A Maori Maid
It was thus. John and Ruta had driven across to the Maori kainga, a distance of about thirteen miles. A thirteen-mile drive in New Zealand, of which three only is formed road, requires skill. It necessitates a woful amount of jolting, and a multitude of ups and downs. Occasionally also there are up-side downs with a broken shaft by way of a lucky escape; for the creeks have no proper culverts, and here and there, where the side of a hill is circled, small landslips or deep ruts force the vehicle to an unhappy angle.
Ngaia formed one of the party that jaunted in the buggy on that, to John, never-to-be-forgotten day over to the native village. She travelled on Ruta's back in a shawl, slumbering serenely.
It was a sweltering, cloudless day. A thin, misty haze hung above the river-bed; and over the brown tussock and wiwi grass the heat could be seen dancing and shimmering like a transparent glittering veil. The sheep were mostly gathered in small knots, seeking shelter under the imaginary shade of the slender cabbage-trees. A good rain would have been welcome; otherwise, from a sheep-farmer's point of view, there was no cause of complaint. Everything was in splendid condition. The fencing had proceeded apace. There had been a good burn. Last year's wool returns were satisfactory beyond John's highest expectations. He had negotiated a further loan from one of the stock companies, every penny of which had been expended page 49upon the purchase of more stock. He even had sheep running over acres and acres of fine land that belonged to the natives and had not yet passed through the court; land, in fact, that still remained "no man's" land. Not that absence of ownership will in any wise worry sheep. They eat and grow fat, and the wool fetches just as good a price. Nor was it likely that any one would object to his putting the sheep there. Who should? As yet there were no legal owners, although probably the right of certain natives was, amongst the natives themselves, understood to be beyond dispute. Ruta was one who would be entitled to a share. Meanwhile, they made no objection to John's using the whole of it. And he did.
As far as his station was concerned, John had every right to be pleased with himself. He had been self-denying, hard-working and persevering; and he was reaping a well-merited reward. On either side, as he drove along, the sheep and the cattle and the land were his. He had, in fact, been strangely and wonderfully successful. From a hard-working surveyor he had prospered into a wealthy run-holder—at least so the world at large saw it. Within himself he realised that neither an acre of the land nor a single sheep was his. They were Ruta's or bought with her money. His prosperity was entirely through the Maori woman. She had done more for him, however, than bring him mere wealth. She had brought him the most perfect and complete happiness he had known since the first weeks of his old honeymoon. And every hour of every year revealed to him fresh beauty in the nature of the Maori girl, and fresh angles in that of the vain, extravagant woman who was his wife.
So far as his efforts could make them so, both the two women were happy. And, with monstrous cynicism, fate decreed that each should be materially the better and decidedly the happier for his wrong-doing. His page 50wife was delighted and gratified at her husband's increased wealth. It meant finer dresses, a finer house, a more influential position in society. The Maori woman was conscious of the infinitely more lovely joy of having borne a child to the man she loved. That meant all the sweetness of pure, enchanting motherhood.
Yet after all did the happiness of either or both of the women justify him in what he had done? His honour and his conscience made but one reply.
It was never the answer his heart desired.
Which always happens when an honest man commences to play at dishonesty.
They reached the kainga, and John left Ruta at one of the whares and drove a few chains farther on. He had business with old Ihakara.
When a Maori or a pakeha visits a Maori he is received with Maori hospitality. This means food. European custom is to ask a visitor if he is hungry— "Would you like some tea?" The Maori in his home makes no such inquiry. He speaks a welcome and presently he comes to his guest and tells him that the food is cooked and ready. If the new comer is not hungry, he will eat but little; if he is hungry he will eat much. The Maori deems it poor hospitality to ask before the food is offered. The stranger might perhaps say "no" and yet be hungry.
John found old Ihakara seated in his hut on a "whariki," or flax mat. He was clad in an old Crimean shirt, and round his hips were a couple of blankets. He was smoking "torore," which is tobacco grown by the Maories. It is good to smoke, and deadly to smell.
The whare was the usual Maori hut of "raupo." It was windowless, chimneyless, dark and smoky. The floor was mother earth and destitute of any covering. In the centre was a hollow the size of a washing basin. This constituted the fireplace, and at intervals page 51shovelfuls of glowing wood-embers were brought from one of the cooking fires outside and emptied into it. They emitted neither smoke nor flame, and served to more than thoroughly warm the establishment. John shook hands with the old tattooed chief and then sat down on the floor, as far from the fire as etiquette would permit. Then he chatted. Business proper could only come after food.
A Maori never cooks in the sleeping house. The kitchen is either in the open air or a separate whare. Whilst John was sitting in the tent talking, two or three women were preparing his meal outside. After the lapse of some twenty or thirty minutes they came into the hut to make ready for him to eat. One spread a white table-cloth on the floor near him, and the other deposited with infinite care a china bowl, a cup and saucer and a plate; also a knife and fork and a silver-plated cruet-stand with empty cut-glass bottles, a tin pannikin full of salt and an elaborate glass bowl filled with sugar. The loaf of bread was flat and circular, after the shape of a huge cake, about six inches in height and sixteen or eighteen inches in diameter. It seemed stale. Maori bread always seems that, although decidedly palatable.
The rest of the food, to be precise, consisted of four fried eggs, a freshly opened tin of potted salmon, three small steaks, a metal dish full of potatoes, some sweet biscuits and jam. There was also an elaborate nickel teapot containing tea sufficiently strong to be of a straw colour.
The visitor has his repast to himself. The Maories either withdraw or sit around, and take their meal after their guest has finished his. It makes no difference that the new comer is a stranger and uninvited so long as he is not a mere tramp. If he arrives in the midst of their meal they will cease eating until his wants are attended to. And they neither ask nor page 52expect any payment for it It is Maori custom, Maori tikanga, and the only thought that suggests itself to them is that when they visit the white men's settlements or towns they receive nothing for nothing. They must pay, pay, pay. And they do.
"But then," they will add by way of excuse, "that is the pakeha custom. We are Maories."
Truly, they are Maories; and not as some folks put it "only" Maories. Indeed, one often feels, as one learns some of their ways, that it is we pakehas who are after all "only" white men. Maories say we are.
John having eaten to his satisfaction, the food was removed. He lit his pipe and presently commenced his business. He was thus occupied, when suddenly they burst in upon him and told him of what had happened.
Heta was the cause of it. He was the innocent cause. It was an accident.
Heta was a short Maori, and weighed sixteen stone. He was a swell in his way, and wore, on state occasions— which means visits to any township or race-meeting— a suit made from a bright rug, with a blue and brown and yellow pattern upon it in solid six or eight-inch squares. There was not sufficient rug for trousers, so Heta had to be satisfied with knickerbockers; and his fat, ungainly calves wobbled inside thick stockings of broad black and yellow stripes. He wore a diamond ring on one fourth finger and a heavy signet ring on the other. He had a watch-chain made of sixteen genuine half-sovereigns, with a shilling match-box at one end, tied on with a bit of string; at the other a patent cigar lighter. This had once boasted a series of caps which exploded and lit a piece of wick. Heta had used all the caps showing admiring relatives how it worked, and had lost the wick. Thereafter he cursed the contrivance because it would not hold any matches, but wore it because it looked fine.page 53
Heta was driving a small sulky—or trying to. His horse had jibbed in the very centre of the kainga, and absolutely refused to budge. It takes a Maori horse to refuse absolutely. It is an art.
Heta expostulated in mild tones. Then his voice went up an octave. He sat in the trap and pulled at the reins; but made no impression. He commenced whipping with a like result—that is to say, no result. Presently he began to grow angry and to use bad language—in Maori. The horse remained immovable —it had apparently no appreciation of Maori expletives. At length Heta was annoyed sufficiently to stand up. He belaboured the animal with all his might; he also continued swearing. It was all wasted on the beast, and the whip broke. Heta was furious. He had flung every Maori compliment he knew at the brute. Besides, he was in a hurry, and behold, after a quarter-of-an-hour's hard work, he was merely some five or six yards farther away from his destination. He jumped out of the sulky and coaxed and pulled and tugged; then he swore afresh. Finally he kicked the animal three or four times, and got into a furious argument with another native who ventured a suggestion. Then he jumped again into the cart and thrashed and thrashed—all, however, to no purpose.
He paused. The sweat was streaming down his face. The whip was broken. The horse was apparently unhurt, and unquestionably not yet disposed to proceed. Heta was frantic. He recommenced his efforts. He cursed, he swore, he tugged. He flogged again and again. Then suddenly an idea occurred to him. He threw the whip into the sulky and scrambled out. He seized the reins near the bit, and, brandishing his fist, he exclaimed,—
"You debil ob a liar!"
It was all the English he knew. He repeated it three or four times, accompanying his remark with page 54sundry gesticulations. Then he scrambled back into the sulky, with a view to testing the efficacy of his last argument He gathered up the reins and, before he realised it, the horse started.
Heta was unprepared, and sat down with a thud. Sixteen stone sitting down with a thud in a small light sulky necessitates the destruction of something. In this case it was the seat totally, and Heta partially. There was a cracking and a splintering, a second thud, and lo! Heta had landed on the broad of his back in the dust.
The horse bolted.
A number of Maories, who had, during the whole affair, been standing by indolently laughing, roared with delight. The dog that snuffed at Heta, as he lay for a moment motionless and wondering why the earth had jumped up and hit him, nearly died. Heta clutched it, and it was all he had to vent his rage upon. Then he discovered, that the knickerbockers had cracked almost to the extent of one entire square.
Meanwhile the horse dashed round a whare, and passed out of sight A few seconds afterwards there was a shriek. Then the cry of death arose—the wailing cry of the living Maori for the lifeless, the cry that travels miles and miles on the wings of the light evening wind and silences the weka's soft whistle, and sends the wild dog back and back into the dense bush with the tail of a whipped cur.
Poor Ruta! She was standing by the corner as the horse tore round. In an instant she was struck and hurled on to the turf with a heavy, sickening thud. It was her death-fall. She lay motionless and huddled. They thought her dead when they ran to her. She was not—not quite. The flame was still flickering— just faintly and very dimly.
She opened her eyes and whispered for John. A man turned and ran, and others with him; and they page 55came and with gasps and gesticulations told the white man. They told him in a string of sentences without softening or break. He staggered under the blow, as a ship will stagger under a sudden gust. He reeled to his feet, and ran.
He found her almost where she had fallen. Kind hands had tried to move her; but it pained her. And why attempt it? In a few short minutes they might take her where they wished, and it would not pain. Besides, it is well to meet death under the open sky.
John knelt by her side and called her. She opened her eyes and the light of love gleamed in them. He stooped and kissed her, and smoothed back the thick, dark hair. She was dying. He felt it. He knew it. She who, a few moments before, had been so full of life and laughter, was bruised and broken and passing from him. And not fifty yards away the horse, harnessed to the shattered sulky, was idly grazing, quite unconscious of the misery it had caused.
The face the white man had learnt to love so passionately was hurt and bloodstained. There was no gaping wound upon the body, but the blunt shaft had broken the ribs, and the injury lay deep and beyond all human mending. John staunched the blood and wiped it and the cold sweat from her forehead, and strove as best he could to stay the agony she was enduring. Nature, at moments, helped, as from time to time Ruta passed into unconsciousness, her head resting on his knee.
"Ruta! Ruta!" was his hoarse whisper "My darling, my poor darling! It's John, pet. It's John who is speaking to you. O God! have mercy on her. God help her, God help her, for I cannot, and I know nothing that I can do. Ruta! Ruta!"
The soft brown eyes opened, and a faint smile hovered over her face. She was brave and she page 56struggled to silence her moaning for the pain that racked her.
John had asked for brandy, and at length a bottle, half full of rum, was brought to him. He bathed her lips, and forced a few drops down her throat. They fanned the dying flame, and she awoke. Her voice was stronger. She murmured her husband's name and her child's. It seemed to be the utmost of her strength and to sum up the whole current of her thoughts. Her husband—the one man who, as she thought, belonged to her alone of all women—and their child.
They brought the little one, and John took it from them. The dying woman struggled to speak, but could only signify to her husband with piteous appeal in her eyes. He understood; and he held the child towards her. It joined in the spirit of what it thought was to be the usual fine game. It pressed its little face to hers, laughing and indifferent, and, burying its tiny fingers in the black tresses, pulled at the mother's hair. Many and many a time they two had romped thuswise in the long days when John was at Wellington. But the poor, broken body could ill bear the jar, and the unrestrainable moan of Ruta's agony chimed inharmoniously with the child's cry of play. Yet she strove to smile and looked from the little one to her husband.
John disentangled the rebel fingers.
For a few moments there was stillness. The child was the one to break it. It seemed suddenly to realise the awfulness of the moment and the coming of death. It uttered a tiny cry, and turned terrified from the mother and hid its face in its father's shoulder. Then it struggled to free itself. John set it down and it toddled off, and presently forgot its fright in a wild game with the dogs.
Just at that moment Ruta stirred. She struggled to rise; her eyes opened and she called John.page 57
For an instant she seemed to be well and merely stretched upon the ground. As he stooped over her, pressing his cheek to hers, she gave a sigh, a deep, long-drawn sigh, like the faint sound of a tiny gust pattering through the evening bush. Her fingers closed upon his wrist, her head fell listlessly upon the white man's arm.
As the men around removed their hats, the women raised afresh the wail of the tangi. The little half-caste girl was motherless, as well as fatherless.
The wealth of Ruta was her child's.
The great run, Te Henga, belonged to a baby girl.