A Maori Maid
The last thing that John did before he fell ill was to give final instructions for the drawing of plans for the new homestead. Within a month they were completed, and it was not long afterwards that the contract was let, and the work actually commenced.
It was a relief to John's mind to realise this.
"I'll have Ngaia to live with us when the house is finished, and I'll be able to watch over her myself." he reflected, and therein lay the motive of his determination and the haste with which he pressed it on.
The first definite news of, the building of the big house reached the station through Archie. His arm was well again, and, despite the inconvenience of a sling, he had thoroughly enjoyed himself. Passing through Wellington he had of course called upon the Andersons and been invited to luncheon and again to dinner. He was fortunate enough to make a most favourable impression upon Mrs. Anderson. She had heard of him through her husband, and she had not forgotten that this young man was not only the heir to a title, but also was one day to be a rich man. Schemes, to be completed at a future date when the family should have removed to the station, of Daisy and a good match floated through her mind. She was glad to find that she liked the young man for himself, as well as for his prospects. It made everything so much easier.
"The homestead is going to be a really fine place,"page 164
Archie remarked, on the evening of his return, to his two companions.
"What's made the boss break out like this?" asked Jack.
"He's been talking about building for a long while," said Arthur.
"All the more reason for wondering why he should suddenly jump to a determination."
"He's made up his mind to live up here altogether," said Archie.
"How'll Mrs. A— like that?" asked Arthur, puffing out a cloud of smoke.
"Oh, she's keen on it. Talks of keeping open house, and all that sort of thing," answered Archie.
"Got a daughter, hasn't she, of—of an age?"
"Take care, Archie my boy," chimed in Jack," or else—you know. We'll have you round at the big house every evening. Alone up here with a pretty petticoat—why, I'll lay odds on."
"What's the girl like?" asked Arthur.
"So, so," answered Archie. "She's very nearly very pretty, and isn't quite. Lost by a short nose— and a little too much chin. She's just about your weight, old man. You can have her."
"She's not to be sniffed at," said Jack. "When the old man dies there'll be a tidy bit to divide."
"Who's going to get the run?" asked Arthur.
"The son, I suppose," said Archie. "It seems a sin, doesn't it, that a lovely place like this should be chucked away on a young brute like that?"
"He's pretty bad, isn't he? I've heard some queer tales about him."
"Very probably. There are a good number of them knocking round. He's a frightful young cad. I had to be civil to him of course because of the boss, but it was a trifle trying. He's a regular bad lot."
"By Jove! it is a shame to think of his ever getting page 165hold of such a place as this. It's a bit young still, but it's going to be a magnificent run."
"I should rather think it will be," said Archie; "especially when the house is built."
"When's that to be?" asked Arthur.
"By Christmas; perhaps before."
"About nine months."
"Yes. The old man's very keen on getting it finished," said Archie. "By the way," he continued, after a moment or two, "what's become of the little half-caste?"
"Haven't seen her for a deuce of a time; not since that day when I told you about her."
"There's been no poaching," laughed Arthur. "She's yours, old fellow, your very own—so far as we are concerned. Speak I not aright, friend John?"
"Yes, one good turn deserves another. You've given us the fair and dainty Daisy; we give you the beautiful, and I've no doubt frail, Miss Jake. She's yours, if you can win her; and you are good enough for that, I fancy. Anyway, there it is, and I'm off to bed."
The day following Archie's return was a sultry, inhospitable sort of day. The heat of the past month had long since turned the grass from its own bright green to a dull, dusty brown. The very ground was hot A thin, shimmering, shivering haze floated upwards and along the hill-sides. The sheep were grazing languidly as though for want of something better to do. Some stood motionless, staring at nothing, an occasional flick of the ear alone lending momentary life to them, whilst others were rejoicing in the imaginary shade of the slender cabbage-palms. The ovine mind has not yet grasped the principles of the solar system, and the sheep that seats itself at midday in the shadow page 166of a tree lies quite content with its protection long after the shadow has travelled to the other side.
There was no breeze to break the heat, and only now and again the bleat of a sheep would float down as it were on the ceaseless buzzing of the insects.
The only sign of life about Jake's hut was an occasional fowl lazily pecking. The pigs were gathered under the shelter of the pataka, and by the wall of the potato whare. The dogs were all soundly slumbering in any shade they could find, only raising themselves now and again to languidly snap at the flies that were annoying them. On the edge of the low roof a cat blinked in the sun and pretended to sleep. At the back, in the potato patch, Ka and her two girls, Waina and Airini, were at work, weeding and loosening the baked earth. The sun seemed to have little effect upon them, Ka not even wearing a bonnet. A coloured handkerchief tied under her chin appeared to afford her ample protection.
Ngaia was in the cottage. She had been out in the potato-field trying to work, but the sun had proved too much for her, and she had had to desist. As she entered she threw her hat on to the table and sat down on the candle-box, near to the fireplace. The fire itself was almost out. A couple of thick pieces of wood were still smouldering amidst a heap of grey ashes. It was cooler inside than outside the cottage. Everything seemed so still and quiet. There was no sound or sign of life save for a blow-fly that buzzed at intervals about the room, and a mason-bee that darted every now and again with its drowsy hum from the window where it was vainly crawling to find an exit. Ngaia's hands dropped idly into her lap, and she leant her shoulder against the side of the rough mantelshelf. Her head was aching a little, and she was tired and exhausted with the heat. Dimly thinking, her mind travelled page 167along the path of weariness and abandonment, until at length an infinite calm fell upon her and she slept.
And whilst she slept, and when the shadows were trailing longer and longer along the ground, a horseman cantered slowly over the brown hills towards Jake's cottage. It was Archie.
His work for the day was done. The shearing was over, and most of the wool had been carted away on the great six-and eight-horse waggons for Napier. The stragglers had been got in and shorn and turned out again. The busiest time of the year was in fact just past, and the slack time just commencing.
"I'm going round some of the out-paddocks, over by the Wainui," Archie had said when leaving the yards. Jogging slowly over the hills in the morning he had spied away down in the distance, at the head of the small gully, Jake's cottage.
"By Jove!" he exclaimed, despite the fact that he had none but a couple of dogs to pay any heed to his remarks, "I'll have a look at the little half-caste on my way home. Come along, old fellow," he added, rousing up his horse. "I must fget back in time for a drop of tea."
It was between four and five when he drew up at Jake's fence. The place seemed deserted, for Ka and the two girls were hidden by the cottage, and everything was quiet and still until the dogs, awaking, commenced barking. It brought no one to the door.
"All out, I suppose," muttered Archie. "Serves me right for being such a fool as to come. She won't be worth it; of course she won't." He stopped suddenly as he walked up to the open door of the cottage. "Perhaps they've been taking a rise out of me. By the lord Harry, I'll give Jack beans if he has! Never mind, I'll take a look in." He seemed to regard the ceremony of knocking as quite unnecessary. He page 168entered, and was about to give a call when he caught sight of Ngaia, still fast asleep.
She was dressed in a simple cotton blouse and a grey cloth skirt, with a leather belt round her waist. The listless abandonment of her position served to set off the beautiful proportions of her figure. Stepping quietly towards the fireplace, Archie stood opposite to her. He noted the small, shapely hands lying in her lap, the slim waist, and, through the soft folds of the blouse, he appreciated the perfection and symmetry of her form. From out the bottom of her skirt he saw a graceful, well-shaped foot. The face was too bent for him to fairly see it and judge of it But such a head, and such a mass of glorious soft brown hair, could not but be mated with lovely features.
"Jake's daughter!" whispered the young fellow. "Jack was right, then, after all. She is beautiful. And—and not fair game."
Somehow that seemed the first absolute thought that came to him. Then, not content with merely looking upon her down-bent head, he softly drew to her side, and stooping, so that he knelt on one knee, he looked into her face. As he looked some passing phase of her dreaming brought a soft smile to her mouth, and the exquisite beauty of her features was revealed to him. And there stole upon him in that moment the fulness of respect that comes upon a man when face to face for the first time with the woman who shall be to him through all memory what none other in this world may be. He was unconscious of it. No thought of love was in his mind. There was only that which even in his very lightest moments would for ever strangle any thought of wrong towards the girl. That was all, and that is everything to any woman.
Did the influence of his nearness to her come over her? Did some subtle magnetism pass between them? For she slowly awoke, not moving from her position, but page 169only opening her eyes. As she did so, she found herself looking into the handsome upturned face. During a moment neither he nor she seemed fully to realise. Then she moved, and he sprang to his feet and she to hers. He was flushed, and ashamed. Whilst she, full of deep blushes, was still struggling to be rid of all sleep.
"I'm so sorry," he said. "I came in, and I saw you asleep, and—well, I was stooping to see you."
"I must have fallen asleep; and—and you had no right to take advantage; you should have called to me. It was mean of you."
"Don't be angry with me. It was mean of me. I admit it. It was horribly rude of me, but I couldn't resist it, really I couldn't. And it seemed such a pity to wake you. It shan't happen again, indeed it shan't."
"No, indeed it shan't," said Ngaia. "It was my own fault, I suppose. I ought not to have been so lazy as to have fallen asleep."
"You forgive me?"
"There's not really very much to forgive, is there? 'A cat may—'" she added, and then suddenly stopped as she realised that the quotation would lead her into difficulties. Archie saw it too.
"Go on," he said. "'A cat may look at a king, and surely—' Well?"
"No you mayn't."
"That's not the right ending," persisted Archie.
"It's my ending," said Ngaia, laughing, "and you're not to talk about it any more."
"All right," he answered, "we won't say anything more about it. I'll forgive you."
"Thank you; thank you for nothing," she replied with a smile.
The coming of this, to her, young stranger, a gentleman who laughed and talked with her as though she were his equal and treated her with the respect and page 170deference of a gentleman towards a lady, had in an instant turned the spiritless drudge into her old self, a bright, beautiful gentlewoman.
"But," she said, the smile dying away, "is there anything I can do for you? Father is not in, and I don't suppose he will be back until about six. It's only half-past four now. You want to see him?"
"Ye-e-es. Couldn't I wait?"
"Certainly. Only—only I'm afraid it will seem rather long," she said, though in her heart she hoped he would stay. And he did.
"Would you care for some tea?" she asked. "Indeed I would. No, no, not a bit of it. You let me light the fire. I'm a rare hand at it."
Ngaia filled the kettle from the bucket of fresh water standing in a corner with a cloth over it and Archie kindled a fire. Whilst the kettle was boiling, Ngaia brought out the teapot and tea-things. The china cup with a handle, which Jake always kept for himself, she placed on the table for her visitor.
"I'm afraid there is no butter. These are some sweet scones; they are not so dry as bread."
"They'll do splendidly, only you're not to go to all that bother. It's too hot. Come and sit down."
It seemed quite strange to hear this young gentleman ordering her about, and to feel that any one minded in the least whether she was inconveniencing herself or not. She obeyed him.
Archie's surprise at the appearance of Jake's daughter was more than equalled by his astonishment when he presently discovered that she was an intellectual, highly educated girl. He found himself discussing his favourite poets and they had quite an argument over the relative merits of some of them.
The kettle boiled in the middle of it, and Ngaia made tea.
"I'm afraid there is no milk," she said, "It's a verypage 171poor afternoon tea for you. If I had known that we were going to have a visitor I would have brought some over from the farm."
"Don't you worry yourself about that. It's just the tea I want. No, no, you take that cup. Nonsense, I'm going to take this one," said Archie, taking up the tin cup and leaving her Jake's. "There," he said, taking a sip, you can't have it now," and he sat down with the pannikin, and she was obliged to take the cup and saucer.
Over their milkless tea and dry, butterless scones these two talked and chatted. The novelty of it all, the beauty of the girl, the absolute surprise of it, made it perhaps the pleasantest five-o'clock tea Archie had ever partaken of. And if so for him, what for her? No words could tell the pleasure, the delight of that afternoon's meeting. It was to the girl as a bright gleam of her old life breaking in upon the darkness of her new existence. It was as a draught of clear, cool water to the parched and thirsty traveller. She drank, and unconsciously she perhaps drank dangerously deeply.
"You are a rum girl," Archie blurted out suddenly in the midst of some argument. Then he coloured as he realised the inappropriateness of the remark.
"How do you mean?" she asked him.
"I know what you mean," she said quietly, and somehow the life seemed to have gone out of the voice. "I didn't think; I ought not to have asked you. It seems strange, of course, that a Maori girl should talk as I have been doing. I—"
"Miss Carlyle, you're not to suggest that It was very rude of me to say what I did, but I could not, for the second, help it; it came out. I heard you had been to school at Napier, but—but I thought that you were like—like other girls I had met who had been to school page 172there. You have made better use of your time," he said, smiling.
"That is very nice of you. It's quite a pretty speech, but—"
"There isn't any 'but' about it. I mean it, and I have had just the jolliest afternoon I have had for ages. I'm fond of books, as you can see, and talking about them. I'm tired of talking sheep, and fencing, and turnips. And may I come round again?" he added.
"Indeed, yes," she said eagerly, and then she seemed suddenly to check herself.
"Well?" said Archie.
"You have other things to do; and—"
"I'm going to come again, and, if you'll let me and will promise to turn me out when you find me a nuisance, I'm going to come often."
"I don't think that I'll find you that," she said gently. Then, as he rose to go, she added, "And— and would you—would you lend me a book?"
"Of course I will," said the young fellow; "gladly, as many as ever you like. You and I are going to be great friends, I can see that. There's no one up here who cares for reading, or who can talk like you do. I'll bring you some of my first favourites, and we'll have some yarns over them. What do you say?"
"But—but— Oh, it's no use saying I wouldn't like it. I would, immensely; indeed I would."
"It's a bargain then. I'll bring some to-morrow afternoon. Now I must be off. Good-bye."
"Good-bye, Mr. Deverell. But—didn't you want to see father? Shall I give him any message?"
Archie looked at her for a moment, and then smiled.
"I'm afraid I've forgotten what it was I wanted to see him about. The fact is," he added, "I haven't got anything to say to him. I didn't come to see him. I came to see you, because I had heard about you; and—and page 173I'm hugely glad I came," he said; and ran off leaving her at the doorway blushing with pleasure.
She watched him unhitch bis horse and, whistling to his dogs, mount and ride off. He looked back and raised his hat, and then the hill shut him from view. Ngaia turned into the cottage. It looked terribly empty now, and the tea-things on the table seemed to be all that there was to show that her afternoon's experience was not merely a dream.
"Oh, how I have enjoyed it!" she repeated to herself, as she washed and put away the cup and pannikin. "I wonder if he really will lend me his books, or if he will ever come back again."
She need have had no fear of that, for the legend of Ngaia had commenced.
To-day in Napier, in the club-house or the drawingroom, if the talk turns to the back country, and a new chum or a globe-trotter is present, it is told. It hangs about Te Henga like an old-time story of a gallant "knyghte and a ladye fayre"; and the stockmen tell it to the shearers in the woolshed during "Smoke-oh," and boast of it and are proud of it; and those who saw and knew her in the old days are heroes. Jake's cottage is history.