A Maori Maid
It was just a week since Cyril had been sentenced. A week during which he had tasted the sweets of prison food, and, in convict garb, with cropped hair, had made his first acquaintance with hard labour. The gentleman's son, the man of education, was a worker of the pick and the shovel. Moreover, he had already once been punished for disobedience and insolence.
He was an arrant coward, otherwise, with his horribly evil temper, he would have been classed as dangerous.
Near by him, for the time, was toiling the quiet, inoffensive old man who had been sentenced with him.
Poor wretch! he was crushed, he was broken, he was annihilated by his position. It was terrible to realise the long, weary, dreadful future. Years and years of toil; and then, if ever he lived to be again free, nothing but disgrace, dishonour, shame and ruin. His wife, meanwhile, might starve. His daughters, branded as children of a convict, might fail and fail to obtain employment, until—until—He dared not name his dread. They were so good and pure, but they were both pretty and high-spirited. What might money or the necessity, the dire starvation necessity for it, not do?
There came to him, too, the thought of what he had become, and of what he had been not twelve months since. He was honest then, and respected, and happy. page 391His home was humble, his wants few, his slender income had been at least sufficient. Then he had suffered himself to be tempted. He had been persuaded. Not at first was the benefit for himself. It was to save another. He was misled, and, having sinned, he sinned afresh to hide his sin; and fell, and fell.
One week since the trial,
A week during which John Anderson had drooped and drooped, until now, in the dusk of the autumn afternoon, he lay in Archie's home dying.
Topsy was away in England, and John would allow no letter to be sent to Te Henga telling how ill he was.
"My wife is herself ill, too ill to come to me, and Daisy should be with her. Besides, I'll get better," he said, in the earlier part of the week.
But he did not, and in the last few days of all the sands ran out over fast. There was no illness, no sickness of the body. The heart was broken, the spirit crushed, the mind tormented.
Devotedly, through every minute of the day, and into the night, Ngaia tended and nursed him. She only left him now and again for a brief space to sleep, whilst her husband sat and watched.
Often, for hours and hours, the old man would lie silent. The mind was grieving, the heart bleeding. It was sad, it was piteous. A man brought to death before his time by sheer grief.
John refused a paid nurse; and the luxury that money might bring him he had no care for. Ngaia's presence alone seemed to brighten him. He would follow her every movement with his eyes. He made no effort to hide his love. He was only waiting for a little strength to tell her his secret, to take her in bis arms, to kiss her and be kissed as parent and child may kiss. He was waiting only until the grim master, Death, had set his seal upon him.page 392
"For my wife's sake, not until then, not until then. She shall never know; only Ngaia and her husband. They will make everything right, and tell nothing. No one need know except them."
At times the old man lapsed into a half-unconscious state. It was then that it became apparent how deeply Cyril's disgrace had grieved him.
"My son, your Honour, my son. No, no, no. Not guilty, your Honour, not guilty! Not a felon! He was reckless. He was wild; but not a felon. It is a lot of money, very much; but I will pay. I will pay it all, and more, much more, if it must be. I will | try and look after him and keep him, and he shall never sin again. Cyril! Cyril I Say it's a mistake. Say you are penitent Say—no, no, not a felon. My son, your Honour, my son. How can my son be a felon? Three years! Three years! It's not long, but it's death. It means ruin, it means disgrace. It ' means that I have helped to bring a criminal into the world. Think of his mother, sir. It will kill her. She is pure, and good, and—no, no. Not a felon. Oh, my God, my God!"
There was a pause for a few moments.
"Poor Clark. I remember Clark, your Honour, when I was a boy. He was honest then. He was honest until— Who says my son was the tempter? Who says that the old man is the victim, and not Cyril? Ah me! It's all a mistake, your Honour. Don't say ten years, don't say ten years. He is old; and ten years is perhaps all his life. He is not the guilty one. I know, I know. Am I not the father? I tell you ten years is death, death, death. Poor Clark. You shan't starve. No, no, no. We know the truth. He is a bad lad. Yet he is my son; he is my child. Oh, my God, my God. Kill me, kill me, kill me before I they convict him. Help him to understand, to repent, to reform. But not ten years for the old man. Trouble page 393turns dark hairs to grey. I know, I know. But ten years will turn those white hairs to dust. Poor Clark, poor Clark!"
During the last two days he never once lost consciousness. He was weak and sinking; the voice was low and broken; but the mind was clear.
It was towards dusk. He had asked repeatedly for Archie.
"He will soon be here," Ngaia told him. "He has had to go out. He may be back any minute."
She was seated by the bedside. Her head was resting upon her hand, her elbow upon the bed. She was weary and tired with grief and incessant watching. She was heartbroken. John Anderson was sinking; he was dying. Her old friend, her father perhaps— was passing from her.
Oh, if she could but ask him that; if she might only caress him as her father! Her love would cure him.
Presently she felt his hand steal up to hers, and then on to her head, gently patting and smoothing her hair.
He had never quite done that before. Every look, every word of his to her had always breathed his love, and yet he had invariably treated her with a tender formality, even as an old man might treat the grown daughter of some dear friend.
She never stirred, and the wan, wasted hand played over and among the rich soft hair. Presently she felt him draw her as it were towards him. She yielded and rested her head on the bed by bis shoulder, his arm about her.
How they contrasted! The man, white-haired and feeble—dying; the girl young, strong and beautiful, the embodiment of life. It was winter and springtime side by side.
"My darling, my pet," he whispered, pressing his cheek into the mass of silky hair.page 394
She was silent. In the midst of her grief and sorrow it seemed as though a great joy was upon her.
"Ngaia, I—I have something to tell, something I want to say. I'm dying, Ngaia. Sh-sh, pet; you must not cry. No, no, no. I'm not sorry, and you must not be. No, no. Of all people not you. Listen. I—I want to tell you about—about yourself. I knew your father, Ngaia. I knew your mother. Twenty years ago. Aye, it's nearly twenty years ago since your mother died. Twenty long, long years to me. Ngaia, what I wrote was untrue when I told you that Jake was your father. He was not Your father had a wife and children when he met your mother. He was your father, but not worthy; not worthy of you, not worthy of the Maori woman who bore you. He was a coward, Ngaia, a miserable, selfish coward. He was frightened for his wife; and he hid the truth from the two women he had married. Ngaia, you must try and forgive him. Not altogether, not altogether. It's impossible. But he was your father, and—and the temptation was great. He tried to make no unhappiness, and he only sacrificed you and himself instead. When your mother died he let Jake adopt you. You were educated, and—and you're rich, Ngaia, very, very rich. Your father, your real father, looked after your land and—and—Oh, my darling, you know now; you can guess. Say you forgive him; say you love him. He has been punished for his sin by grief and disappointment. Say you forgive him because— because—"
The voice was husky and broken. The thin, wasted hand trembled and strained at the girl.
She had nestled closer and closer to him.
She raised her head as he ceased to speak and her eyes met his.
What a world of love, of yearning, passionate love, of anxiety, of fear, of supplication was there in his page 395gaze. He was longing for her forgiveness, for her love. He was fearful lest she might refuse She had a right to. His dread was that she might. Had she done so John Anderson would have bowed his head and taken his last and bitterest grief as but the final fulfilment, the just punishment, of his sin.
Yet what need of fear? What need to doubt forgiveness?
"My father!" she cried, and bending over him they were locked in a deep passionate embrace.
By the door, unnoticed, stood Archie.
He had heard John's last few words. He had heard his wife's cry.
He stood silent.
She was his wife but he felt himself a stranger in that sacred moment of reunion, of recognition.
Yet he was conscious of a feeling of intense joy and relief. His darling was after all his old friend's child.
John broke the silence.
"You forgive me, darling, you forgive me? Say you forgive me. It will make me happy, so happy."
"Forgive you, father! Don't say that, don't say that. I owe gratitude, not forgiveness."
"No, no. Not that, not that. I've wronged you, bitterly wronged you. Say you forgive me."
"From the bottom of my heart I do. Oh indeed, indeed, if I have anything to forgive, I do."
"My pet," he whispered, and he kissed her softly again and again. "It seems hard now to be dying. I was wishing and wishing; and now—Oh, Ngaia, Ngaia, my child.
"You would have learnt it all one day," he continued. "My will gives you all that is rightly yours, yours even without the will; and I have written a letter, a long letter, telling you everything. It's at the station. It is for you to publish to all the world if you like, to all the world, darling."page 396
Sh-sh, father. It is our secret, yours and mine, and—and Archie's. It is for us only."
"Where's Archie? Where is he, Ngaia? I want him to know; and I'm—I'm feeling tired, pet, very tired. Is—is—? Yes, yes, that's Archie. Tell him, Ngaia, tell him. I'm—I'm weak now."
"I heard, sir."
"You forgive me, too?" the old man asked eagerly. "I wronged you when I wronged her."
"Yes, yes, Mr. Anderson. Just as Ngaia does with all my heart."
John lay back, a smile of infinite happiness upon his face.
"Be good to her, Archie, be good to her. You will, I know you will; and she loves you so. She will be very, very rich, and she will do you credit. All Te Henga is hers, and all the money that has accumulated. You must take her to England and make her a great lady. And in time—Ah me, if I could only have lived. It always seemed so hard to tell it all, and yet it was so easy, so easy. And—and, Ngaia," he continued, and his voice was faint and losing strength, "I want you to remember Clark and—and his wife, his poor wife. See that they never feel want Please, for my sake. Ngaia, I heard that sentence. It was wrong. I know it was. I'm his father, and I tried to believe in him. But he tempted and persuaded Clark. Cyril was the chief sinner. He really and actually stole the most It was all wrong, all wrong. I'm sure. And you will help them, Ngaia?"
"I will, I promise I will. But you won't leave me now. You will get better and stronger, and we'll be so happy. You cannot go. You must not; father, you must not."
"God's will be done,.sweet. It's better so, it's better so. I'm glad perhaps. It's been so hard and bitter. It might have been different if Cyril—Oh, Cyril! page 397If he only realised! It has killed me. It has eaten my heart away. Why was he so bad? I loved him. And now a felon. Oh, Ngaia," he cried, bursting into tears.
The girl strove to soothe his anguish. Presently he grew calmer and spoke wearily and weakly. It was but a broken whisper.
"Kiss me, kiss me, Ngaia. Tell my wife I thought of her. She's too ill to come to me and it's right for Daisy to be with her. She's been a good wife to me. I—I wronged her, and yet—You will be kind to her, Ngaia. Neither she nor Daisy will be poor. I've made money with my own money. Archie, my lad, it's so dark, so dark. Lift me, a little bit. So, just so. I'm heavy? I was once. Oh, I was strong once when Ruta—ah me. See, see, Ngaia. Through the curtain the sun is setting. It's evening, and the sheep are being mustered. I'm passing into the great fold—a worn and broken straggler. Oh my God, have mercy on me a sinner! See, the light is coming. Yet not for me, not for me. I'm not deserving. Archie, Ngaia, it's growing so dark again, so dark. Kiss Daisy for me, and Topsy. Cyril! Where is Cyril? I—no, no, no! I—forgot. Poor Cyril. God have mercy upon him. And—and—Ngaia, I'm—so—weary—so—" and the faint voice broke away into a sigh as he sank back into the bed.
He lay still and motionless.
Thus he remained for hours and hours whilst the sands ran swiftly out. He was unconscious, neither moving nor stirring, so that at times they thought the end had come.
In the afternoon of the following day it did.
As the day fades into night and no man knows the moment of the change; as the breeze gradually and gradually dies away towards the evening and falls into a great solemn calm, so the spirit of John Anderson passed beyond.page 398
He scarcely seemed to die. Nor could any say the exact moment when the thread was snapped. Only there whispered a tiny sigh like the faint rustling of a soft wing, and slowly the warmth of life stole away and the coldness of death came.
John Anderson was dead. Te Henga and all its wealth had come at length to its rightful owner. Ngaia was rich beyond the counting of a man's life.
Outside in the street the newspaper boy was calling the evening paper.
A cart rattled by.
Two men under the window were standing laughing and talking.
Ngaia in the hushed room, in the awful silence or her grief, seemed to hear every sound. How could men jest and chatter and run each about his business almost in the very presence of Death?
She turned to her husband with a great sob and buried her face on his shoulder. She felt his arms steal round her and strain her to him. She felt his lips upon her cheek.
Then she fainted.