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The Passionate Puritan

Chapter VI

page 48

Chapter VI

It was with a feeling of expecting nothing that Sidney set off the next afternoon across the sizzling fern in the direction of the ranges to see the mother of the three Maori children who were among her pupils.

The hills to the northeast were veiled in a violet haze. The smell of burnt fern sweetened the hot air that scarcely moved above the flat. The whitened stumps around her looked like an array of plates set upon parched greenery for some giant's feast. Their uniformity of size and height was extraordinary. She tried to picture the trees that had once stood upon those great foundations, and the immense peace of the forest they adorned. It was a pleasant picture to conjure up on this stifling afternoon as she made her way along the dusty narrow tracks that cut in all directions across the flat to the main road leading up from Whakapara to the Puhipuhi.

Jack Ridgefield had told her how to get to her destination, nearly three miles away. But he did not hint at what she would find there.

As she looked from the ridge down upon it,page 49 Sidney called it the Joyous Valley right away. It was really little more than a hollow. And it was cultivated from top to bottom and from end to end. To a person standing above, it was like an upturned smiling face. And it beckoned hospitably. It said "Come down and play with me."

Set in the middle of it she saw the ordinary bush cottage, with its verandah along the front, its lean-to at the back, and the detached sheds in the yard. It was almost covered with creepers and surrounded with flowers. It was built beside a stream that cut the farm in half, a delightful stream that gurgled along a ferny way to fall at the end of the hollow into the beginnings of another gully. Sidney saw fields with horses and cows, plots of corn and potatoes, grape vines, a large vegetable garden, and many little houses for bees. She was struck, as she walked on, with the orderliness of everything. The Maori, though possessing æsthetic sense and appreciation, is not, like temperamental people elsewhere, always famous for his tidiness.

A puppy rose up from the verandah and barked at Sidney. Then she saw a face appear and disappear at a window.

As she stood in the doorway she was astonished to see a piano and books and pictures inside the front room, but not so much astonished that a Maori should possess them as that they should bepage 50 there, in that remote place. While staring at unexpected things she was conscious of a flurry of movement in the back part of the house. She knew somebody was getting ready to meet her.

She forgot she was hot and tired when Mana Tahere came through the middle door.

Mana was a splendid thing, taller and straighter than most Maori women. She belonged to the family of a northern chief, and showed her patrician, ancestry in every line of her fine features, and every movement of her beautiful body. She had the unconscious dignity that clothes so subtly the bearing of aristocrats all the world over. She had, besides, the sensuous charm of the South Seas. And she had more. Because there was some white blood in her she had an elusive sophistication added to the philosophical temperament of her own race.

She had been educated and brought up in an Episcopal school, and years of living on the land had not driven her back to her native dress or customs. She had slipped on a violet print dress, and tossed her heavy black hair in a circling coil round her head. A magnificent greenstone tiki hung on a black ribbon above her breast, and fine greenstone earrings dangled alluringly from her ears.

Her cheeks had a peach blush under their pale tawny skin. Her nose was straight, and her lipspage 51full and finely moulded. But it was the glamour of her manner, and the lure of her soft gazelle-like eyes, dark with that haunting mystery that so bewitches the white man, that fascinated Sidney into immediate delight in her.

"I am Miss Carey, the teacher," she said at once, holding out her hand.

"From the mill? How kind of you to come all this way! You surely haven't walked!"

She drew a rocking chair to the open window.

"Oh, yes, I love walking." Sidney continued to stare frankly at her.

"Then you must be very hot."

Mana caught sight of a head at the door.

"Hira, bring a glass of water, and don't stare, dearie," she said to it.

Then she sat down in a low chair opposite Sidney.

"I am so glad to have my children come to your school. It was too far for them to go to Whakapara. But you will find them very stupid. They know so little. I am afraid they will be a great trouble to you, and I quite expect they will be the duffers of the school."

Sidney was struck with the contrast between Mana's words and the remarks of most of the village parents about the talents of their offspring.

"They will be no trouble to me," she answeredpage 52 positively. "I shall be able to give more individual attention here in a small school than I could in a city one. I hope I may see your children to-day."

"Yes, Miss Carey, when they become tidy."

Then Hira, a little soft-eyed girl, wistful and shy, stole in like a spirit with a glass of water. She had no shoes or stockings on, and over her shirt but one print garment that did not reach to her knees. There was a remarkable delicacy about her. She looked as if a wind would blow her away.

"This is my Hira," said her mother. "Hira, this is your kind teacher who has come a long way to help little girls to learn all sorts of wonderful things. Shake hands and tell her you are going to be very good."

The child did it with indescribable sweetness, and stole out as unobtrusively as she had stolen in.

"You've been a week at the mill," Mana smiled curiously at her guest. "What do you think of it?"

"I don't quite know. Do you go there often?" Sidney wondered if she were friendly with anyone there. She had not heard anyone speak of her.

"I only go to the store," answered Mana.

"You don't call on the aristocracy?"

Mana's eyes lit up.

page 53

"No. I don't care for gossip. I suppose I am unsociable."

"Unfortunately I can't be," said Sidney.

Mana looked at her. "I wouldn't have your job for anything," she said, smiling sympathetically.

"I know," laughed Sidney. "I feel as if I were naked on the top of a post down there. I am sure that when I first put my washing out somebody will report on the kind of lace I have on my under-clothes, and the shape of my nightgowns."

"Of course they will. They have not had anything as interesting as you for a long while."

Sidney felt her spirits rising. She knew she could talk to Mana.

"The worst of all is I shall never be able to say anything disagreeable. A teacher is expected to be so good."

"Yes, that is hard," agreed Mana softly.

"Much worse than that. It is uninteresting."

"Truly, very dull." Mana's eyes glowed again.

"Aren't you dull here, all alone?" asked Sidney.

"Oh, no. I love the country. And I have the children and my friend Rangi. And many people come to stay with me. I am never dull."

"You fortunate person. That's due to something in yourself. And I forgot your garden. People with gardens are never dull."

page 54

"That's it, I think. And the flowers are nicer than so many people. Now I must get you some tea. Will you excuse me?"

When she had gone out Sidney stared round her with keen interest. She saw that the books were mostly novels, including Wells and Conrad. The pictures on the wall were popular prints and photographs of Maori men and women. There were photos of Englishmen on small tables. She recognised one of James Ridgefield. There were fine old Maori weapons and pieces of carving on the walls, and native matting on the floor. The furniture was simple and varied. How she had escaped the suite that made every front room at the mill offensive, Sidney did not know. Like herself, Mana had a couch that was really a stretcher bed. It was covered by a valuable Maori mat rich in huia feathers, and had picturesque cushions.

The whole thing was individual, and nothing about it jarred. Sidney was delighted to think she would have it to take refuge in. She stole to the piano to look at the music. She saw there were a number of good concert songs, several of them for a baritone voice, and many books of piano pieces.

When Mana returned with the tea she brought her three children with her, all fresh in plain print garments, and shoeless. There were twopage 55 girls and a boy. At first they were too shy to speak, but Sidney had a way with children, and presently they were clustered round her listening to a fairy tale.

Later, when their mother sent them out to play, Sidney begged for some music.

She realized again the truth that life is full of surprises as she listened to her. Mana played and sang delightfully. She would never have made a public artist, for the stiffness of an audience would have killed her spontaneity, and her flute-like voice would have been lost in a large hall. But here in her own little house she was always a seductive musician, and there was something about her as she sat at her piano, crooning cradle songs to her children, or drawing whispering romances from the keys, that produced a delicious coma in the brains of those who listened.

Mana and Hira walked half way home with Sidney, partly to carry a basket of grapes for her, and partly to show her a short cut.

Sidney learned that evening from Mrs. Mackenzie that Mana had a husband of her own race, an interpreter, who was away a good deal working in the native land courts; that brothers and cousins descended upon her at intervals to fix up her farm for a season; that she had lived there for many years and was liked by everybody; that she never visited anyone, but that she now andpage 56 again had famous visitors, for Mr. Hone Heke, M.P., and Dr. Pirani, Minister for Native Health, had stopped off on their way north to stay with her; and that James Ridgefield often took people to see her.