A Maori Maid
The winter afternoon had drawn to a close. The gathering darkness had swept into the study and seemed, as it were, to be wrestling for possession with the quivering, flickering firelight.
John was leaning back in an armchair drawn near to the fire. He was gazing into the glowing embers with the hungry look of one seeking to see mere memories grow into shape and—failing.
He had aged. His hair was white, his beard was heavily streaked with grey. He was bent about the shoulders. His tanned, weather-beaten face was lined and furrowed. The rough life he had led in the earlier days had stamped its mark upon him. He had been careless when young; wet clothes were often the rule, dry boots almost always the exception; and feeling at the time no ill, he was quite content to chance the future.
Yet much though John might have lost in health and happiness he had, from a mere worldly point of view, prospered. He was rich, he was a large run-holder.
It was, almost to a day, seventeen years ago since he had met Ruta. Looking back on the years he marvelled as he realised their number. For a moment it seemed only yesterday that she was with him. And then as there came the thought of all that had happened, those seventeen years swelled into a lifetime. They had brought him good fortune. He had become page 88exceedingly wealthy and a man of influence and position. A seat in Parliament was at his disposal had he chosen to accept it—even a portfolio in the Cabinet. A seat in the Upper House had been offered to him. He had availed himself of neither. A quiet, upright gentleman was all that he wished to be. He was too sensitive for the harsh fare of political life.
"John Anderson's word is better than most men's bond. I believe he is absolutely incapable of a dishonourable act, either in business or in private life," a gentleman once remarked in the club. He spoke the measure of most men's opinions, and John knew it Was it to be wondered at that it brought him no pleasure?
The sensitive, conscientious heart shrinks under the mockery of false praise. What the world did not know, but what John did know, was that whilst a small portion of his splendid run was leased in his name from the Maories, practically the whole of the vast property belonged to Ngaia. Retaining for himself merely a substantial annual allowance, such as would be paid to any experienced manager, he invested a portion of the balance of the income in improving the estate and allowed the rest to accumulate in sound investments made in Ngaia's name. The enormous wealth that John was popularly supposed to possess was in reality his child's, although he kept her in complete ignorance of it. She had no idea of her possessions, and only a very few of the Maories had a vague suspicion. The belief was that Ruta had sold her interest to John or leased it. Jake even thought that John had not hesitated to lie to him in this respect.
A determination had gradually grown in Anderson's mind to build a really fine homestead at the station, and to live there. Apart from the fact that he was not fond of town life, building would repay him, inasmuch page 89she would be able to devote more time and closer attention to the work on the run. His wife, too, was not averse to the idea. She had no intention of ruralising throughout the year, but she could use the country house during the summer, and then rent a house in Wellington each winter for the Session. She might not have so readily fallen in with the proposal had she known that in her husband's mind there existed the one dominating consideration that he would be able to keep Ngaia near him. The very thought of her brought a soft look into the deep, brown eyes that betrayed the intense love he had for his outcast child.
Poor, kind-hearted John Anderson! Love was necessary to him—to love and to be loved. If his wife had been a Ruta, or if Ruta had been his wife, he would have lived the happy, unclouded life of a proud and honoured and honourable man.
"It's not for me," he murmured, as he had done to himself hundreds and hundreds of times before—"It's not for me. I would welcome the moment when I could claim and take and keep Ngaia. I would share Ruta's shame. Shame! Not shame for her. She was pure and holy if ever woman was. But the world would call it shame and dishonour. My wife would. She is good and pure and I owe her my duty, if I cannot also give her my love. It's all for her sake and for our children's; and—my punishment."
The excuse was specious. Such at least he knew the world would term it. Yet nevertheless there was to himself the reality of truth in his argument.
His inclination, despite any consequence, was emphatically in the direction of acknowledging Ngaia Rightly or wrongly, consideration for his wife and her children alone checked him. It was the fear of her suspicions being in any way aroused that was destined to lead him to the miserable extreme of being blind to page 90the fact that a man's first thought should be for his child, whether it be the offspring of love or marriage, his second for his wife.
Topsy's entry broke the tenor of such thoughts. He looked up. The glittering of the firelight betrayed her weeping.
"Topsy!" he cried.
She ran to him, and, sinking to her knees, she buried her face in her hands and sobbed.
He stroked her hair and tried to soothe her.
"Topsy, Topsy, my darling, what is it? What is it?"
He grew frightened. He had never seen her weep so bitterly, and she a bride of only a few months.
Then she told him.
"Oh, father, what am I to do? What am I to do?
I can't put that poor woman out of my thoughts. Her child, too. I—I may become a mother, and why should my child take all that rightly belongs to her? I love my husband, father; I can't help it, I love him, and it would kill me to lose him, but—— Tell me, help me. You will know what is right You can say what a woman should do."
Her head was bent as she spoke, his hand was upon her soft hair.
"Tell me, father. Speak to me," the girl cried, flinging her arms around his neck, and pressing her face to his.
There was silence.
"I think," he said at length, "I think, my darling, that you should go back to your husband."
"He has sinned, Topsy, but he has acknowledged it. He is penitent. He has done all that he can."
"He should have married her."
"It's too late."
"He might have done it."
"He did not."page 91
"It was so awful to have left her. It was a—a— crime."
"No, no, not that. Rather it was his marrying you that became the crime. Marriage with the woman would have meagrely repaired his injury to the child."
"But he ought to have married her. It would have made her an honest woman."
"It might, but probably it would not have."
"He should have married her at the very first."
"It looks so; but, Topsy, neither you nor I can really know that. The ruin of his life may have been but the due penalty of his wrong. I don't know, I don't know. Women can ruin men as well as men women. It's the future that you have to think of, not the past. The future is between you and him, the past is between him and bis conscience."
"But she is his wife—really."
"And you are legally. Nothing that has happened can make Arthur free to marry any other woman."
"He should be with her."
"To their mutual misery, perhaps, and certainly to yours. Would you choose that?"
"It is not what I would choose, it is not what I would choose—I love him, I want him—but it is to know what is the right. I want him, and yet how can I be happy with him when I remember and realise? Oh, why did it happen, why did it happen?"
"My pet, he's your husband; he has sinned—to the woman directly, though she was apparently but a bad woman before he met her, to you only indirectly. He has done what he can for her. Nothing you can do can help her now. He loves you none the less for what has happened. And you? Do you love him less, or is it only that an ideal has been brought down to the dust of real life? He never considered his act so terribly wrong as it seems to you. Men don't. They don't; indeed, indeed they don't." He paused page 92for a moment "It's the fault of their upbringing, perhaps."
"Father, how can a man be so wicked to a woman?"
"It's not for me to judge."
"You—you tell me to return to him?"
"It is the least of all evils, Topsy. Nothing you can possibly do can undo. Go back to him believing in his repentance and his love for you. It's your duty to him, to yourself, and to the tiny life that may come to you from him. You must go to him, and make it part of your duty to remember this child of your husband's, that it never be neglected or cast helpless into the world."
"Yes, yes, indeed I will, but I could never bear to meet it."
"It is free from sin—and pure. It is what it is through no fault of its own."
"No, but—but—oh, I could not!" she said, with a shudder.
He felt it. And Ngaia, his beautiful, gentle Ngaia, was but as this child! Was she a thing at which pure women would shudder or loathe to meet did they chance to know the truth of her?
He closed his eyes. He was suffering. Love for an object of shame, and the shame of such loving may comprehend the bitterest sweetness that a human creature can taste.
The girl's soft fingers wandered amongst the white hair.
"I think—I think you are right, father," she whispered, and he started from the depths of his thoughts and drew his child to him and kissed her.
She was softly crying on his shoulder when Arthur knocked and entered. He was worn and haggard and he had no thought that his wife was there.
John Anderson spoke only a few words, and then he page 93left them. In the foreground of their trouble was at least a promise of future happiness.
But his trouble lay about him, heavy and black, overshadowing and well-nigh overwhelming him.
He was weak; he was a moral coward. His punishment was of his own making and well deserved.
Possibly such a man was a social blackguard, with just sufficient conscience to make him miserable and not enough to make him virtuous.