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A Maori Maid

Chapter XXIV

page 199

Chapter XXIV.

Archie wrote to Mr. Anderson, who was in Wellington, asking if he might lend Ngaia the old side-saddle. He made no detailed reference to the riding she was wishful of indulging in, but merely suggested that she was lonely.

He received a reply at Marton in the course of a couple of days.

"I do not know exactly what side-saddle you refer to, but if it is the one I have in my mind it would certainly not suit Ngaia. I am only too pleased that she should have taken up the idea of riding, and I have therefore bought her a saddle and bridle which you will give her from me; probably it will arrive by the train that brings this. To-morrow you are to meet the train from Wellington, and take delivery of a horse— a grey mare—I have bought for Ngaia. It is a thoroughly well-broken lady's hunter, and is used to such country as Te Henga. It is quiet, and will suit her. I have written to Jake to inform him that Mignon is for Ngaia's sole and exclusive use, and is given to her on the condition that she lends it to no one. The same condition applies to the saddle and bridle. Consequently the use of any portion of my present by any one means instant dismissal. I have written Mr. Brown to this effect, also with instructions to have a small stable run up in a corner of the paddock by Jake's cottage, and a supply of hard feed kept there."

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The saddle, Archie found, had arrived addressed to him. He was not a little astonished to realise on examination that it was as good as money could possibly buy. The mare, on her arrival the following afternoon, caused him even greater astonishment. Obviously well handled and accustomed to being made a pet of, she was a perfect lady's hunter.

"There ain't many mokes of that sort in the district, I reckon," drawled a stockman, as Archie led the animal out from the station-yard. "Going up to Te 'Enga, ain't it, Mr. Deverell?"

"Yes," said Archie.

"Wal, I reckon the boss knows what's what when 'e's buying a 'oss."

Archie was detained in Marton some four or five days longer than he had anticipated, and both Brown, the manager, and Jake, received their letters before the mare arrived. Ngaia also received a note from Archie saying Mr. Anderson was sending her a present of a horse and saddle complete.

Jake hated John Anderson, and he hated Ngaia, but the limit of his disobedience to one, and unkindness to the other, was his own self-interest

Had John made no especial mention as to Ngaia's horse being used as a general hack, she would have had little enjoyment from it. He knew that, and he also had a shrewd idea that his letter, and the tone of his instructions, would receive pretty strict attention.

They did—to the letter.

No one ever sat on Ngaia's saddle, or rode her horse a yard, except Ngaia herself

The light corrugated-iron shed was finished the same day as that on which Archie arrived. He left the mob of sheep he had brought up in the paddock beyond the culvert, and cantered up the gully leading Mignon. As he neared the cottage he realised how intensely he was looking forward to meeting the young page 201girl—and thought it curious. It was as curious as the way in which the Marton girls had of late appeared flat, stale and unamusing.

He gave a coo-ee, and as he drew rein by the gate Ngaia appeared.

"Mr. Deverell! Oh, I am so glad!" she exclaimed, running to the gate as he dismounted.

"How do you do?" he said. "I've brought you something—Mr. Anderson's present."

The girl looked from him to Mignon and back in incredulous delight. The mare, recognising a woman, pushed its soft nose into her hand.

"My pony! For me! Oh, how beautiful it is! What is it called, Mr. Deverell?"

"Mignon. She is to be entirely yours. Mr. Anderson's orders are that no one is ever to ride her but you."

"Mr. Anderson has written to father. Oh, she is sweet!" she exclaimed, petting and caressing the animal. "How good of Mr. Anderson! And I've got to thank you, too, Mr. Deverell, for if you hadn't done what you have, Mr. Anderson would never have thought of giving me such a present And you've brought it all the way up for me. How hot and tired you must be! I'm sure you would like a cup of tea. I wonder," she added, looking at the mare, "if——"

"If you couldn't have a ride?"

"Mignon must be tired."

"Not a bit. We haven't come far to-day. A canter would do her good. Whilst I'm having my tea you can try on your habit, and if it fits we'll go for a ride. Here it is; and a hat"

"This—this is your present, isn't it, Mr. Deverell?" said the girl shyly.

"Yes," answered Archie, flushing like a school-boy.

"But it's nothing, you know. It's not a really nice one."

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"That's for me to say," said Ngaia with a smile, "as well as to thank you very much indeed."

They walked into the cottage. The kettle was boiling, as, truth to tell, it had been each afternoon at this hour for the past three or four days, though to-day was the first occasion on which it had been used for tea-making.

"May I give Mignon some sugar—just a little?" said Ngaia, after she had poured out the tea.

"I rather fancy she'll be offended if you don't. She's a regular lady's pet."

Mignon ate a couple of spoonfuls from Ngaia's hand with evident satisfaction, and the friendship between the two was finally cemented.

"Now I'll go and put on my habit, Mr. Deverell, if you'll excuse me. You don't mind waiting? You are sure, because I do so want to have a ride, no matter how short."

Ngaia walked round the cottage to her room, and untying the parcel, threw aside the old skirt and bodice, which had been carefully returned, and lifted out the habit.

"He gave it me," she whispered, and with a flush on her cheeks, as it were at her unmaidenliness, she kissed the dark-grey cloth again and again. Then she dressed.

The habit fitted her excellently. She fastened on the hat and looked at herself in the broken looking-glass nailed to the wall of her room. Her own nice dressing-table and glass were still in Jake's room.

"I'm pretty," she murmured to herself without the least touch of vanity. "I wonder if he will ever think so; oh, I wonder?"

He did think so, his look must almost have told her as much as she walked into the cottage.

"It fits you?" was all he said.

"Splendidly. It couldn't have been better."

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"At any rate it will do meanwhile."

"I don't want any better one," she answered quickly.

"I've brought you a whip. A proper little stockwhip. I'll teach you how to use it," he said, handing her a light fourteen-foot whip. There was a silver plate on the butt, with "From A.D. to Ngaia" inscribed on it.

"Come on," he said, giving her no opportunity to thank him. "Mignon's longing for a start."

He gathered the reins for her and handed them to her. She put her foot in his hand, and her hand on the pommel, and shot lightly into the saddle. He arranged her skirt quickly and with the skill of a man who knew. He tightened the girths and set the stirrup and then, unhitching his own horse from the fence, swung into the saddle. They walked a little way, Ngaia patting and caressing her pet, until in the full confidence of a born rider she begged for a canter.

Off they went over the soft, springy grass. Both animals were comparatively fresh and the mare lightly tossed and pulled at her bit. Archie watched the girl and he saw there was little enough she had to learn from him or any other. She had been taught how to hold her hands, and God had made them as light on a horse's mouth as her soul was generous to men's weaknesses. The cool evening breezes brushed about her cheeks and played in the sun-kissed strands that escaped her hat. Youth, innocence and high spirits made full answer to the mare's swinging canter. All the world seemed bright to her in her happiness; even the dusty grass and barbed wire, beyond the ditch on either side, swept into a vague ecstasy of motion and excitement. She had no fear. The gentleness of her steed, the presence of the tall, well-knit figure on his heavier horse by her side precluded such a thought.

They pulled up at the gate and he leant over and opened it Across the great paddock beyond they page 204cantered, man and girl, horse and mare gathering their delight until the pace had grown to a swinging, steady gallop.

"Take care, Ngaia, there's a ditch ahead. We'd better pull up," Archie shouted.

"I have jumped. May I? Oh, please!"

"Steady up then. So, that's better. Now, then, give her her head. I'll lead you. Over! that's splendid," he cried as Mignon and her rider sailed lightly across.

Presently they drew rein.

"Oh, it is glorious!"

"You enjoy it?" he said.

"Enjoy it! Mignon, you're the dearest, sweetest horse in all the world. Enjoy it! Oh, you don't know what it is really to enjoy a ride. You're all day and every day riding, and riding, and riding. It's—oh, it's more than I can say."

They passed through another gate and beyond into another paddock and up over a rolling, grass-covered hill. More than once the dogs started a hare, and, barking and rushing to and fro, added to the excitement of the hour.

Otherwise it was still and peaceful. On the crest of the hill they stood awhile, and Archie pointed out some of the boundaries of the great run.

"Those great mountains away over there in the haze are the Kaimanawas. Those over there behind us are the Ruahine. They say there is gold over there. Do you see that curious flat-topped mountain? That's Aorangi. Natives have told me there's a river from under the foot of Aorangi with heaps of gold in it"

"Oh, but it can't be true. People would have gone there."

"Scarcely any one knows of it. Besides, it wants finding even after you have found the river."

"Would it be hard to find the river? It looks so near, as if one only had to walk across a few hills."

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"And yet it is sixty miles or more from where we are as the crow flies, and there are rivers to ford, and nothing but dense bush to travel."

"A horse couldn't go."

"It could, although it means hard work. There is an old track somewhere near the ford of the Hautapu on the road to Napier. Do you know, I sometimes have an immense longing to go off up there and see if there really is any gold."

"I would if I were you, if I were a man. Fancy how interesting, how exciting! I suppose it is almost deserted."

"Utterly so. No natives live there now and I don't suppose a single white man has ever been there, unless some surveyor who made it his chief business to go there and back as rapidly as possible."

'I shall always think of what you've told me when I look at those old hills. One might almost picture them as standing sentinel over the gold, they look so fierce and grim."

"You won't tell any one what I've said. I don't suppose it is a dead secret, but the idea of there being gold there isn't common to many people. Now, then, we had better be getting back."

They walked and cantered and galloped back, leaping the ditch and also a low, quick-set hedge. Ka and the girls and their brothers and also Jake were at home when Ngaia and her companion returned. Mignon came in for unstinted admiration. Even Jake muttered something to the effect that the mare was "a d—d sight too good for the gal."

The effect of John's letter was evident, however, when Jake turned and informed Ngaia's brothers and sisters that he would "thrash the life" out of any one of them that touched it; and when he added that his injunctions to them were based on "the boss's orders" they comprehended the finality of them.

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Ngaia led Mignon into her shed and Archie instructed her in the art of saddling and unsaddling.

"I'm going to do everything myself. I'm going to groom her and look after her and no one else is to do anything. I don't suppose any one will want to, but still it's as well to let them understand at once."

"What time shall I call for you to-morrow, Ngaia?"

"Will you really take me out?"

"Of course. I'm going over to the Hautapu boundary. What time do you have breakfast?"

"Six o'clock."

"I'll call at about seven."

"I—I wonder if father will let me go?" she said in a low voice. "I haven't asked him yet."

"Of course he will; won't you, Jake?"

"What?" asked Jake.

"I'm going over to the Hautapu boundary tomorrow and I want to take Ngaia. You don't mind her going?"

"You and 'er? No, I don't see as 'ow I need mind. I suppose now she's got the 'oss she'll 'ave to use it. Waina, you and Airini '11 'ave to keep the whare clean between ye. You'll have to see it's done proper, Ngaia. I ain't going to 'ave no more dirt. You've edicated me to luxury and I means to keep to it. Yes, she can go with ye as often as ye like, as long as ye like. The oftener the better, he, he!"

"Father, thank you so much."

"I wouldn't go chucking yer thanks about too generous just yet, if ye takes my advice," said Jake, moving to the door of the cottage.

Archie stepped across.

"You say a single word to insult that girl and, by God, though she is your daughter I'll thrash the life out of you!" he whispered fiercely.

Jake turned and looked at the young fellow. He was frightened.

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"I ain't said nothing. What I says of the gal 'll probably depend on 'ow you treats 'er. I don't care a tinker's curse what 'appens to 'er. She's old enough to look after 'erself. All I says to you is, don't you make no mistake or you may be sorry—'itting me won't mend it for ye." So saying, Jake walked out across to the pataka.

Archie watched him, his face white with anger. Yet nevertheless, whatever Jake may have implied, his actual words had an undercurrent of truth in them. The girl was delivering herself into his keeping, and it would depend upon him, upon his sense of honour, that no ill should happen to her. But that her father, with such a possibility in his mind, should declare himself absolutely indifferent, seemed horrible and unnatural. It made him understand how eagerly the girl was welcoming the opportunity of occasionally escaping from the cottage. It served to stimulate his determination to deal rightly and justly by her.

Turning on his heel he walked back to the fireplace.

No one had heard a word of what had been said.