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A Maori Maid

Chapter IX

page 58

Chapter IX.

In the first shock of John's grief his child drifted from his mind. His whole thought was with the dead Maori woman. They laid her reverently in a new tent, and, during the day that followed her death, he sat hour after hour gazing on the still face. He seemed unable to grasp the truth, unable to realise it

Once during the long watch the belief that she was not dead took overwhelming possession of him. Of a certainty they had lied to him. She was only sleeping, merely sleeping. The tale they had brought him, and his memory of that awful parting, were dreams. He had only to whisper to her, only to call the soft name, for her to bestir herself and open the closed eyes and speak to him. He whispered—and she slept. Then he drew slowly towards her and, stooping, kissed her to wake her, that she might tell him that it was all a miserable dream. For an instant bis lips touched hers. Uttering a low, smothered cry he started back, stung by the icy cold of the dead. That had, with grim remorselessness, driven the truth home to him. He sank by the body, and, burying bis face in his hands, he wept.

They fashioned a rough coffin for her, and on the summit of a small hill, overlooking the kainga, Ruta was buried. As the winding sheet closed out her face for ever, and as they carried the heavy, lifeless burden to the grave, the women, with their hair entwined with green leaves, raised once again the wailing of the tangi. page 59Some followed the body, some sat about the road, some squatted near the grave.

The solitary storekeeper, being a white man and able to read English, read the service from a Prayer Book. The rough, deep voice seemed more used to harsh, every-day talk than to the solemn words of prayer. Nor, perhaps, was the service all in order. Everything that was printed was read, even the rubrics.

"I believe I ought ter 'ave left them small printed chaps out It ain't no 'arm, I s'pose, an' it's better ter 'ave said too much than too little. I ain't much chops at readin' prayers, as I told Mr. Anderson, only there weren't no one else," explained the storekeeper to Dan, the old Irish rouseabout, who was glad to loaf out an existence in doing for the Maories work they would not do for themselves. A hewer of wood and drawer of water, he was at every one's beck and call, and never to be found when wanted. Two things Dan might one day get—his pay and a wash; for years he had apparently thrived without either.

"No," continued the storekeeper, "I guess them prayers ought ter 'ave gone all right, 'cause I meant 'em. I meant wery 'ard. I liked Ruta. I mind 'er as a youngster. And now——" The tanned, grizzled old fellow puffed heavily at his pipe.

Very irregular, according to the canons of the Church, it may have been; but it was solemn, and it was earnest.

It was a most exquisite day. High overhead the sky was one unbroken stretch of blue. About and about the grass-covered hills were dotted native sheep. At the foot of the slope, on top of which the grave had been dug, nestled the kainga. It was practically deserted except for the pigs and dogs which sniffed and wandered about for once unmolested. Near a small creek a mob of geese cackled in noisy chorus. page 60Over yonder in a large paddock a Maori boy was intent in patient endeavours to catch a horse. His business was not burials, at least not on that day. Besides, Ruta was no relation of his. At the grave the children thrust themselves to the fore. Their great round eyes were open in wonderment of the scene. The boys in old, torn trousers, dirty grey flannel shirts, and with bare feet, watched with eager curiosity. John Anderson stood at the foot of the grave, his head bent, his fingers twitching and interlacing. The Maori men and women, only half understanding what was being said, stood around silent and bareheaded. The ceremony had neither their approval nor their disapproval. Ruta was a white man's wife, and the burying was according to the white man's custom. It was not at all as they would have buried a chiefs daughter. There was no band, no speeches, no presents, no great gathering, no drink. Yet, as the pakeha wished, so let it be. She slept, and perhaps the ceremony with which she was laid to her last rest mattered little.

It was soon over, and, with broken heart and bowed head, John returned to the whare which the natives had set apart for him. With the consideration of natural refinement they made no effort to thrust themselves upon him nor worried him with endless condolence. In silence a couple of women placed food for him. No idle crowd assembled to watch him or study his demeanour as more civilised folks would have done. They each set about bis or her own business and only in small groups did they quietly talk of the dead girl. The boys recommenced their games, the women were occupied at the preparation of the mid-day meal, the men loafed about the store in the shade of their whares or saddled their horses for such business as necessitated their riding out from the kainga. The occupations of every-day life were resumed.

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Only in the whare over beyond Ihakara's was the gloom of the abnormal. There the white man remained enwrapped in his grief. An old Maori woman, wise in her knowledge of humanity, brought his child to the doorway and sent it in to him. It was good for him that she did. It toddled across and laughingly fell upon him. He heard it prattle for a moment or two, and presently it asked for its mother. Clasping it in his arms, the great, strong man burst into tears.

"She's gone away, my little one, gone away from you and from me and left us alone to each other. And I—Oh, Heaven, help me to realise what I really am—what is my duty!"

John had more than once realised, during Ruta's lifetime, that a day of account would come when matters could no longer be left to drift whither chance might take them. The truth would have one day to be told. Between the Maori woman and her child and his wife and her children he would be forced to make his choice. He had endeavoured to blind himself to the certainty that matters would surely come to such a climax. He tried to thrust the thought aside. Yet he found himself for ever harking back to it. Now Ruta was gone; and his choice lay between this baby and his wife and her children.

He deliberately chose. And he chose as he thought his duty bade him choose and not as his heart would have prompted him.

"My duty is to my wife," he decided. "She has been faithful and good and pure to me, and I must suffer for my sin."

He knew that that was not the limit of the punishment. It meant disowning the tiny mite in which centred almost the whole love he had given to its mother! It was dooming it to grow up to all intents and purposes an orphan.

Not that he intended to desert and leave the child page 62to struggle for an existence unaided and uncared for. Although she would never know him to be her father, he was determined she should at least have, and perhaps grow to recognise, in him her truest and best friend. He would educate her and rear her to a life of refinement and luxury. She should learn to fill befittingly that position of a great heiress which she would one day be called upon to assume. Meanwhile, until she was old enough to be sent to school, the child could remain with one of Ruta's relations.

"She will grow to regard them as her parents, and— and thus learn to forget me."

So John reasoned and planned.

It was weak reasoning, poor, selfish planning. It was the farce of dabbling with honesty through his cowardice in not openly confessing his transgression. Not that he quite realised that. He was sincere in his effort to apportion a just future between Ruta's child and his wife. He honestly believed that he would suffer far more than the child in concealing its parentage, whilst towards his wife he acted as he thought it was his duty to act. In righting her he wronged his child; but it seemed to him that the worst and the least justifiable wrong he could inflict was towards Ethel and her children.

The day after Ruta's burial John returned to Te Henga.

How often is not our love for any spot centred in our love for some person in it? We make no effort at the time to analyse our affection. We are happy, and are content to attribute our happiness to our general surroundings. But it may chance that we journey afar and, returning after long absence, find that the friends we once had have gone. It is then we realise that what is left to us of the place is but a splendid recollection, and that even this is based upon the happy hours we may have once spent in the page 63companionship of those we loved. The trees are still as green as ever, the paths as shady, the sunlight still as clear and warm. The birds still sing the same sweet melodies, the stream still runs as swiftly and as brightly as it was wont Yet the absence of the old familiar faces, the knowledge of some awful void, the bitterness of lost associations dim and obscure the beauty of the scene. The place itself is unchanged, the spot is still lovely, yet its charm is gone. The wild flower we pluck is the wild flower of old. But its beauty then lay in the hand that picked and gave it, its fragrance in the voice that spoke its name.

Duty, however, may forbid a fresh departure; and time may drown old remembrances, and kindle fresh affections, until, at length, in the smiles and pleasures of our new friends the beauty of the spot appeals once more to us.

It was thus with John. His inclination, the impulse of his grief, was to abandon Te Henga. He shrank from it as a child will shrink from the hand that has struck it. Every surrounding, every detail brought back to him the memory of his loss, and intensified his sorrow. He almost yielded to his desire to quit it for ever. Fortunately, or unfortunately, he resisted. He threw himself into his work, and endeavoured to forget.

In the keen freshness of his grief he was obliged to return to Wellington. It was perhaps good for him; but no human soul can quite conceive the agony of John Anderson's mind during those few days. How could he be otherwise than his own cheerful self? What excuse had he to give his wife for sadness or grief? Could he be true to his resolve, and not pantomime a part? It was impossible.

He laughed and romped and played with his children. And sometimes, in the midst of it, there would arise the form of the woman he had loved, and the features page 64of the little half-caste, motherless, fatherless girl. The memory of his loss and the horror of his memory, in spite of himself, turned him from gay to grave.

Sympathy from his wife was not to be expected.

"I don't think your trip up-country has done you any good. You're perpetually in the dumps and perfectly unbearable. I don't see any reason whatever for your not coming to-night. I accepted for you, and what excuse can I give?"

"To-night" was a dinner party. How could he possibly enter into the spirit of any festivity with the dull load of his sorrow weighing upon him? To jest in his own house was bitter enough; to play pleasure in another's was too unreal. He was obstinate; and his wife had to coin excuses as best she could.

At last—it seemed an age to him—his business was finished, and he lost no time in returning to Te Henga. It was a relief to him to be once more at the little whare, and he devoted himself heart and soul to the work of developing the great run. That at least was a duty he could perform for Ruta's child. During his own lifetime he would be practically her manager, and when he died the great inheritance would pass to her. His one act of injustice would be in concealing their relationship.

It was, as it chanced, easy for him to arrange matters with respect to Ngaia on the lines of bis resolution. Ka, the Maori woman who was Jake Carlyle's wahine, was at the kainga when Ruta was buried. She was Ruta's cousin, and, as a matter of love on her part and as a matter of business on Jake's, she took charge of Ngaia. Jake did more. He offered, and his offer was rashly accepted, to informally adopt the child, and to rear it as though it were his and Ka's.

Jake, in the surveying days, had been John Anderson's chainman. He was a short, powerful, harsh-voiced individual, considerably addicted to strong drink, page 65far more so than John had any idea of. Away from it he was a useful, handy man. He had served John well during the past, and when the latter settled at Te Henga, the head chainman became head shepherd, and for a while proved hard-working and honest, and fairly sober. A year or so later, Ka joined Jake as his wahine, and in the following autumn there was an increase in the population of Te Henga. The second and unexpected increase to his family, caused by Ngaia's adoption, suited Jake just as it suited John—only for an entirely different reason. Nor was there any objection on Jake's part to John's stipulation that he should, when he wished it, have the right to take Ngaia away and send her to school and educate her. "You understand, Jake, whilst she's for the present to be your child, she's to be treated as I may wish, and her future is to be in my hands. It'll be to your benefit if you act up to your part of the agreement."

There was little fear of the man not doing that. It was to his interest to do so—and for reasons peculiarly his own. The trouble lay in his not only keeping to his part of the agreement, but in his going considerably beyond it.

In pursuance of this arrangement, the next two years of Ngaia's life were passed in the head shepherd's whare. Ka was her mother, and Jake her father. The real father and the dead mother faded from the child's memory. In a vague sort of way Jake and Ka took their places. They treated her well enough—as they treated their own child. Bareheaded, barefooted, clad in a dirty little cotton shirt, Ka's own baby and Ngaia played and tumbled amongst the dogs and pigs and fowls, and lived the livelong day in the open air It laid the foundation of perfect health and wild spirits. Ruta's child, her beauty quite lost in the grime of her face and the tangle of her hair, became a queer, quaint little tomboy, fearless of animals or page 66danger, utterly shy and frightened of strangers except John.

At the end of the two years, when she was about six years old, Ngaia was brought down to Napier to school. John, who had arranged for her coming, posed as a friend of her father's. He paid her bills, and said the money was not his but some one else's. So it was— the child's own, only he scarcely meant that.

By nature Ngaia was a friendly, companionable little being. At first the strangeness of her surroundings, her utter ignorance of English, and the unaccustomed restraint, made her childish heart heavy and the life difficult and very lonely. She was a tiny stranger amongst strangers; not understood, not understanding. She was, as it were, a lovely uncut diamond, rough, rare, and unpolished. Gradually and naturally it all changed to her, and the old life in the Maori kainga faded and faded, and civilisation and education possessed her. Had she remained a Maori, her earliest Maori life would probably have always been remembered by her. The extreme change, the absence of anything that could remind her of her past, all tended to turn those early years into a dream, easily forgotten and impossible to realise.

She was clever; and, once having mastered English, she astonished her teachers by her progress. She won their affection. Her ways, her manners, with all her wild spirits and love of mischief, were gentle, and she soon ran the risk of being spoilt by love.

Yet there are natures that seem to be beyond and above spoiling, and Ngaia's was surely one. As she passed from childhood into maidenhood the beauty of her character grew and intensified. It was like the unfolding of the green bud in early spring. Opening, it gradually reveals the delicate formation and the lovely colours of the perfect flower.

Not that Ngaia became perfect. She was a brilliant, page 67light-hearted, gentle girl—every inch a girl—full of hope, full of life, full of a pure young maiden's lowly ambitions. She was impulsive and brimful of fun. But she was generous to a degree—to an absurdity, she was sometimes told. She was, too, endowed with the fairest and most lovely of all human characteristics —sympathy. Amongst children never a child, amongst women never a woman, but realised in moments of trouble this phase of the girl's nature.

"Oh, Ngaia," the baby of the school whispered to her as she nestled into her arms, "I love you better than any one in the world 'cept papa and mamma. It seemed so difficult till you showed me and—and I love you, Ngaia," the child added, impulsively flinging her arm round the elder girl's neck and kissing her.

It takes a baby girl to gauge the womanliness of a woman.