and encouraged Archie to further effort when even his indomitable pluck and perseverance seemed to have reached their limit. She filled him with her sanguine expectations of the gold they would unearth, until both dreamt superb dreams of a new El Dorado they were to discover.
"We'll find nuggets, Archie, great nuggets. Why shouldn't we? Why shouldn't the gold be as rich here as it was over in Victoria in the old days?"
"There's no reason. It's there. These great, grim old mountains are sentinels over millions and millions of treasure. But it wants finding, sweetheart."
"We'll find it, Archie."
"Yes, we'll find it, or some of it. Enough to be rich with. Then I'll be able to take you home to England and go into Parliament."
"Go home to England! Fancy! Oh, how I should like that! I wonder what your people would think of me?"
"Just about what I think: that you're the dearest, sweetest girl in the world, and as good as you're beautiful."
She smiled. She loved to hear her praises sung— by him.
"Is Parliament your ambition, Archie?"
"Yes, or part of it. Oh, I'm horribly ambitious, really."
"What is your ambition?" she broke off. "You've never told me just the very truth of it."
"You mustn't laugh, then. It wasn't such an page 304impossible ambition once. Now it sounds almost ridiculous."
"Ridiculous—now! Not—not because you've married me, Archie?"
"Ngaia my pet! Not for that. A hundred times no! You've brought it nearer to me, for you've unconsciously kept me to my old hope. It's my penniless position that has thrust it away from me."
"Tell me something about your father, your old home, Archie; everything."
"There's not much to tell. My mother died when I was quite a kiddie. The governor was very rich then. You see, there are a heap of estates and great houses that go with the title, but from what the governor has written to me they're mortgaged now far beyond their actual value. When I left the 'Varsity I thought of going into politics—that's my ambition. Somehow I couldn't shake off the longing for a life out in the Colonies, at any rate for a few years, when I hoped to come back to England, and with the governor's influence and his wealth—which would eventually be mine—to get into Parliament, and—and one day—"
"Be Prime Minister of England. Oh, Archie, that was your ambition, eh?" exclaimed the girl, clapping her hands, her eyes glistening with excitement.
The young fellow flushed under the brown tan.
"Doesn't it sound ridiculous?"
"Not a bit."
"It wasn't once. You can understand."
"It wasn't before, and it isn't now. You've got to succeed and you will. Of course you will. You've got the pluck and the brains."
"And the wife. I mean it. My dear girl, you don't realise how beautiful you are. It won't turn your head coming from your husband, but I tell you, sweetheart, you're the loveliest woman I've ever seen—and I've page 305seen a good few. You're clever, you're charming, and you're ambitious, or you will be."
"Ambitious! Oh, I never thought of it before except—except the ambition of being your wife. I had no desire beyond that and I don't think I ever will have for myself. But for you—oh, I shall be ambitious for you. It's in me now, Archie. You must succeed; and become great and famous."
"That'll mean you too, sweetheart."
"Because I'm your wife. Oh, how I must try and help!"
"So you will; so you are now. You've kept me going the last two or three days when I might have chucked up the sponge; and when we get to England, well—beautiful wives can make themselves great powers in English society and can help their husbands just where they want it most."
Ngaia remained silent for just so long as it might have taken a leaf to flutter from the topmost branch to the ferns. She was sitting on the ground as a man might sit, with one leg stretched out and her hands clasped round the other knee on which her chin was resting. They had halted for their mid-day meal and to give the horses a brief spell.
"I wonder," she said slowly, "if I should really be able to help you? Look at me in my great hobnail boots, my man's dress, all splashed and mud-stained, and imagine me in silks and satins on my best behaviour, my best deportment, as Miss Spence would express it, amongst famous men and women."
"You'd be queen amongst them all—tall, graceful, beautiful By Jove I how proud I should be of you."
"The women—they'd freeze me. They'd never let me forget that they were ladies, whilst I—"
"Are one also, sweetheart."
"I! Am I? I'm well educated. I don't drop my h's. I write and speak in tolerably correct English. page 306I can talk French and German. I can behave myself in good company and—and I'm your wife. So far I'm a lady. But—ugh! I'm Jake's daughter.
"Just imagine," she continued before he could speak, "what that means. Fancy his arriving in England and declaring himself to be my father. It's horrible for a girl to speak of a parent like this. I— 1 almost feel as if the very trees were listening to me and frowning disapproval, but I can't help it. I loathe and detest Jake and—Oh, it was a mistake, Archie, it was a mistake, with such ambitions in your heart as you have, to have married me."
"But I have; and I don't regret," he said quietly, "I'm very sorry but I don't. I'd do just the same again. I'm very happy, not regretful."
"You mean it? Oh, Archie boy, you really mean it?" she said, reaching out and laying her hand on his arm.
"Honour bright," he said, taking her hand in his and stooping over it and kissing it. "I not only don't regret, my sweetheart, but I tell you again it's made me infinitely happier than I've ever been. If I had to choose between my ambition and you I'd choose you. As it is, you're more likely to lead me to my ambition than I was likely to lead myself."
"And shatter it when I've helped to make it Socially, at any rate," she said bitterly.
"You'll always be pure and good yourself and beautiful. Women who are all that—and remain so— stand unassailably high in the world's estimation."
"Even a Jake's daughter—ugh!"
"Ngaia," said Archie, "suppose—" and he stopped as suddenly as he had commenced.
"Suppose what, Archie?" she questioned.
"Tell me," she added quickly as he remained silent "You were going to say something and—and you must tell me now; please, Archie."page 307
"Ngaia, have you ever had any doubts as to your being Jake's daughter?"
She shrugged her shoulders.
"Only every time I ever saw him. From the very moment I first set eyes on him I seemed instinctively to feel he was not my father. And yet—he is."
"Why must he be?"
"Mr. Anderson has told me so. He wrote it. Oh, it was a miserable letter."
The girl's mind had wandered back to the old days.
"It condemned me to my prayer," she murmured.
"Ngaia, I don't believe you are Jake's child."
She turned with a start as she caught his words and drew closer to him.
Her eyes were fixed on his with intense earnestness.
"You know something, Archie. Tell me, tell me, please; everything, just everything. You know who my father really is?"
"I believe so, and yet—I'm not sure, sweetheart. I was talking about you to old Retimana the other day, and trying to pump him. He seemed to guess what I was at, but some chance remark of his made it pretty plain that he knew your father and that he was not Jake. I cornered him more or less on that Your mother's name was Ruta; she was Ka's cousin. She was killed when you were a little baby."
"My mother's dead then," said the girl softly.
"But my father?" she continued, "did Retimana tell you of him?"
"Ruta went off during a summer with a surveying party, and your father was amongst the men of the party."
"Was—was Jake one of them? He was on the survey before he became shepherd at Te Henga."
"Yes, Jake was one."
"Oh!" she exclaimed in a tone of bitter disappointmentpage 308
"Ruta continued to live with one of the party after the camp had broken up, both until you were born and after—and it was not Jake."
"Archie, he must have been my father—if Ruta was good."
"You need have no doubt about that. Ruta was worthy of you, from all I've heard."
"Then who was it she lived with? Is—is he alive? Is he better than Jake—after all, he can't be worse."
"He was the surveyor in charge of the party-Jake's master."
"Can't you guess?"
She looked at him with a puzzled, inquiring look.
"Jake was a chainman in the old days for—"
"Archie!" cried the girl, gripping his arm so that he felt the nip of her fingers through his sleeve. Her face was within an inch or two of his. He felt her warm, sweet breath upon his cheeks, her eyes, quivering in the new light that was dawning in them, peered into his.
"It was—Mr. Anderson whom he worked for?" she whispered.
"And—and Mr. Anderson lived with—with Ruta?"
"I believe so," he said, and he felt her hold upon him relax and saw a flush creep over her cheeks, and a look of intense joy flashed into her eyes.
"When Ruta died Ka adopted you. Mr. Anderson was married and—"
"I was a shame to him. But I'd rather that than—— Oh, I understand it all now; his educating me, his kindness to me, his having me to live at the homestead. I understand my love for him. It must be."
"It would be difficult to prove."page 309
"Archie, we're not thinking of trying. Oh, it's enough to know what we do. His secret must be our secret for always."
"I think so."
"Yes, yes. Oh, Archie, I'm happier than I can say. I'm the child of a gentleman. I haven't Jake's horrible nature lurking somewhere in me. Come on, Archie, come on, I've new life in me. I've a presentiment, too, that we're getting to the end of this flat and will strike the river soon. En avant, mon brave!"
"Mon brave. Dear me," added Ngaia, with a laugh, "I didn't think we'd wear English out so quickly; fancy spooning in French."
"Fancy," he laughed.
Then he kissed her.
"That's English, anyhow," he said.
"It's pretty universal, I've read," she answered with a smile. "It's what all girls have to put up with."
"It's a poverty they rather like."
"Well I never! The idea of you of all people coming out with such a statement."
"It's your fault. You've taught me, and—and, now you're my husband and there's no one to hear, I don't mind telling you that I think it was just splendid of you never to have kissed me once at Te Henga until—until we were engaged. That made me like you more and more, although—"
"You wanted me to all the time, eh?"
"I—I believe, I say I believe, I really did."