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A Maori Maid

Chapter V

page 29

Chapter V

In Ruta's mind there was neither questioning nor doubt nor suspicion—only affection. She loved and was content to be with the man she loved, and to know that he loved her. After all, that sometimes comprises happiness for a white woman.

Two days after the complete confession of his secret John left for his head camp. Ruta was with him. She remained with him throughout that summer's survey and looked after his tent and helped also at the cooking.

In a native kainga the women do all the cooking. They kindle fires in the "marae," or open square round which the whares or huts are built. Under each of these fires, which are of wood, is a heap of stones. As soon as these have become thoroughly heated, the fire is brushed away. Damp, green stuff is then piled round the hot stones, and the food is placed on the top of them. Over the food they throw sacks, or more green stuff, and sprinkle a quantity of water. This is a Maori oven, and the food is half steamed and half roasted. The results are eatable.

A Maori woman is not waited upon merely because she is a chieftainess or rich or old. She can still cook, and does and smokes. The men sit and watch her and loaf They loaf because they are men; she works because she is a woman. The fact of her having money does not, in their opinion, affect the matter. She may own all the sheep for miles around. The page 30men may one and all be her servants, hired drovers, or shepherds. It makes no difference. She cleans the pots and scrapes the potatoes and cooks and never wonders at it She is not told to do it, but as a phase of her existence she thinks there is nothing derogatory in it, and does it. Ancient Maori custom has still more power than modern money, just in the same way that fashion rules our commonsense.

Ruta therefore waited upon her husband much as a slave would wait upon her master. Throughout the livelong day, from early morning until dark, he was out surveying, cutting lines, taking levels, marking off boundaries. He did not dislike bis work. It was the solitude of the evenings that had palled on him. Now it was changed. A welcome always awaited him. He had pleasant company. He was happy. Any man with a sweet, sympathetic woman for a companion always is. No one can be happier except—the woman.

Not that John was unmindful of his children. He never for an hour forgot his wife. Sometimes he almost wished that he could. But he wrote and sent kind messages whenever one of the men chanced to be going down to the township for letters or food. In fact, it seemed to him as though the one life fitted in with the other, and that a man could at least serve two mistresses.

A surveyor's camp is like most small camps; the tents are pitched under the shelter of the bush or of some small hill. The "chief" has his separate tent. The other ones, and perhaps there are two or three of them, hold a couple of men each. The fly of a large tent pitched at a height of six or seven feet serves alternately as a kitchen, parlour and office. A rough, slab table is fixed down the centre. The seating accommodation consists of benches made by resting a pair of green saplings, the thickness of a man's arm, on short forks driven into the ground. They page 31are vilely uncomfortable, a fact that serves possibly to discourage eating for eating's sake. All meals are cooked and consumed here, and when the cups and dishes are cleared off, maps are scaled out and drawn.

Ruta was no fool. Few Maories are. Moreover, she was a sensible woman in love with the man she had taken for her husband. She knew his affection for her, and she spared no effort to retain and intensify it She was, of course, ignorant of everything except of that which nature and her crude companions had taught her. She probably could never have acquired the niceties of high civilisation and courtly etiquette. But she was good and gentle, and genuine in her disposition. She was more than merely intelligent. She learnt English—chiefly from the camp-cook, for John, as a rule, spoke only Maori to her. She picked up chess sufficiently well to make her an interesting adversary for her husband. She mended his clothes, and patched his trousers—often. She looked after him, and watched over him so that he comprehended, at length, the intense delight a man feels in the realisation of a woman's love for him It was his first honeymoon over again, only more so.

Ruta, in fact, was utterly successful in her desire, inasmuch as her white man lost his existence in hers. He completely succumbed to her sweet influence until the world contained four things for him—three little children, a woman, and a duty. The last was his wife.

Ruta and he sometimes talked of the future, and she whispered to him of the new life that would come to them and knit them the one to the other. It was to be beautiful and handsome, and was to be taught in the pakeha schools, and become a "rangitira" child amongst pakehas. He wanted it to be a girl, and she hoped for a boy. No mention was made of marriage other than the page 32union they had already entered into. The marriage ceremony was a matter of no consideration with her. She neither asked for it nor expected it. She, in fact, saw no necessity for it She was his wife because they loved each other. He was her husband because they loved each other. What more was requisite? That and the giving of herself to him and his acceptance of her in her mind constituted marriage.

"Where shall you remain whilst I am away in Wellington?" John inquired of Ruta one day. It had been worrying him that she could never come to Wellington, nor know the reason why.

"With my people," she said. "I do not like the big city, unless—unless you would wish it."

He answered by agreeing to her proposal.

"I will be back in the early spring to see you."

"And be with me all the summer, ne?"

"Yes, all the summer."

"And build me a whare upon my own lands and put sheep upon them and grow rich?"

It was practically the first time she had mentioned her lands. He questioned her and she told him of her parents and her possessions and he realised then how immensely wealthy she was.

"And the time will come when you will always live with me and be a great run-holder and I will learn to be like your pakeha women. You will be glad for those days, will you not?" she asked.

He answered "Yes," but in his heart he doubted. There were difficulties—many difficulties.

A few weeks later, when the summer was over, and rain-mists of autumn were rolling across and across the higher ranges, John Anderson returned to Wellington and Ruta to her kainga. There she awaited the coming of her supremest happiness. It dawned after the autumn had gone and when the winter was heavy upon the lands.

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She became the mother of a baby girl.

She named her Ngaia* and scrawled a letter to her husband telling him of her happiness—and his.

It reached him twelve months, almost to a day, after the birth of his boy.

He seemed, then, to awaken to the reality of what had happened, and the dishonour of it appalled him. He made no effort to spare himself in his self-condemnation. After all there is a species of satisfaction in mentally damning oneself for a villain, when one has decided that that is to be the limit of repentance. He knew he had been guilty of a wrong to the woman who was his wife; a wrong none the less so for her ignorance of it; a wrong which, if ever she became aware of it, would completely wreck her life. So much he admitted. Then he haggled with himself over the rest, as men do who strive to have their pudding and eat it too. From the hour of his meeting Ruta love and duty traversed diverging paths. And now, in Ruta's baby, love had begotten another duty and the two were irreconcilable. Yet he tinkered at the impossible until he thought he had patched it into a livable life.

"Though I have wronged my wife," he told himself, "she shall never endure the agony of knowing it. Her ignorance of my evil shall be the measure of her happiness. Love of Ruta shall never mean neglect of Ethel—never."

It was this selfsame resolution which prompted him to stoop over his wife when her baby boy slept at her breast and swear that happen what might he would be a good father to her child. And in the tragedy of his life John Anderson at least played truly to his oath.

After receiving Ruta's letter he slipped away on some plea or another and was with the Maori woman page 34shortly after Ngaia's birth. It was a visit apparently excusable on account of certain work but utterly unjustifiable in its real object.

Yet, although he scarcely understood it, he was helpless. Love had turned the man into a weak slave.

He offered excuses to himself. It was only natural. Excuses are the arguments of a weak man.

"I owe a duty to Ruta," he told himself, "and my duty to her is no harm to Ethel."

Yet, when sitting in the whare, he half wondered at his coming.

Then, as he journeyed home, he wondered at his returning.

* The Ng is pronounced as one letter, as in singing; otherwise an approximate pronunciation would be Niya.