A Maori Maid
Golden Creek, as Ngaia named the little stream, proved for a time marvellously rich in gold.
It is fierce work, gold digging. It becomes a fever, a mad, hysterical excitement, an absorbing sentiment of intense greed. Usually it begets the worst passions mankind may be prey to. There is envy, almost hatred of each more successful neighbour, there is fear lest you yourself be envied and be robbed of your own success.
It is a lucky bag the hole you have dug in the earth. Not a lucky bag of pastime and pleasure but one whence all that is real, all that can give power and place, might possibly be extracted. The beauty of your surroundings is lost. The trees, the distant hills, the splashing stream are smeared and smudged in your mental vision with the yellow of gold. The world is narrowed for the hour to the hole you are toiling in, to the dirt and gravel and stones you loosen with your pick, or shovel to the surface.
There is no sign of gold! You are miserable. You are still poor and desperate. You strike blow after blow, and the pebbles and dirt clatter about you. Still your hopes are unfulfilled. You have drawn a blank! You sweat, you are dispirited, you curse your ill fortune; yet you persevere. It may want but one more blow. The greatest find yet made may lie a few inches deeper. Illusive, alluring, enticing "few inches!" They are ever there, deep down as you page 324may go, until you despair and depart; and a stranger steps into your claim, and you learn that a fortune was within one more blow of your pick, a fortune for him, the toil—for you. Yet your good fortune may come in some other claim. When you are on the verge of joining in a new rush the earth tumbles to your blow and lo! flecks and flakes and pebbles of shining gold are dancing at your feet
Gold, glittering, exquisite gold!
You are excitable; you kiss and pet the first little nugget you pick out; you almost shed tears. You are not an old hand. He would be cool and dissatisfied. He would pick up the bigger lumps that caught his eye. He would look at them a moment, calculate their weight and slip them into his pocket, or pass them on to his mate, and steadily dig and shovel away, and be equally prepared to find a huge nugget or that the gold gives out and that he has only struck a pocket.
Archie, if not exactly an old hand, was naturally a cool, level-headed individual; yet nevertheless to an extent the grip of the gold held him. All things of the world have their grip and are strong in their hold. He was forced to keen effort. He realised the fierce excitement of digging where every shovelful might be studded with the glittering metal. He built fancy castles, and all the while lectured Ngaia for her wild, unconcealed excitement.
His first proceeding was to clear out afresh the hole where Ngaia had met with such success. His greater strength and longer reach enabled him to cope with the water more effectually than she had been able to, and he was rewarded with a wonderful result. Whilst he worked with pick and shovel Ngaia washed the dirt in the cradle.
Suddenly the supply of the precious metal seemed to give out. During one whole day they could do nothing better than obtain specks only just large enough to see. page 325They pushed farther up the creek with no better result, and they determined to shift camp.
Amongst the articles brought up by Archie were, in view of possible success, a number of stout canvas bags in appearance resembling flour bags. The gold from Golden Creek was sewn up and carefully packed away.
"It's almost a small fortune already," said the girl, surveying the fat, prodigiously heavy little bags.
"You wait awhile, and see, sweetheart; we've scarcely made a start yet."
The task of driving the horses down the zig-zag was a difficulty even greater than they had anticipated. At length it was successfully accomplished, and the two young people with their two dogs and the horses commenced their journey up the river.
The animals, or at any rate the horses, showed signs of the hardships they had undergone. Food had been wofully scarce, and consequently the poor beasts were in anything but good fettle. "Tucker" generally had so far been a scarcity throughout the journey, although pigeons had frequently been shot and several wild pigs. Down in the river, however, it was possible that wild cattle might be met with, and a sharp look out was kept for any sign of their tracks. At any rate there was better feed for the horses.
"How far up do you propose we should go, Archie?" asked the girl.
"Not very far. That great mountain away to the left is Aorangi, unless I'm much mistaken. If there is gold it must be somewhere here. The reefs run, I should say, across, and I'm thinking of pitching camp at the first likely spot I see, some place where the flat opens in a bend."
Throughout the day they pushed on. Ngaia at every halt for food washed out dish after dish of dirt, always finding colour but seldom much more. Gold is rarely page 326found on the surface of deep shingle. They camped at a spot where there was a greater abundance of native grass and feed for the horses than the creatures had enjoyed for many a day. In the first light of the following morning they started again. Wide as the old river-bed was the present stream was comparatively small; except in a few deep pools it was easily fordable on foot, although in places the current was dangerously swift.
Towards noon they came on a bend in the winding course where the cliffs on the right bank suddenly narrowed. Beyond they as suddenly widened. Scarcely six feet of shingle lay between the base and the river itself. Rounding this point the two prospectors found that the line of cliff, under the shadow of which they stood, widened suddenly with a sweep of sheer, precipitous face.
On the left, looking up stream, the river flowed slowly and silently close under the steep, bush-clad slopes. To the right stretched a wide flat covered with scrub and koromiko fringed by the dense bush which extended upwards to the higher ground.
From the lofty cliff, forming as it were part of the entrance to the flat, away round to the bush-covered slopes, ran a sheer wall of rock fully a hundred and fifty feet in height. It swept back from the river in a towering, precipitous curve, and made a species of bight or bay with the gravel flat lapping the huge boulders at its base.
Archie halted and Ngaia came to his side.
"Here we are, sweetheart; just the very sort of place I had in my mind. Ages ago, I expect it must have been, the river came down that long, straight stretch over there and formed a great pool where this flat is. The shingle, for centuries, has been caught in the sharp bend and gone on depositing itself until it has built itself up as it is. There ought to be gold page 327here, heaps of it, if we can only get deep enough. It means sinking—and plenty of it."
It did mean sinking. Day after day the young fellow toiled, and not a sign of payable gold rewarded him for his perseverance. He rigged up a bucket and a rough windlass by means of which the girl raised the gravel and emptied it into a heap.
How uncomplainingly and full of good spirits did she toil. How, indeed, do women always toil for those they love. They endure, they sacrifice themselves, they try to please in trifles when the heart is in travail of great sorrow. They whisper encouragement, they cheer, they caress; they coquet and awaken passion, and in the heat of passion and the brightness of eyes that adore come ambitious hopes and fresh efforts towards success. They hide their own sufferings, they make light of their own troubles. They live for themselves only as an afterthought.
She may be ugly and squat and awkward. Yet love transforms, and every act is graceful in its whole-heartedness, every look is beautiful in its sympathy. She is pure and good, and he is ashamed to be unworthy. She is the light, the warmth, the sunshine that nourishes her tiny children into good men and great women. Show me the man who despises women and you show me a man who worships self.
It was not gold for herself Ngaia prayed for in each bucket she hoisted. It was for him, toiling at the bottom of the shaft; for him, that he might grow rich and achieve his ambitions, his destiny. She might have been his slave striving with one thought of what would benefit him.
And at the foot of the narrow shaft he laboured in a dream of gold and an endless admiration of the brave girl whose life he had linked to his. The strands of that little rope from bucket to windlass surely throbbed with the love between these two young creatures. page 328What secret acts of thoughtfulness prompted each to help the other. How he lifted every full bucket, and emptied it a little if it seemed too heavy. How he helped it on its upward journey as far as he could reach, that she might have as light a load as possible. How he praised her and made her feel that her work was as great as his, and how he whispered over and over again that without her he would have failed. How she doubted at first, and looked with her brown eyes into his, and gradually saw that he spoke the truth. How good to her the great God seemed in that realisation.
Were this the romance of a fictitious discovery, Ngaia and Archie would probably have succeeded in the great object they had in view by some lucky chance. Subsequently to an extent they did. But the value of alluvial diggings, likely one day to prove amongst the richest in the world, was only brought to light by indomitable pluck and perseverance.
It was close on noon. The shaft, roughly and crudely timbered, was fully twenty feet in depth. At the bottom, grimy with sweat and dirt, Archie was at work alternately picking at the hard gravel and sand, and shovelling it into the bucket. He was in his heart beginning to despair of success where he was.
Suddenly, as he loosened a large mass, his eye caught sight of something that prompted him to stoop quickly to a closer examination. It was gold, a flattish piece, the size of a shilling. With feverish energy he renewed his efforts. Blow after blow he aimed in the same direction, and as he loosened the gravel be realised that he had struck gold, rich beyond his wildest dreams. He filled the bucket and shouted to Ngaia and told her the news, and then, contented and desperately hungry, he clambered out.
Day after day Archie worked in the shaft, and day after day Ngaia hoisted the bucket and stacked the page 329gravel. Day after day towards the afternoon Archie and she together would work the cradle, and day after day the little sacks of shining gold increased in number.
In the first flush of their discovery their excitement was intense. It was but natural. The takings of each day, carried back to the camp in the tin dish, represented solid wealth earned with amazing rapidity. Nor did there appear any limit to the quantity.
At the depth at which Archie was, the precious metal seemed as plentiful as pebbles. Was it a pocket, or had he struck, partly by judgment, partly by chance, the richest patch on the flat?
Water was his trouble. It steadily percolated the shingle and gravel, and it required the constant use of the bucket to keep the shaft so that he could work. He presently found too that, without a system of timbering too difficult for him to undertake, he could not drive along the level at which the gold appeared to lie. Nor could he sink farther without proper pumping appliances. There was nothing for it therefore but to commence a fresh shaft, and this he proceeded to do.
He chose a spot somewhat nearer the cliff and began operations.
His luck had not deserted him. On the contrary it seemed to have improved. At six feet he struck a patch, and curiously enough he found in it the largest nugget they had yet discovered. At a somewhat similar depth to that in the other shaft he again struck gold richer even than in the first instance. In every shovelful of dirt gleamed glistening flakes and pellets and small lumps of the yellow gold; and when this shaft was worked out he had the same good fortune at each fresh one. Ngaia's luck at Golden Creek was put completely in the shade.
For three months they continued working the flat, until they were within measurable distance of having page 330as much gold as the horses could carry. Ngaia's own luck, however, was not destroyed. It was yet to lead her to a find, destined to become the sensation of the Colony.
There was neither judgment nor skill in what she did. She acknowledged that freely and frankly. It was luck, pure luck, and a little quickness of eye.
They had finished washing up somewhat earlier than usual and Archie had set to work to fell a tree, a maire, for firewood. It was within a few paces of the camp, on the edge of the bush just above what was once the bank of the old river.
He cut a scarf in the side towards which he wished it to fall and then commenced at the other side.
Ngaia was watching.
Presently there were a number of sharp, short cracks and the huge trunk swayed slightly. Once, twice, Archie swung the axe into the gaping wound. Again there sounded the quick, whip-like cracks. Another blow and yet another; a loud crack, and Archie turned and darted to a place of safety near Ngaia.
Slowly the big tree swayed, farther and farther, until, gathering speed, it thundered to the ground amid the crackling and snapping of branches and twigs.
It had not fallen exactly as Archie had intended, but swerving a little to the right had struck a meru tree, somewhat smaller in size, and thrust it over, tearing it up by the roots.
The girl watched, and suddenly, through the mass of crashing foliage and the dust and dirt, she fancied she saw something bright fall and glisten amongst the torn roots of the meru.
She dismissed the idea as a fancy, and thinking no more of it set to work to help Archie cut out a short length of the maire trunk. Presently glancing along, it seemed to her that the afternoon sun was dancing and glittering strangely in the shade of the twisted page 331branches of the fallen maire. Was it beckoning to her? Was it calling to her? She remembered what she had noticed when the tree fell, and she was filled with an irresistible curiosity. A possibility flashed into her mind. It dazzled her; and yet——
"Spell-ho, Archie," she said, stopping.
"What's the matter, sweetheart? Am I too heavy?"
"No; only there's something I want to look at"
She clambered down to the end of the big tree and dropped in amongst the branches. Wriggling and struggling and occasionally hacking with her knife she at length reached the hole left by the uprooted meru.
"What the deuce are you after, Ngaia?" called Archie. "Can I lend you a hand?"
There was no answer for a moment. Suddenly he heard her voice.
"Archie. Come here. There's nothing the matter; but I want you—quickly."
He leapt up, and seizing the axe soon dropped into the hole beside her.
She was kneeling on the ground bending over something, evidently trying in vain to move it.
"There, what do you think of that?"
He stood for an instant in mute astonishment.
Lying on the surface of the soft, warm soil, cold, glistening, almost cruel in its gleaming purity, was a huge nugget, a mass of gold. It was of irregular shape and rough and water-worn. Its extreme length and extreme breadth might have been somewhat beyond those of a sheet of foolscap paper.
Archie stooped, and after some effort just managed to lift it. It looked even larger than when lying on the ground. He turned it over. It was pure gold. Its immense weight testified to its solidity.page 332
The girl, still kneeling, glanced up at her husband with a look almost of fear at the value of her find.
"Is—is it gold, Archie?" she whispered, "solid gold?"
"I should rather say so. What on earth made you look here?"
"I thought I saw something bright when the maire fell and uprooted this tree."
"By Jove! it is a beauty. It must weigh pretty well a hundred pounds. Ngaia's Nugget! Why, it's nearly as big as some of those they've found in Australia," he said, struggling with the great lump of metal. "I must get it out of this somehow. Don't bring the axe. I'll come back for it. It's dangerous carrying it through these branches."
Ngaia only laughed, and picking up the axe followed her husband, not, however, until she had made a close fossick for any further gold there might be. There was none. The great nugget seemed to have held solitary sway.
The find was examined and re-examined and weighed on the spring scale Archie had brought to weigh up the side loads. It scaled exactly one hundred and thirteen and a half pounds. Then he made her tell and retell the chance that led to her discovery; and she was almost hysterical in her excitement in having found more wealth than she could possibly lift. Finally the great nugget was carefully wrapped up in a piece of sacking and hidden away with the rest of the treasure.
"Now then," exclaimed Archie, "off you go and dress yourself. The maire must wait until to-morrow. I'll get tea ready. No more work to-day."
So far as general appearance went there was little enough of resemblance between the Ngaia who sat with Archie at tea and the Ngaia who worked at the windlass and the cradle.
It was a tall, marvellously handsome girl neatly page 333dressed in a dark cloth dress that suited and fitted her to perfection. It was the Ngaia of old. But shy and sweet as were the brown eyes, gentle as was her manner, there had crept over her the reserve, the self-containment, the beauty of set womanhood. The worship of a girl for her lover had deepened into love and admiration for the man who was her husband and her protector, and might yet be even more to her. The glory of possibilities was about her; and in those possibilities the world had opened and grown more real, more serious.
Overflowing with high spirits, pure in every thought, steadfast in one great happiness, she had not suffered by the dangers, the toil and the success of the last three months. She was at times a child to her husband, at times a woman instinct with what was good for him, and she was always bright and brave. Her ambition was that he might never cease to believe her and to find her the best woman he knew. No woman can aim higher than that.
"Archie boy, what is the value of the gold we've got now?" she asked suddenly.
"Roughly speaking, I should say about sixty thousand pounds. That's including your find, of course."
"Sixty thousand pounds!"
"Probably more," said Archie with a coolness infinitely more assumed than real.
"Oh, how can you talk about it in that quiet way? Sixty thousand pounds! Why—you're rich, Archie. You're—oh, it's a fortune and—— But I ought to have known it amounted to a lot of money."
"Enough for a start."
"Of course! Why not? There's more to be found here. But sixty thousand for, say, four months' work! It's—it's unheard of, Archie."page 334
He smiled at her wild enthusiasm and shook his head.
"Scarcely," he said, "though we've no cause to complain."
"How much does it all weigh?" she asked suddenly.
"Pretty nearly eleven hundred pounds."
"It's as much as the horses 'll be able to carry."
"Yes. More, unless——"
"I think it would be better to keep down the bed of this river than to go back the way we came."
"Exactly what I was going to suggest. I believe we are on the headwaters of the Kawatau. It won't take more than four days getting down."
"Whatever river it is it must run into the Rangitikei or the Hautapu."
"The Rangitikei, or some river bound for the Rangitikei. The Hautapu is on the other side of the watershed."
"So I fancy. Anyhow it ought to be quicker to push down the river. We ought to start soon too. The weather's going to break. We'd have a fearful time of it if the river were to flood. Besides, we've nearly come to an end of our flour and my 'baccy.'"
"Let's start to-morrow, Archie."
"I'll clean up the bottom of the last shaft to-morrow and then plant the cradle and things we don't want ready for next spring, and we'll be off."
"We'll come up again in the spring, Archie?"
"Not without me?"
"It depends. We must talk it over. Too much men's clothes is bad for a girl. It might become a habit. One thing I'm going to do to-morrow is to peg out a regular claim. The secret is sure to leak out and there'll be a tremendous rush. This side of theriver, I believe, is Government land."page 335
"We'll stay in Wellington for the session, Archie, may we?"
"Rather. We'll take a house, and you shall go to dances and have gaiety galore. You've fairly earned it, you brick," he said, reaching over and patting her softly.
"Come on, Archie, down to the river. It's a lovely night and it's almost our last up here. I've nearly grown to love the place."
"It's been good to us," he said gently.
Together they picked their way across the flat.
"You're quite right, Archie, about men's clothes being a bad habit. I'm getting quite a duffer in my skirts," laughed Ngaia as she stumbled over a small boulder. "It's most demoralising for a girl to wear a man's suit."
"They were necessary."
"You dear old boy! I believe you hate to see me in them. You don't really think I like them, do you? Oh, you mustn't imagine that I'm without my fair share of the vanity of my sex. I love pretty clothes, and as for men's things—poof, they can't look pretty. I warn you, I'll half ruin you with my fine dresses when once I start buying. I believe, though it may sound contemptible, that one of my ambitions is to be a really well-dressed woman. Not reckless, you know, but— oh, I think a woman ought to look nice always."
Like the two young lovers they were, they talked simplicities, tender and sweet to them, uninteresting to the stranger. Then as they stood by the stream it and the night and the darkness and the mountains and the great still bush took hold of them and they were silent.
The solitude of such surroundings, with their loneliness and majesty, how it crushes you; how it oppresses you; how it overshadows you with its hugeness, its vastness, its silence that not even the cry of birds or page 336he splash of the river can mar. It makes you realise your smallness, your insignificance, how paltry all humanity is, how ephemeral, how transitory. Time in such lonely places is counted in generations and ages, not in hours nor days nor years. The old monarch of the forest, falling in decrepitude at the feet of youth to disappear under a shroud of ferns and mosses, is old beyond the span of three, four, five— who shall say how many generations of men!
How night and the stars love the great bush and the hills and the silent passing river. Over the mountain sides the high lights are twilight and the shadows blackness. And the stars, kissing the waters and dipping and tumbling in every ripple, twinkle and blink at the brilliance of their images.
Ghostly, silent and pregnant of hidden dangers, the current floats by. The life of bright reflection is gone, and night and the stars alone are mirrored. Its mystery grips you. It is a living creature.
From whence to where each drop?
From whence to where each human life? Who knows?
Heedless and regardless the weird, rippling mass floats on with its eddies and its whirlpools. It is like the sweep of eager, selfish men and women waging an eternal war of pettiness and rivalry amongst themselves nor remembering that each and all are rolling, rushing, pelting to the one common end—Death. Such foolishness too as it is, for it seems a waste of time to quarrel when you are dying, and you are dying from the hour of your birth. Tiny wavelets along the banks, not yet sucked into the flowing water, lap the shingle and stay to kiss the boulders and play with the pebbles. They are the children of life innocent of the struggle of living.
The weka, sweet bird of the evening stream, raises its soft, plaintive cry; and from the bush echoes the more sonorous note of the morepork. Up the river, on page 337the wings of a breeze too delicate to feel, floats the ceaseless splashing of the rapids.
Yet the vast silence engulfs such tender sound and all is still. Suddenly from the depths of the bush upon the mountain-side comes a sharp crack and a long-drawn crash telling of some mighty tree or ponderous branch having fallen to its last resting-place.
Such a scene at such an hour leads the meanest mind to melancholy. Thoughts of things which are the shadows of living take possession. Life itself seems so small, so unnecessary, so unjust. Such a hurry, such a scramble, so much heart-burning, so much disappointment, such infinite ambition, such insignificant achievements, such stupid glory, such tinselled triumphs, such a value on existence, such a striving to maintain it—and for how long? For a few years. For an infinitesimal fraction of the swing of ages. As if it matters; as if anything matters.
A numbness seems to seize the brain. The heart rebels at the thought of quitting solitude and peace for the flare and glare and snarls and snappings of men's company. A longing seems to overwhelm the soul that you might stand in the midst of all that vastness, stand, feet together, straight and upright, and, opening your arms, might pass from your pettiness of being into the bigness and the mystery around you. Be lost, be annihilated, be assimilated, be of the element, of the influence, of the power about you. In the stillness of such a night, in the wildest of winter tempests, in the drenching mists rolling from the mountains over the tree-tops and tumbling into the valley, in the monstrous artillery of prodigious landslips you would be free. And melancholy would be nothing to you in the knowledge that you are what you are for all time, ransomed of the pettiness of shams and dogmas, conscious of an exquisite unconsciousness, existent and page 338on-existent, effaced, reborn, once again of and in nature.
And you cry out in your pain, and your voice is the voice of mankind recalling a human soul to its cage. All about you changes, all is materialised. The river is no longer a weird, restless power—it would make an excellent salmon stream. The bush is no longer vast, but—it wants felling and clearing and would carry sheep, many sheep. The stone you are standing on has slowly sunk and the tiny ripples, instead of kissing your boots, have, with horrible curiosity—such human curiosity—crept through and your feet are cold and wet. You hear the rapids plainly and it annoys you, for the breeze is chilly. You shudder, you walk back to the camp, you make up the fire to a huge blaze, you light your pipe and you think your tent uncommonly uncomfortable and wish you were out of the solitude and back in the midst of the gaiety and brilliance of the pleasure-seeking world. The thought brings memories; and you smile at recollections of boon companions, of amusing incidents, of fair women, some false, some frail, some—other men's wives.
You kick the logs and a shower of sparks shoots into the air; you rise from your seat; you take a last look round; you listen to hear if your horse is feeding well; you may wonder how the morning will dawn; you have forgotten your mood by the river; and presently you are snoring.