A Maori Maid
Archie certainly did not fall in love with Ngaia at first sight; nor did she with him. His feeling comprised two sentiments, one infinitely more generous, the other infinitely more selfish than mere love.
He pitied her. She was lonely. She was a lady in an atmosphere of low, brutal vulgarity; a sweet, highspirited girl bullied and forced to be a common drudge; a refined, educated woman thrust into a life of dirty discomfort. He himself was educated and his company was obviously pleasing to her—just as the books which he might bring her would be.
Out of the kindness and generosity of his heart he therefore determined to see more of her—much more.
On the other hand he, for his part, was in a sense lonely. He had always been fond of women's society, and not unnaturally he had grown somewhat weary of that of Jack and Arthur. They were fine fellows in their way—but they were fellows. "Fellows" are not a woman, and lack the charm of sympathy and trust that a good woman instinctively shows towards a man who is white to her. Ngaia was not a "fellow." She was even better than a woman; she was a girl exquisitely beautiful, and unspeakably charming in her manner. Her company was far more congenial to him than that of either of his two fellow-cadets.
Therefore out of the selfishness of his heart he determined to see more of her—much more.
In justice let it be said that the selfishness was not prodigiously apparent to him. He had a marvellous page 185belief in the infinity of platonic attachment. He was emphatically, in his relations with women, a sinner and not a saint. But it was with sharp limitations. He had often enough turned into the dusty side-lanes of life where women trail bewitching skirts and take no heed of the dirt that gathers. He had journeyed along with such as he had met. He asked no questions of how or why. In his heart perhaps he was sorry, for a woman is too priceless a masterpiece of God to be lightly destroyed. He was sorry, and yet accepted such women, and all women, at the price they set upon themselves. If the price was less than perfect respect he regretted—but bargained. Never once by thought or deed had he turned out of the clean road with any woman or led her to drop from right to wrong. In the idleness of flirtation with good women he might have pained far more keenly than he was aware. But there it ended. He was a good man to a good woman. It was a phase of his religion.
Archie Deverell had no false estimate of himself; but he had a just one. That Ngaia would ever pass to her ruin by reason of her friendship with him he knew to be an impossibility—as impossible as for him to thieve or murder. That she might learn to love him was a remote consequence he refused seriously to consider. At most that would be but the price she would be paying for the pleasure of bis company. That he himself would fall in love with her was a still remoter contingency.
It was so unlikely. It was almost preposterous. The taint of Jake Carlyle was surely in her in some characteristic he had yet to discover. The gilt would rub off the gingerbread somewhere or another. And if not, if she really proved to be as pure and sweet as she seemed to be, if she confirmed his first impression of her, if he succumbed to her fascinations and fell in love with her he would marry her.page 186
It was a possibility—a remote possibility. The "ifs" were numerous and substantial.
Meanwhile she afforded him the pleasure of excellent company and the opportunity of a limitless flirtation.
Such an experience is positively glorious and full of a wondrous excitement. No sport can rival the delight of a woman's constant companionship when, pure in your relationship to each other, you are yet, both of you, reckless as to whether the end is to be marriage or a gradual drop to the frigidity of commonplace friendship. It is glorious, but it is dangerous. Its danger is perhaps its glory.
"I'll make a pal of her, a regular pal, and we'll hunt together until—well, I suppose she'll marry some one, and then it'll be about time for me to take up a run of my own," reflected Archie.
It was a fine basis on which to build a flirtation of immense possibilities.
Jake soon became aware of Archie's visits to his cottage and at once comprehended the reason of tbem. Inasmuch as they gave the girl intense pleasure he might have objected; but another and a baser thought prompted him to encourage the young fellow. That a gentleman, the son of a lord or some person of title, should marry a drover's daughter never occurred to him. That he might sooner or later ruin her was quite possible —even probable. The idea pleased him.
"I'll 'ave her come crying and weeping to me to 'elp 'er afore very long; and I'll send 'er to 'er father and tell 'im to keep 'is ruined brat I guess that'll make you and me about quits, Mr. Anderson. It'll perhaps cost me the gal's allowance but the secret'll always be worth being paid to keep. Come on, Mr. Deverell, says I. Ye can take 'er out just when ye likes. I ain't going to interfere, and good luck to ye, says I. Ye needn't be afraid. I don't know nothing; I don't see nothing; I don't suspect nothing."page 187
The diplomacy of match-making consists in never letting the man know. Jake was not match-making, and it became obvious to Archie that he was not averse to his constantly visiting Ngaia. It tended to strengthen the young fellow in his belief that he would never lose his heart to her and encouraged him to indulge to his fullest fancy in the romance of a platonic friendship with a lovely girl.
Scarcely an afternoon passed but that he called in at the cottage and saw the girl. Sometimes Ka and Waina or Airini or both would be there, and he confirmed Ngaia's admiration for him by his jollity and kindness to the old Maori woman and the two girls.
Towards Jake, however, he was completely different. His self-respect, if nothing else, prompted him to keep the stockman at a distance; to keep him in his proper place. Meetings at the whare between the two were, however, rare, for Archie generally called in at an hour when it was improbable that Jake would be at home.
Not unnaturally Archie's visits became the sunshine of Ngaia's life. From day to day she looked forward to his coming. In his presence she realised herself at her true value. Without any self-conceit she understood herself to be the object of his visits, and for a long while she knew no other thought than that she was glad that he found her amusing. That he derived as much pleasure from her as she from him never occurred to her.
The more frequently Archie visited Jake's cottage and the more intimately he grew to know Ngaia the more intensely did he grow to dislike her surroundings.
He made an effort to detach her from them and found it comparatively easy. She was only too willing for very love of him. Jake was only too pleased for hate of her.
One afternoon Archie happened to arrive at the cottage earlier than she had expected. Ka and the page 188girls and the two boys were over at the kainga and Jake was up at the yards. Making his horse fast to the fence Archie walked up to the cottage. Stepping across the threshold he found Ngaia on her hands and knees busy scrubbing the floor. He called her. She turned with a cry of surprise.
"You're busy," he said, as he comprehended her task.
"Yes, I thought I would have a big clean out; every one is away to-day."
"And you've got all the rest of this floor to do?"
"There's not much more."
"You've hardly begun it."
"I won't do any more now. I'd rather talk—and perhaps you'd like to have tea?" she said shyly.
"You're poking fun at me."
"Oh no, I'm not. I think you're simply splendid the way you drink our tea. I know," she added with a laugh, "what terribly bad tea it is."
He stood in the doorway looking down at her. She had tucked her skirt about her waist. Her sleeves were pulled up to the utmost, leaving the arms bare to above her elbows. Her hair had profited by the business of her two hands to escape and play wild chase, until tiny streams and ringlets curled and twisted about her ears and forehead. She was sitting on the floor resting one hand on the bucket.
"Oh, how untidy I feel," she said, wiping her hands on the big coarse apron she was wearing, and commencing to struggle with the gold gleams that had evaded hairpins and lawful tether.
"I'm going to finish the floor," said Archie, throwing his whip on to the table and pulling off his coat
"Indeed you are not, Mr. Deverell!" exclaimed the girl, springing to her feet. "It's all done for the day. No, no; you're not to," she said, as he caught the bucket.page 189
"I am. You're to sit down out of the way; on the table; anywhere where you can talk to me."
"No, no, Mr. Deverell, really!" Ngaia protested, standing before him and holding one edge of the bucket.
Then commenced a miniature tug of war.
"I'll spill it, if you don't let go, Ngaia, and it'll go all over me."
Holding the handle in one hand he caught one of her wrists in the other.
"You're too strong," she laughed. "I can't stop you; but I tell you you mustn't. Just fancy if father came in and saw you slaving."
"It'll be all right, that's what I am, I am a slave. I'm your slave," he answered, taking the bucket and lifting it pack to where Ngaia had been scrubbing. Doing so he failed to notice the flush his words brought to the girl's cheeks, or the look, half of pain half of surprise, that had swept over her face. It was all the happening of an instant, and she moved across the room and unfastened her apron and dropped her skirt.
Meanwhile Archie had tucked up his shirt-sleeves and plunged his hands into the water.
"You must sit on the table, Ngaia, and tell me what to do," he said without turning round to her.
She paused just an instant and looked towards him. She was beginning to feel, in some vague, indistinct way, that this young fellow was filling her whole horizon, was taking utter possession of her to a present of a curious, undefinable pleasure: to a future she had no wish to picture.
"All right," she answered with a light laugh; and, as though casting aside her more serious train of thought, she became the bright, jolly girl he generally found her to be.
"Now, then, take the rag, the one in the water, and make the floor wet—not too wet, and not too much page 190floor. Oh dear, men are clumsy! Now, then, soap the brush. Don't hold it that way. Oh!" she exclaimed, laughing, "oh, how funny! And you're making it worse," she cried.
He was. Seizing the soap, he had applied it to the brush with the most immediate effect of spattering himself. Acting on impulse, he had wiped his face with his hand soiled with the dirty water. The result was more comic than dignified.
He suffered these minor mishaps good-naturedly, joining in her merry laughter, even though unable to see the cause of her amusement
At length the scrubbing-brush was adequately soaped.
"Now, then, scrub. Hard; harder, much harder."
Archie went at it vigorously.
"Oh, it's a shame," said the girl. "You needn't scrub so hard really. I was only teasing. That's better. You're getting on splendidly."
"It's jolly hard work."
"Whew! It's hot. Honour bright, it's harder work than I have to do."
"I look as if I could do harder work than you could, don't I?" she said.
"It's not what I could do, it's what I do do."
"What do you do?"
"Oh, well, just now is the slack time; the wool's being carted down to Napier. I only have to mess about generally; to ride out over the back country and see that the fences are all right, and that dogs haven't been amongst the sheep, and keep a look out that the sheep haven't got out, and all that sort of thing."
"I could do all that."
"Of course you could, or you'd soon learn."
"Never mind under there, Mr. Deverell; just do that page 191corner, and then over there, and it'll be done. It's awfully kind of you. I think scrubbing just the most horrid thing a girl has to do."
"I should think so. It's a d——d shame—I beg your pardon—it's—it's a beastly shame making you do it. Why can't Airini, or——"
"I'm going to make some tea for you as a reward for your services," said Ngaia, walking across to the hearth and making up the fire.
"All the same," persisted Archie, "it's not the sort of work for you. What do they do—Waina and Airini?"
"They work in the garden; I can't do that in the hot weather. I don't mind running or climbing about, but bending over hour after hour weeding is too much for me. Now you've finished it all, Mr. Deverell. I'm really very, very much obliged. Never mind, don't you bother. I'll throw the water away."
"Not a bit of it," said Archie, going to the door and emptying the bucket out over the turf in front. Then he placed the brush and flannel in the pail and set it in a corner of the room."
"Uff!" he exclaimed, "it's hot. What do you think of my scrubbing?" he asked, looking round on his handiwork with considerable pride.
"You're getting on. It's not to be learnt in one lesson, you know; but—well, it'll do for the first time."
"Look here, I tell you what; you teach me to scrub, and I'll teach you to ride, and to muster sheep, and to do all, or pretty nearly all, I do."
She looked up at him.
"I mean it. It'd mean riding out with me all over the hills, and it's jolly tiring sometimes. Driving a mob of sheep is beastly work. You mightn't like it, perhaps?"
Her eyes glistened.
"Like it! Why, it would be just—— But it's not page 192possible. I haven't a horse, or a saddle, or even a habit to ride in. I had one, but——" She stopped. Waina had appropriated it, and cut it down for an ordinary skirt.
"Would you come if I fixed all that up?"
"Do you mean it? Would you take me? Would you be bothered with me? I'm—I'm only a girl and I —I might be frightened of going where you might want me to go."
"You frightened I I'll believe that when I see it. As for meaning it, why, of course I do. The question is, would you care for it? Would you?"
"Indeed, yes. Can't you imagine how much I would? It would be like flying from a cage. I feel imprisoned here. Since I came from Napier, except when I go up to the sheepyards, I have never been out of this gully."
"Then it's a bargain."
"But the horse and saddle and—the habit?"
"I've got a horse of my own, the one I generally use, not the one I'm riding to-day, but the chestnut."
"Yes, that's the one. He's a splendid lady's hack. There's a lady's saddle up in the woolshed. I'll be able to arrange for it for you somehow or another."
"And the habit?"
"I'm going to make you a present of one. Oh yes, I am," he said as she seemed about to protest.
"It's awfully kind of you, Mr. Deverell. I ought to refuse, but—I can't. You don't know how grateful I am."
"Then give me another cup of tea, just one more."
"Now I must be off," he said, drinking it down. "By the way, though," he added, "what about the habit? I must have some measurements."
"I'm afraid there isn't a yard-measure in the cottage."page 193
"Here's some string. I can knot it." He knelt in front of her and slipped the cord round her waist and, carefully gripping it at the point where the end met, held her for the moment a light prisoner.
"What a pity," he said suddenly, "this isn't Christmas-time, with a bit of mistletoe just above you!"
She looked down at him with a flush on her cheeks.
"You wouldn't do what you think," she said quietly, and there was a touch of pride in her voice. "I trust you much too much for that—and you know it."
"Of course I wouldn't," he answered, "because I know you trust me; because you've promised always to trust me."
He tied a knot in the string and thought he had made a mistake when he saw how small the length was.
He tried the measurement again, and she, with a smile on her lips and divining what was in his mind, permitted him.
He rose from his knees and sat on the chair near her.
"You've forgotten to measure the length," she said.
"No, I haven't. I remembered, but—but there's something I want to say, Ngaia. This—this riding out with me—do you know what people will say?" The girl blushed a deep crimson. She met his eyes as they glanced up towards hers and she nodded.
"They will say," he said slowly, "that you and I are—are sweethearts."
"Yes," she whispered.
"And we're not."
"No, no——" she said quickly, and then paused with a sudden stop.
"You're not frightened?"
"No, of—of people and——"
"Myself," she repeated slowly.
There was an unbroken silence. Dangling the piece of string in his hand Archie watched her. Her eyes were on the ground, the deep flush was still upon her cheeks, and he felt some indefinable feeling of behaving with tyranny and cruelty towards one immeasurably weaker and more delicate than he was. He felt that something had been said and something had yet to be said that might prove to be a sad day's saying for one or both of them—or the opposite. Something was looming about them in that empty, open-windowed, open-doored cottage, standing in its long, deep gully and its remoteness and its solitude. Was it the shadow of a great cloud or the glow of some supreme possibility?
She spoke first, she at once the weaker and the braver of the two; and in her effort to save the daily pleasure of his presence which seemed on the brink of being lost to her, she risked his opinion of her and told him.
"I'm not frightened of what people will think. There's no one to say or care much about me. I'm not frightened of you. You've promised, and besides, I— I scarcely know of what I need be frightened at your hands. I've been brought up to know very little of the world. There are bad women, I know that; but I don't really know why they are bad. Men make women bad I've heard, and I suppose therefore you could make me bad, only that I know you wouldn't; and therefore I'm not frightened of you—not the least little bit."
"Of yourself, Ngaia, what of yourself?"
"You're frightened of yourself. Oh, it's better not to carry out this fancy."
"Yet I'm willing, if you are."
"You don't understand. Ifs not fair. You're page 195perfectly right in feeling that you can trust me; but there is another danger and you may not be able to trust yourself; you don't realise."
"I do, Mr. Deverell," said the girl softly.
"That—— No, you can't. I'll shy this bit of string back and we'll forget the whole idea, eh?"
"If you would rather; of course."
"You too would rather?"
He had to repeat his question.
"You would rather also; wouldn't you?"
She lifted her eyes and met his.
"Honest injun?" he said eagerly.
"Honest injun," she answered with a smile at his quaint phraseology.
He remained silently toying with the string.
"I know what you are thinking, Mr. Deverell, and I'm afraid you won't enjoy taking me."
"I shall always feel——" he stopped.
"Mr. Deverell, you won't be angry at what I'm going to say? Of course I know you won't, but it'll seem a strange thing for a girl to say. You said when we first met that we would be' pals,' and that's what I want to be. I know you can't ever—ever marry me— oh, it's hard for me to talk like this—but I know that; and," she added softly, "I know without my knowing much of the world, that being with you and seeing you often may—may lead me to—to care for you. That's what I'm to be frightened of? That's what was in your mind?"
"Yes, Ngaia, but——"
"You mustn't think a bit about it. I'd rather have all the pleasure and happiness of your friendship, whilst you can spare it to me, than—than lead this life without it. After all, it's only so much unhappiness for so much pleasure. And the pleasure is certain and the unhappiness is not, because I—I may.never care a bit page 196about you. Oh, it's horrible for a girl to speak like this, but don't leave me to this awful life just yet. I know you can't be my friend for always; you will go away when you have your own station, and will marry some girl of your own rank. But I will be older and stronger then, or—or I might even be dead——"
"You will let me come, won't you? You see I'm quite ready to risk the whirlwind I'm sowing. What I've said is what you were thinking?"
"Yes," Archie said gently.
"You don't despise me, Mr. Deverell, for having said it?"
"No, how can you think such a thing? Look here, Ngaia, you've been plucky, and I'm going to be the same if I can. I took a liking to you the first afternoon I saw you. I came again and yet again until I've been asking myself how much I do like you. I don't think either one of us is actually in love with the other, but —well, there's a but in it. I'm a queer chap in some ways, Ngaia, and one of my queernesses is that I'd never marry a woman for pity when I didn't really care for her. It's all jolly well talking about platonic friendships, but they don't often exist between a young man and a young girl. It generally means that one or other or both fall in love—though not necessarily. We may neither of us care for each other more than we do now. You take the risk of caring for me and my not caring for you. If you're willing, I am. But you're quite wrong in thinking I can't ever marry you. You're just as much a lady as I am a gentleman, and if I fall in love with you, Ngaia, and you with me, we'll get married as soon as ever I can give you a home."
"No, no, Mr. Deverell. Please don't say that. It's only conjuring an impossible dream, a foolish idea."
"You would welcome it?"
"Isn't that unfair?"page 197
"Yes, yes, of course it is, of course it is. I'm sorry for having said it. Never mind, we won't talk any more about it now, but we'll just leave the future to take care of itself. We'll be chums, you and I; brother and sister, eh? And I'll teach you to ride, and take you anywhere and everywhere you like. I'll make you as happy as I can, and when I go off to my own run with the wife of my own rank, as you put it, I'll———"
"Have the satisfaction of having left some one the happier for your kindness."
"I wasn't going to say that." "Never mind, it's what will be, and what will be must be. Isn't that sound philosophy?"
"At any rate, it's not the measurement of my skirt, is it?"
"No, by Jove I I mustn't forget that," said Archie, kneeling down and taking the measurements.
"I say, Ngaia, couldn't you lend me a skirt—some old skirt that fits you—and a top part also? I'll take them into Marton. I've got to go down to-morrow to fetch some things. I'll be there a week, I expect, so I can wait until it is made."
"I'll fetch you an old skirt and a bodice, although they'll be an awful bother to you, won't they?"
"Not a bit, and—by Jove! look here, Ngaia, the skirt isn't enough, you want proper trousers. Surely there must be a measure of some sort in the place?"
"Oh, I know I" exclaimed Ngaia. "Father's old measure." She went to a cupboard and took out a much worn surveyor's tape. "It'll do; I'll measure myself in links."
"Hurry up, I'll wait here. Write the measurements on a slip of paper and seal them up, and I'll give them to the tailor."
In ten minutes or so Ngaia returned with the skirt and bodice, carefully rolled away in paper, and a page 198small note with the necessary measurements for the trousers.
He put the latter carefully into his pocket-book and strapped the parcel to his saddle.
"Walk down to the bottom of the gully with me, Ngaia."
"If you will do me that honour," he said laughingly.
They walked as far as the culvert over by the small clump of bush.
He leant by the gate talking to her for awhile, and and then, shaking hands, wished her good-bye.
"I shan't see you again for a week or perhaps ten days. I'll bring round your charger as soon as I get back, everything complete. It won't be a very smart turn-out, I'm afraid. Jacko isn't much to look at, though he's a good 'un to go, and the old saddle's seen better days. However, we'll have a really jolly time together in spite of such details."
"I'm afraid you'll find that I scarcely know how to sit on a horse."
"You've ridden a bit?"
"We used to go out when I was at school and I certainly never felt afraid. I could always stick on, but——"
"You'll ride well enough, I'm certain," he said, jumping on his horse. "Good-bye, and—and I'm awfully glad we've had that talk, Ngaia," he said, leaning over and shaking hands once more with her.
As the horse cantered off he turned in his saddle and waved to her, until presently rounding the bend, he was shut from view and she was left alone leaning on the gate.
And she prayed a simple, selfish, little prayer:
"Please, God, take care of him, and teach him to love me. I love him so. Pray God. Amen."