A Maori Maid
John had married Ruta—if marriage it was—early in the summer. He was with her on his flying visit at the time of Ngaia's birth, and at the commencement of the following spring they were again together. During the interval he had collected full information as to her possessions. As a result, he arrived at a determination to act upon her suggestion. He would take up the land and stock it. John Anderson the surveyor would become John-Anderson the run-holder.
The idea had two powerful recommendations. In the first place, he was tired of the hard, rough life of a surveyor, and sheep-farming would mean comparative rest. In the second place, the wealth that might result would be, in a sense, a compensation paid by the Maori woman for the love she had unconsciously stolen from the wife. Of course the wife would never know from whence the money came, nor why; whilst Ruta would remain for always ignorant of the very existence of the woman who benefited by the transaction. It was a dangerous experiment to play, but it was a temptation that did not seek too vehemently to be resisted.
It required tact and time to arrange the matter. Ruta's possessions were scattered. There were shares in lands at Taupo, in Inland Patea and in the bush; blocks at the head of the Manawatu River on the east of the Ruahines and also in Hawkes Bay. Moreover, the mere fact of knowing of the lands was one thing, whilst obtaining a clear and definite title quite another.page 40
When the Native Land Court decides upon the ownership of a tract of country, or block as it is called, it divides the land into a certain number of shares, each representing so many acres, and gives each man, woman and child his or her just proportion. Shares vary in number and in size. The larger the block of land and the fewer the persons comprising any family, or hapu, adjudged to be the owner of the area, the larger the share of each member of that family. The fewer the families, the bigger the share of each family. After the block is finally surveyed and the precise area is ascertained, each native knows how many acres his or her share represents. A fresh Court then sits and determines the exact locality of each individual's interest. Some lands have to be sat upon by six or seven different Courts before the natives have finally learnt where their individual possessions are situated.
In the days when John Anderson married Ruta, it was comparatively easy to negotiate the lease of native lands. To-day it is practically impossible, and requires capital. It also requires "meetings."
It always has, for that matter. A Maori loves a "meeting." He loves to feel the importance of trying to come to a decision; and above all he loves to air his eloquence. A Maori is always ready to make a speech—and a long one.
John's first meeting, and the trouble he had to bring it off, was thoroughly characteristic of all dealings with natives. It was arranged, and the exact date fixed, on the suggestion of a leading Maori, several weeks in advance. When the time came John found himself in the midst of other business that required his attendance and his attention. Obviously he had either to postpone it at great inconvenience and perhaps loss to himself, or else put off the meeting with the natives. The Maori he had been treating with had strongly page 41impressed upon him the necessity of being punctual to the day. Consequently he was forced to allow the other matter to remain in abeyance. The meeting would not last more than a day if only the natives were punctual. About that "if" clung a wide margin of possibility.
He rode through from Hunteville and arrived at Moawhango the day before the appointed date, and in the evening he saw Rau, who had undertaken to arrange the whole affair.
"How many will be at the meeting, Rau?" asked John in Maori
"Don't know. Tousand, peha," answered Rau in English.
"Peha" means "perhaps," and it generally shows that the Maori himself places no reliance upon what he is saying. He does not know, and he will not confess it. He says "peha" instead.
"Thousand! Nonsense," said John.
"Py Kolly"—which represents a Maori's "By Golly"—"Py Kolly; I tink so."
"Well, five hundred; I'm sure."
"Where are they all coming from?"
"Oh, eberywhere. Horses and buggies and plenty people."
"There won't be one hundred."
"Py Kolly, I tink one hundred. You see."
"There are not a hundred people in the title."
"Bery big meeting this. Plenty talk all 'bout the lands."
"I doubt whether there will be even fifty."
"Twenty more probably."
"My word; you don't know. I tink forty." "When will they be here?"
"When te day ob te meeting?"page 42
"To-morrow, of course," replied John, with a horrid suspicion of what was coming.
"I tink to-morrow week best."
"To-morrow week!" exclaimed John, with the thought of how he had upset all his plans in order to keep the appointed day.
"Wery busy to-morrow," vouchsafed Rau by way of explanation.
"What at?" asked John.
"Raruraru" means with a Maori anything that may occupy him, from trouble or worry, to business or work. In Rau's case it meant that he had arranged to go pigeon-shooting.
Expostulation was perfectly useless. Anger would only make the Maori sulky and do absolute harm. John had, therefore, to practise the philosophy of patience and—wait As he anticipated, the meeting was still further adjourned, and it was not until over a fortnight after his arrival that it eventuated.
It was held in the big whare, and six people who were concerned in the matter attended. The rest of the assemblage consisted, to the number of say half-a-dozen, of men and women who came and listened from sheer curiosity. Of Rau's original thousand not one single individual arrived. Only forty odd of them really existed.
The presence of those who attend out of idle curiosity in no wise affects a Maori; if anything they stimulate his eloquence, as does the presence of strangers to a budding premier. He has no scruples in discussing his most private matters before any other Maori so long as he is not one of the "other side" in a court case.
John opened the meeting with a speech, listened to in uninterrupted silence; and then every male native present followed suit. Each one expressed his opinion, page 43and each opinion was apparently diametrically opposite to that of his neighbour. To one unused to Maori ways the negotiation of the lease would at this stage have seemed an impossibility.
The meeting lasted throughout two afternoons and three evenings, and ended in absolutely no decision. Its sole effect was to make the question of pressing for a Native Land Court a topic of constant conversation amongst the natives, and hence to bring it gradually into the practical shape of an authority to John to urge the Government to complete the individualisation of the various blocks.
It took almost the entire summer even partially to complete the matter. By the autumn, however, John found himself in possession of a splendid tract of country amounting to between fifty and sixty thousand acres, perhaps more.
It was Ruta's. More than one half was actually her own. Her interest in two adjoining blocks had been brought into one unbroken piece. The money with which John had purchased the remainder, and with which he commenced the fencing and stocking, had been obtained by the sale of certain of the balance of Ruta's lands. Whilst the profits that might arise from the working of the property would pass into John's bank account, the run itself remained in Ruta's name, subject to a lease to himself at a comparatively small rental. Moreover, hidden away in each lease in a mass of legal verbiage was an innocent little clause whereby, on John's death, the lease terminated, and possession of the property reverted to Ruta or her child. That clause was one of John's sops to still his conscience. Did it make the transaction honest? For the present he was content to imagine that it did. What might prove to be the future aspect of the case was quite another matter. One thing was certain. His wife and Ruta could never meet, and, so far as he page 44could see, Wellington would have to be the residence of the one, and Te Henga, the new station, the home of the other.
Once having settled the difficulties of acquiring the land, John was not slow in setting to work to make it productive. By the following spring he had placed a quantity of stock upon it, had built a woolshed and some yards, and had put up a large amount of fencing. A small slab whare sufficed for himself and for Ruta and the baby girl.
He found that he had been exceedingly fortunate in obtaining good land, of which a considerable portion was natural clearing. He had, in fact, managed to place his foot upon the bottom rung of the ladder that leads to wealth—and he knew it
"I'll grow rich," he said, "and money will help to make everything right"
It was evening.
On a low hill-side, with a clump of bush close behind, stood the rough whare. The roof was thatched with totara bark. The walls consisted of unplaned slabs of totara wood about six feet long, placed vertically side by side. There was no lining, and there were no flooring boards; only the hard dry clay. The window was a mere opening with a piece of white linen stretched across in place of glass. A frame and glass had been ordered, and was waiting to be packed-up by horse.
Almost the whole of one end of the hut consisted of fireplace. The chimney was built of wood. At the bottom large stones, cemented together with clay and mud, formed a rough lining and a protection from the flames. Half way up, across the inside of the chimney, was a thick stick from which were hanging hooks made of bent fencing wire. By means of these, the pots and the kettle were suspended over the flames—the page 45pots and the kettle comprised the cooking conveniences of the establishment.
A rough double bunk, covered with rugs and blankets, was built up at the other end of the hut. Near the fire was a bush-made table and a couple of crude stools.
The interior was scrupulously clean, yet nevertheless contained a most varied assortment of goods. A couple of guns, a rifle, several pairs of old trousers, some coats, surveying instruments, hats, pit-saws, pots, onions, cobs of Indian corn and a hundred and one other articles littered and bedecked the walls and hung from the rafters, regardless apparently of any order or system.
A board across the doorway served to prevent the pigs and chickens from coming in. It had also served to keep Ngaia from crawling out.
John's present country home was as rough and unpretentious as it well could be. He was pursuing the wise course of putting every available penny into improvements that would bring in some profit. There was still any quantity of felling, fencing and stocking to be done. Time enough to build a good homestead when he had a good woolshed. Meanwhile he indulged in neither too much luxury nor too many hands. He was content to wait and work.
The pity is that young settlers of to-day are not willing to do the same. Too often they borrow and build fine cottages. They hang them with pictures of football and cricket teams of their college at Oxford or Cambridge. They are too fine gentlemen to live in a slab whare, but want a neat bungalow with furniture and carpets and a spare room. Then they attribute non-success to hard times instead of soft living.
John, on this evening, was standing by the door of his whare, his pipe in his mouth. A few feet from him sat Ruta, playing on the ground with her baby.page 46
The daylight was disappearing. Night follows day with appalling swiftness in these Southern lands, and only the early moon can make imitation twilight The sounds that broke upon the stillness were few and not inharmonious. The bleating of the sheep came clear and plaintive; from the river-bed rose the shrill musical cry of the weka; now and again the tall cabbage-trees rattled and clattered in the faint, passing breeze.
Before the man's eyes away and away for miles stretched splendid rolling country. It was his, and over most of it his sheep were grazing, and thriving, and multiplying. And yet not really his. Every inch belonged to the woman at his feet.
He stood motionless.
All things died from him save only himself, his own thoughts and the dim shimmering distance.
How swiftly the time of late had been speeding I Five years ago this spring he had met Ruta. Now Ngaia their baby was able to talk. It was actually more than three years since he had come to Te Henga.
Presently the little child uttered some cry of glee and tumbled itself into the mother's lap.
John turned towards the laughing pair. His eyes were aglow with the light of love.
It died away. There arose in his mind the relentless thought of the wrong he had done the Maori by teaching her to love him and by keeping from her the secret of his other marriage. And if he had done evil by her, infinitely greater was the wrong to her child— his child. He had brought her into the world to disown her. Unless something—he scarcely dared to name it as a hope—happened to his wife, the girl would have to live and die in complete ignorance of her father. He would gradually have to thrust himself more and more into the background of the child's memory, until at length she came to look upon him as a mere stranger, or at most a friend.page 47
His mind journeyed on to his other home, to the house in Wellington, prim and spruce with its tiny garden and its rooms fashionably but cheaply decorated. He pictured the wife, with only her two little girls and her boy to keep her company. He had done her, as women judge these things, the worst of all wrongs. Whilst she had been true and faithful to him and had borne him his three little children, he had—what? Cast her off for a Maori woman, and bestowed upon the native a wealth of affection that rightly belonged to no one but his wife. The fact of his wife having strangled the love he had once felt for her was no excuse. A man's love belongs to his wife, and if she ignores it it by no means follows that she is placing it at his disposal for another woman. It was wrong, wofully wrong, to care for Ruta as he did, and yet nevertheless he pleaded with himself that he was powerless. He confessed that, even were all things to happen again, he would be fain, for very weakness of will and strength of passion, to do as he had done.
The twilight seemed suddenly to flicker and fade away into night. Through the bush the breeze uttered a low wistful moaning.
He called to Ruta and bade her come inside, lest she and the child caught cold. Yet some men in his position might have regarded their death as distinctly an act of Providence. At most they would have merely regretted.
It was fated so to happen that had John but wished such evil, he would have been cursed with the endless horror that it was bis wish which had come true. As it was he feared; and what he feared happened.
Such is life and the living of it.