A Maori Maid
Archie's clearing up proved to mean working out the shaft he was in as completely as the rising water and the risk of caving in would permit; and as a result he made a substantial addition to the store of gold. Not but what it was extremely unwise to have waited so long. The fine weather had lasted with only occasional breaks of rain, but it was now well into the autumn, and the light haze and summer clouds were building up each day into heavier and more threatening masses.
Archie dismantled the little windlass and took the cradle to pieces. These, with all his tools, except a pick and an axe and the slasher, he carefully hid in the bush. Finally, having measured and pegged out two claims, one for himself and one for Ngaia, he marked them off on a plan he had made. He dug holes at the four corners of each claim and planted posts on which he cut his and Ngaia's initials.
At length everything was ready for a start. The horses were brought in, lean, and in none too good condition, and loaded up.
This was by no means an easy task. The bags of gold were difficult to secure, and finally the big fly had to be cut up and the canvas used as sacks for the side loads. These served the double purpose of preventing a bag of gold falling off and, to a large extent, of concealing the true nature of the load. It is not exactly discreet to let it be too evident that a horse is carrying thousands of pounds worth of bullion.page 340
The journey proved even more simple than they had anticipated, although in places they were forced to leave the bed of the river and cut through the bush.
Towards noon of the third day the high cliffs on their left came to an end and they saw a dense totara flat stretching along the edge of the river.
"It's the Kawatau, Ngaia, I'm certain of it."
"Yes. We're coming to the junction of the Kawatau and Porounaki. Two more days and we'll be out on the Hunterville road."
Archie's surmise as to their whereabouts proved correct, at any rate so far as the junction was concerned. Scarcely two miles from the commencement of the totara flat the two rivers met.
They halted soon for their mid-day spell and a pannikin of tea apiece.
"Nearly our last, Archie. Two more billyfuls perhaps."
"Oh well, we're nearly through now."
"I wonder," said Ngaia thoughtfully, "how every one is at Te Henga? Jack and Arthur and—Mr. Anderson." She dropped her voice as she mentioned his name.
"Racking their brains to imagine where on earth we've disappeared to, I expect."
"Won't they be surprised when they hear? I wish Arthur and Jack had been with us—at least," she added, "I should not have wanted them actually with us, only I should have liked them to have shared our good luck."
"We'll tell them all about it. They'll be able to get through as soon as any one and go straight to a claim next to ours—whilst the others are searching along the rest of the river."
"Te Henga," the girl repeated, looking into the fire. "Archie, I never realised how much I grew to like the place after—after you came."
"Fancy Cyril becoming the owner of it."page 341
"Yes. Oh, it does seem such a pity! He'll waste his money and starve the place."
"Yes. It brings in a princely income now, but nothing to what it will if it's looked after. Cyril'll ruin it all; there's not much doubt about that."
"We've made our start now, Archie, and after next summer, if the gold holds out on the flat, we'll be really rich."
"Well, we'll invest most of it in the country I've got it in. Nothing pays better than good land, and when we've made enough, we'll go home and see how the old governor is. I'll try and put the property in England on its legs again, and get the family plate and jewels out of pawn."
"Oh, it's quite come to that, I fancy—years ago, probably, though I never knew it. The family jewels are rather famous, and the lady of our house is worthy of them," he said, bending over and kissing her.
"I want to see Mr. Anderson so much. As soon as ever we reach Wellington, I shall write to him."
"I wish," said Archie slowly, "I wish he would tell you that Jake is not your father."
Ngaia was silent for a few minutes.
"Oh, it can't be helped," she said presently. "If he would only tell me, only give me the right to love him, I should be happy."
"It's Jake he's frightened of."
"I expect it is. You don't know how horrid that man is, really; you don't know how he sometimes treated me."
"And Mr. Anderson sacrificed you to save himself! It's almost broken my faith in him. It was miserably weak and mean."
"Sh-sh! Archie. We've no right to say that, to even think it. I—I may be nothing to him. I may be Jake's child, and—and it may be that it was only page 342on account of—my mother Mr. Anderson took the interest in me he did."
"He oughtn't to leave you at the mercy of a man like Jake."
"It's for him to say. Not for me, not for you, Archie. We must never breathe a word."
"I've promised, sweetheart."
"Besides," she said, and her eyes were bent to the ground, "if I am Mr. Anderson's child I'm—I'm a shame to him."
"You—you a shame to any one! My wife an object of shame or reproach! No, no, sweetheart, you couldn't, you couldn't be that. It's been no fault of yours. No one would suggest it. For myself, I absolutely refuse to believe that you're Jake's daughter. It's not possible."
"You really believe that? Oh, I must. I want to believe it. I must."
"And you do," he said, stooping over her and kissing her under the broad, battered wide-awake; and then catching her two hands he pulled her to her feet.
Kicking out the fire they strapped on their billy and pannikins and continued their progress down stream.
The river, swollen by the addition of the waters of the Porounaki, was no longer easily fordable at all spots. They were able, however, to continue for a considerable time on the dry river-bed along the one side and had no great difficulty in finding a ford when it became necessary to cross.
"We'll camp in another hour," said Archie, towards the close of the afternoon. "We'll easily cross the Rangitikei and reach the Mangataweka flat, on the main road, by to-morrow afternoon, and Ohingaiti by noon the next day."
They pitched their camp in a small opening on the edge of the bush. The gold was lifted into the tent, and a heap made of the little bags, over which was cast page 343a rug. A couple of pigeons, shot during the afternoon, were plucked and dressed and set by Archie to boil whilst Ngaia changed her rough river-splashed masculine attire for her own more graceful clothes.
"Are there any people settled near where we are now, Archie?"
"There is a settler named Rayton down at the junction of the Kawatau and Rangitikei, about ten miles down. As the crow flies we're not twelve miles from the Hunterville road, but it's nearer twenty miles by the river and the track."
"You've been here before?"
"Not as far up as this. I went over to Rayton's place not so very long ago with young Anderson. Rayton's an awfully fine chap, a real good sort. Haven't you ever seen him across at Te Henga, a stoutish fellow with a beard and blue eyes?"
"I don't think I ever saw him. Fancy Cyril venturing into such wilds."
"He thought he'd get some shooting. He's not a bad shot either."
The twilight with the sad rapidity of the far South darkened into night, and the bush and river slumbered. The fire, well fed with dry matai and maire, burnt and glowed and threw long dancing shadows away and away into the depths of the bush. Suddenly Ngaia started.
"Archie, what was that?"
For a while both remained motionless. Presently the sound of breaking twigs fell upon their ears.
"Wild pig, I expect," said Ngaia, ashamed of herself for having startled her husband.
"Sh-sh!" he exclaimed shortly and sharply.
She glanced at him and saw that he had half risen from the ground and was listening with anxious intentness.page 344
They strained to catch the faintest sound and presently once again they heard the breaking and snapping of twigs.
Archie jumped to his feet.
"It's some one coming through the bush."
"It's strange up here—at this time," she said.
"I don't understand—quite," he answered.
Truth to tell he was more than merely puzzled. The knowledge of the treasure lying in the tent and the responsibility of protecting the girl at his feet made him perhaps more than ordinarily apprehensive. To have heard the approach of a man was in itself curious in such an out-of-the-way spot, but it was quite possible that Rayton or one of his men returning from some shooting expedition might have seen the fire and wished to ascertain whose camp it was. All this was possible, if improbable. But far stranger than the mere fact of there being a traveller in the bush was the manner of his approach. He was obviously stealing up to the camp secretly and cautiously.
Stepping aside Archie picked up his gun, a thing he would under ordinary circumstances have never thought of doing.
"What is it, Archie?" exclaimed Ngaia, standing up.
"Pig, I think," he answered, his eyes searching in the direction whence the sound had last come.
"Sit down, sweetheart," he said, and she quietly obeyed, nestling close to him and growing anxious.
As though the stranger, peering out from the darkness in which the bush enwrapped him, had caught sight of Ngaia when she stood up and had come to a quick decision as to his entering the camp, there was a noise of twigs being broken and scrub being brushed aside. From the black edge of the bush a man slipped into view.
He stepped up to the fire.
"Who are you? Where are you from?" asked page 345Archie sharply. "Who——Great heavens—you!" he broke off.
Almost at the same moment Ngaia had leapt to her feet with a cry.
In front of them, hatless, in torn clothes, caked with mud almost from his shoulders to his heels, his face gaunt and haggard, his eyes wild and hunted and sunk into his head, his chin dirty with bristles, his lips twitching, his hands scratched and bleeding, stood Cyril Anderson.