A Maori Maid
When John allowed Ka to adopt Ngaia, he was, as he thought, acting, under the circumstances, in the best interests of the little girl. No other course then seemed open to him. It was not possible for him to keep the child without the aid of some woman, and Ka was Ngaia's nearest relative with the exception of himself. Ka could not come to him. She could never have taken Ruta's place, even had she not been Jake's wahine. Irresistible love was the sole justification John had for his one error. It was an error he was incapable of repeating.
John's mistake, though he never fully appreciated it, was in his estimate of the Maori woman's husband. He thought him an honest, hard-working man, whose willingness to give care and shelter to the little child arose from gratitude and affection to himself.
He was deceived. The man was, in reality, a thorough scoundrel, whose apparent sincerity was based on cunning and self-gain. He had taken the full measure of his master's position. He was satisfied that it was John's earnest desire to keep the parentage of his child a secret. The man also knew the surveyor's affection for Ruta and for the little girl, and he was shrewd enough to foresee that John would dread the terrible scandal certain to arise from the divulging of such a secret. It seemed clear to Jake, in fact, that in course of time it might prove of infinite service to him to have taken John's bastard half-caste, and to have page 102reared it as his own child. It would cost him practically nothing. It might profit him greatly.
"The 'alf-caste brat wouldn't get much welcome from the pakeha wife, I reckon," was his reflection. "The man what 'as a secret an' a goody-goody wife generally 'as to pay for it. There's a pile of cash in thet 'ere youngster."
When, however, Ngaia was sent to school, it was understood between the two men that Jake's supposed parentage was to cease. It was not confirmed by any sort of public announcement, but the head shepherd was thenceforth to have no more claim upon her. John was to appear as her benefactor. Jake was to pass completely out of her life. So much it was easy enough to arrange. The man readily acquiesced—with a mental reservation. The reservation implied a review of the matter whenever circumstances, in his opinion, justified it.
Thirteen years after Ngaia had been taken from him, Jake considered that he ought to make some move lest he lost all hold upon the girl. His master had of late hinted that he might dispense with his services. That was not for an instant to be tolerated, much less to remain a possibility.
"It's about time I got out my tether rope, and hitched myself tight on to this 'ere place and its blooming boss," Jake decided. "I'll introdooce myself to the gal. She'll be glad to find a father," he added with a chuckle.
Jake, as has been remarked, was, if anything, short. Constant riding had given him bandied legs and a stoop. He had a harsh, strident voice and an ill-assorted vocabulary. His temper and his beard were fiery. His hair was sprinkled with grey, and had a bald patch. His face was liberally freckled and dried and tanned. He generally had a quid of tobacco in his mouth and an unpleasant chuckle in his throat. The page 103chuckle was a distinct portion of him which he retained until he died. The quid was not, as the floor, or the fender, or any place he visited, invariably testified.
He knew Ngaia's whereabouts. He had taken particular note of it from John's letters to her. Armed with this, and a small leathern satchel, which contained a rusty hinge that wanted matching and an old lock that wanted repairing, fully equipped with the clothes he was wearing, and disdaining even such a superfluity as a great-coat, he started off. He caught the coach, being then half tipsy. At the inn, where the coach halted for the night, he was put to bed hopelessly drunk. On the following morning, he breakfasted on two long glasses of beer. He touched nothing more and reached Napier—sober.
He called at the school immediately after the coach arrived. It was in the afternoon. Most of the girls were out. Ngaia chanced to be in.
"I want to see Ngaia, miss," said Jake, to the servant girl who answered the door. She looked puzzled for a moment. "Miss Carlyle?"
"Oh, aye. Yes. Miss Carlyle," he answered. "I'll see," said the servant. "You can wait here," she continued, and left him standing in the hall.
"Miss Carlyle, eh?" he muttered to himself. "She's quite a fine lady. Miss Carlyle, he, he!" he repeated with a chuckle.
For a while he stood twirling his hat in his hands. Then he took a careful inventory of the place. Finally, having completed his survey, he spat.
As a matter of fact, he himself was the most noticeable object in the hall. He had on strapped riding trousers, dusty and not too new, and hob-nailed boots. He wore a dark flannel shirt and a red tie, the knot of which had slipped under the waistcoat, and he carried his watch along with his baccy, and without page 104a chain. His coat had large pockets, out of one of which stuck the corner of a scarlet bandana.
One sees such characters knocking about in all Colonial towns. Generally they are drovers or shepherds from some back run. Frequently they are drunk, and usually they are found in some public-house. A fashionable young ladies' seminary is not exactly where one would expect to meet a specimen.
It was a new experience for Miss Spence. She simply stared as she came downstairs; and, moreover, having caught Jake in the very act of expectorating, she was in a mixed condition of horror and anger.
"You want to see Miss Carlyle, I believe," she said brusquely.
"Well, come into the morning-room," said the schoolmistress, and she led the way.
She sat down, telling—not asking—Jake to shut the door. Nor did it occur to her to offer him a seat. The omission never struck him, and he stood and twirled his old felt wide-awake.
"May I ask," Miss Spence said, "what you want to see her for? You must understand that it is not customary to allow my young ladies to receive visits from perfect strangers."
The term "ladies" caught Jake's ear. Ngaia was evidently a regular swell.
"A blooming toff," he mentally remarked.
Nevertheless, he was somewhat taken aback by the old lady's question. He bad no wish to divulge what he intended to tell the girl. He wanted to break the news himself. He was rather yearning for a real, good chuckle.
"You're a servant, I presume, with a message. If you give it to me it shall be delivered."
"Well, mum, it ain't quite that. I ain't got no introduction; only I've knowed the young lady ever since page 105she was born and I've come from Mr. Anderson's station. I'm his boss man, and I've got something I wish to tell the gal. Something important."
"From Mr. Anderson?"
"Yes, mum," he answered unhesitatingly. "Something I'm to tell 'er for 'erself. Something private. Something she ought to 'ave knowed long ago."
"Of course, if you are the bearer of a message from Mr. Anderson, it is different. It is strange he gave you no letter."
"Well, mum, perhaps you think I'm 'umbugging ye," answered Jake. "I think I've got a letter or two of the boss's that'll show ye I'm talking straight." He fumbled about in his pocket, and at length produced a couple of notes. He opened them, and showed them.
They were brief, and about some station matters; but they were without doubt from John Anderson. Miss Spence was so far convinced.
The man's name struck her and the remark he had made as to the nature of what he had to tell Ngaia. A horrible suspicion flashed across her mind.
"Carlyle, Carlyle! Are you," she asked, looking up at him and slightly dropping her voice, "are you any relation to—to—to Ngaia?"
He hesitated a moment. Why not speak out?
"Yes, mum. I'm 'er father."
"Yes, mum. She ought to 'ave knowed it long ago. Mr. Anderson 'as been very good a-looking after the gal, and 'aving 'er schooled, but I'm 'er father."
He produced an old letter of John's which without explanation seemed to confirm the man's statement It was written in the days when Ka first took charge of Ngaia.
There was a pause.page 106
"I think," said Miss Spence, rising, "I think I had better tell Ngaia myself. It will be kinder," she added, leaving the room.
Jake was alone.
"Whew!" he whistled, and then he chuckled, "He, he! I'm jiggered." Then he lifted the corner of the hearth-rug and spat.
Meanwhile Miss Spence had sent for Ngaia.
"Tell her to come to me in my bedroom—at once," she said.
There by the open window, clasping the girl's hands, she told her of her father's coming.
"Perhaps you would rather not see him until you hear from Mr. Anderson," she said, kissing the sweet, young face. "You will be disappointed, my darling, terribly disappointed."
Ngaia scarcely heeded her. Her father had come! That, and that only, she comprehended.
"She doesn't know; she doesn't know how I want him," she whispered to herself as she hurried down to the morning-room. "She doesn't know how I have longed. I can't be disappointed."
She paused at the closed door. She was excited; she was frightened; she was straining with suppressed emotion.
She turned the handle and entered. Then the truth of the old lady's words flashed upon her. She had trusted to some instinct, she had relied upon some unknown power, that would turn into one mighty, all-absorbing delight the love she was so eager, so anxious to bestow. And there across the room, staring with unfeigned surprise at her, she saw, not a father, only a man. One who was neither cleanly nor becomingly clad; a common man, with a hard, ill-looking face.
Some instinct did influence her, but it was a deep, involuntary dislike, a fierce abhorrence, rather than page 107love. She gripped the handle of the door and, uttering a tiny gasp, she burst into tears.
The disappointment was too heavy for the overwrought nerves.
Jake had scarcely determined in his mind as to what kind of girl he expected to find Ngaia. From his experience of half-castes he anticipated a shortish, thick-set girl, large in the hips, with a solid, heavy walk and big lips. He remembered that Ruta, as amongst Maories, had been slim and good-looking, but Ngaia, as a child, gave no extraordinary promise of beauty—at least he never noticed any. He was more than prepared to find in her much of the Maori, and but little of the white man.
He was utterly dumbfounded at what he saw. An erect, graceful girl beyond the average height of woman, whose figure, though young and not yet fully developed, was beautifully proportioned. Her feet and her hands were small. Her carriage was proud, almost commanding, and yet eloquent of shyness. Her features, under a cluster of fair brown hair, were regular and refined. Her complexion was perhaps a shade richer than that of the average English girl. Through the clear skin could be seen the flush of youth and health. Her brown eyes were large and soft, with long, dark eyelashes. Such eyes! They were the supreme charm of an exquisitely beautiful face. They were brown, and yet in each varying mood or impulse some fresh light, some new shade seemed to spring into them. In her hour of merriment they were dancing, glorious eyes, full of innocent fun, full of mischief.
She herself had no appreciation of their beauty or their power, no realisation of how absolutely they reflected every impulse of her heart, whether it was sympathy for others' misfortune, whether it was delight at her own present happiness. Pure as a mountain brook, bright as the dancing sunshine, they fascinated page 108people far older and more learned than she was with an indescribable suggestion of a latent power which each individual assumed was the one he looked for. The young man of the world saw a wealth of slumbering passion ready at the first glance of her affinity to burst into love, infinite and superb. The older man of politics beheld unawakened ambition that in womanhood would prompt her, with her beauty and manner, to become an influence on her husband to some great end. The philosopher saw undeveloped intellectuality; and not one man of all but recognised that limit of earthly beauty, a beautiful woman.
Or at least not yet a woman but only a lovely girl; so lovely indeed that her presence in the school and the report of it spread—a fact quite unknown to her but distinctly embarrassing to Miss Spence. Men to-day in the Napier clubs will try and picture to you the Ngaia Carlyle of her school-days; and will fail, for not one is either poet or artist. But they are marvellously proud of her.
Jake had seen pretty women of their kind in his day, but none had seemed so beautiful as this girl. His impulse was to be respectful to her, as a servant to his mistress; to say "miss" to her; to be but a working man or labourer in the presence of a lady. Then in another instant came the thought that he claimed her as his own daughter, and mentally he thanked Heaven for his good luck. But the tears quite staggered him. They were the last of a series of surprises.
"What the 'ell is she a-crying for?" he asked himself.
She spoke to him at almost the same instant, brushing away the tears, and still standing by the door which had swung slowly to.
" I'm so sorry," she said. "I—I don't know why I should have been so stupid."page 109
He made no reply to that. Doubtless he agreed with her. After a moment he asked,—
"Did the old party tell ye?"
"Miss Spence has told me that you are my—father."
"Ex-actly. That's the thing in a nutshell. Aren't you glad? He, he!" he added with a chuckle.
She glanced at him. The chuckle angered her.
"You have left me a long while in ignorance."
"You've been looked after. Ye can't grumble. All gals ain't 'ad what you've 'ad. Ye ought to jist thank yer stars ye 'ad sich a friend."
"Have you come to—to take me away?"
"Well, I ain't quite sure. Lestways, not to-day. You see, I thought you'd like to know who you was. Ye don't want to stay 'ere always, I suppose."
"N-no, I suppose not I never thought about it, not—not in this way."
"Perhaps you'd like to come 'ome for a bit in yer 'olidays?"
The girl made no immediate reply. Then she said softly,—
"If—if you told me, I should of course have to. And," she added quickly, "I will try to do what is right, only I've always been advised by Mr. Anderson. You see, it has all been so sudden, and—and I should like to tell him everything."
"Ye're not quite sure I ain't doing a bit of gammon? Trying it on, eh? 'Owsumever, ye'll find it's all up to the knocker. Write and ask 'im, and tell 'im I called and told ye to write. 'E's my boss. I live up at the station. Ye'll see 'im when ye come up."
It was "when" now. Only a few seconds ago it had been "if." Ngaia noticed it; and it was like a tightening of the bonds on the prisoner who has scarcely realised that he is captured.page 110
"I'll write quite soon," she said. "To-day."
"So will I," he resolved, and a moment or two later he had said good-bye and left her.
By the time he had reached the roadway he was chuckling. Ngaia was weeping.
Suddenly, as he was walking towards the public-house at which he was stopping, in the very midst of a crowded pathway, Jake stopped and struck his fist on his thigh.
"Well, I'm cussed! Well, I am a blooming idjut! I never kissed 'er. I might 'ave. I've a right to. Crumbs! Jist fancy kissin' 'er. It'll be like kissin' a lady. Better 'an chewing baccy.
"Never mind," he added as he continued his walk, "I'll 'ave plenty of kisses soon. The old boss'll 'ave to stick to my tale. 'E duren't say as I ain't the father. Jake, my beauty, you've struck pay-dirt this time. I reckon as 'ow you won't 'ave to leave the station for a year or two. By cripes! she is a toff; though she'll want a lot of knocking into shape, with all them 'oighty-toighty airs and fine gowns."
When he reached the hotel he wrote his letter; afterwards he got drunk.
Ngaia also wrote hers.
"Oh, Miss Spence, it can't be true! It can't be, surely it can't!" she cried to the kind old lady.
Yet it was. John Anderson's letter said it was. It said it as nicely and as gently as possible; but it nevertheless said it, plainly and beyond all doubt.
Miss Spence called it a lovely letter. Only a man of the deepest, truest kindness and sympathy could have written it It seemed, in some way, to realise the sorrow it was bringing, as though the writer himself were sharing it.
"Oh, if only I had had him for my father; I could never have been unhappy. Never; never!" repeated Ngaia to herself, over and over again.