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A Maori Maid

Chapter IV

page 21

Chapter IV.

Horima was very nearly buried at Patea. Patea was his "kainga tuturu," that is to say, his chief place of residence. Sundry reasons, however, led to Tokaanu being selected, and it was formally decided to bear him thither. He was accordingly sealed up in a leaden coffin enclosed in a beautiful brass-bound oaken shell and preparations were made for a funeral worthy of the dead man's rank.

A hearse, with seven wiggly-waggly bobs, was hired; also a brass band and a big brake for it. On the morning of the start the bustle and the excitement were astounding. Everybody shouted orders, everybody made suggestions, and everybody followed his or her own inclination. The whole village, except the very old people, were going. Buggies, sulkies, carts, and every description of vehicle that the kainga could boast of were brought into use. The most marvellous combinations of flax and string and leather had to do duty for harness. The duty was ill done; and constantly during the journey a halt would be caused by a leading vehicle having to pull up in order to effect repairs and tie up the harness with more string and more flax. During such intervals there would be great abundance of talk and a still greater abundance of whisky.

Salutes of guns, fired singly and in batches at irregular intervals, accompanied the first effort at a start. It was only an effort and unsuccessful, because a man page 22blew off the fingers of one hand. The gun missed fire the first time, so he put in another charge, thereby delaying the start until the following morning.

The distance was somewhat beyond sixty miles and the road was exceedingly rough. Consequently, and owing also to certain other delays, it took a week and a day or two to accomplish. Not that a week or a month made any difference. Time was no object The band played throughout the journey, the chief reason being that the musicians were costing a great deal, and the Maories were anxious to have their full money's worth, apart from the dignity a band lent them. It was a strange freak of the natives to bring such a thing into those out-of-the-world parts. The jolting of the brake destroyed the time of the music and marred the melody. Not that the Maories paid much heed to the lack of time or tune. Neither did the dense bush nor the wild pigeons nor the wekas notice it. To them it was a new sound not recognised as the | music they were used to.

Years and years before, bands of savages, bent on warfare and destruction, had passed between the great totaras, rimus, and matais and crept and crawled through the thick undergrowth and the swinging vines and supple-jacks. Their talk was low and was the talk of revenge and war. The old forest monarchs knew and understood that It was the inharmonious harmony of those times. But a brass band with the bom-bom of the big drum was queer, and the meaning of it was beyond their knowledge. Small wonder that the echoes rang strangely and the wild birds screeched, and flew to quieter spots.

Outside Tokaanu the road is open and flat The procession reached here towards dark. Almost every one was tipsy and the funeral descended upon the kainga at a hand-gallop. The hearse was in front and the wiggly-waggles bobbed and bumped, and one fell page 23off. A rider picked it up and brandished it as a standard. The brake kept close up to the hearse and the band blew and banged vigorously. The time was utterly lost. The tune was gone. The whisky and the bumping were insuperable obstacles to anything better. Still it sufficed, for it was a brass band and there was no denying that it was costing a lot of money.

The mad race terminated at the creek. Horima, when alive, as became a sedate old chief, had been slow of locomotion. His gallop in his hearse was probably the fastest gallop he ever indulged in on this earth.

But that creek nearly spoilt the whole funeral. It ruined the hearse. The driver, a white man, said it was not his fault, that some "d—d Maori" had made the horses swerve. The natives rejected the excuse and objected to the language as applied to any one but himself, and decided that the fault was entirely his own and that he was drunk. It matters little what the cause may have been. The effect was that the funeral car was overturned whilst crossing the creek, smashing the shaft and shooting Horima out into the water. The horses broke away and the whole crowd gathered on the bank and surveyed the ruins. When the driver and the natives had satisfactorily ended their dispute by almost coming to blows, more whisky was produced, and peace reigned on the bank, whilst the coffin and the car remained in the creek, where the water bubbled and rippled with laughter through the wheels and round the edges of the coffin. One small boy waded in and stood on the coffin and made remarks until indignantly driven away.

The women sat and wept, chiefly because the "gold," which was the brass, would be spoilt. At length, after a great deal of deliberation and amidst a terrible amount of talk, the hearse was righted and page 24the pole spliced and the coffin fished out. Whilst the horses were being caught by the boys, the men broached a fresh bottle or two of whisky and the women set to work and vigorously polished up the "gold" on the corners of the coffin. By nightfall Horima was installed in a brand new tent

The tangi continued at Tokaanu for weeks, fresh relatives and acquaintances appearing daily. Just as the vultures flock from all quarters and feed upon a carcass, so come the sorrowing friends to a Maori funeral to weep and receive presents; for it is part of Maori tikanga, or custom, that gifts should be made to the travellers, and the family and tribesmen of the dead chief will often half ruin themselves by their generosity.

The gift-making was gone through with the customary ceremony and speechifying. Blankets and rugs by the dozen and even dozen dozen, sugar by the bag, flour by the hundredweight, and whisky by the case were stacked in one long, imposing heap. On either side, facing each other, were the donors and the donees. The chief men spoke throughout the whole day, somewhat after the well-known European after-dinner-mutual-admiration strain, until at last the goods were satisfactorily given and satisfactorily received.

Ruta, being the only child of the dead chief, took a prominent part in the weeping. She had grown into a really handsome girl. She was slighter than the ordinary Maori, with a refined, intelligent face. John Anderson had never seen her before. He noticed her at the tangi and she noticed him. She even smiled through her tears, and John Anderson had a presentiment that his temptation was at hand. The very sentiment that suggested this prompted him to stay. It soon prevented his leaving. It is wonderful how a sentiment will grow in a man until the man is lost in the sentiment.

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"I've taken a fancy to the girl," he told himself.

This, under ordinary circumstances, may mean anything. When, however, the girl to whom a man has taken a fancy likewise has taken a fancy to the man, it is no longer an ordinary matter and means more than "anything."

It means everything. It means, if both the man and woman are free, happiness. If either one is not, it means that there must be strength of will and some pain—or else much evil.

John Anderson was not free. He knew that. He knew, moreover, that a woman is a woman, whether a Maori or a pakeha. He knew, too, that he was already married. Besides which, he had always believed in his belief that an erring husband is as culpable as an erring wife and that the transgression of neither was to be measured by not being found out. And yet he lingered on, questioning his belief until he seemed to have narrowed everything down to certain thoroughly superable facts.

In the first place, Ruta was only a Maori. In the second place, even if he yielded to her, he could and would still be a faithful and dutiful husband. In the third place, if his wife never knew, where would be the harm to her? And lastly, a girl would be useful in the camp, and he chose this one merely because he had taken a fancy to her.

He had yet to realise what that "fancy" meant. He certainly had lost any such sentiment for his wife. To be more accurate, she had killed it.

Clearly John Anderson should have left after his first meeting with Ruta, A Maori woman in love with a man is dangerous, unless he is very strong. She is, after all, a child of nature and devoid of social sham. She makes no pretence or concealment when once she detects the slightest return of her affection, and Ruta was not long in surprising John Anderson into a page 26confession that was abundantly clear to her. It told her a truth which even the man himself had not fully realised.

She never left him after that, and he succumbed and Ruta became his "wahine."

Wahine is Maori. It means woman. It also means wife—Maori wife. There is no marriage ceremony. A woman is merely given or gives herself. Thereafter, her honour demands her fidelity to her husband. Of course in the minds of civilised men and women there are wives and there are wahines. There is a social chasm between the two in white men's society. But in the Maori mind there are only wahines. John being a white man, knew Ruta was, and could only be, his wahine and not his wife. She being a Maori and being his wahine thought herself his wife. She had no suspicion of a second woman. She had no appreciation of the effect and benefit of a ceremony and the terrors of social chasms. They were, in fact, taking the same road to different Romes.

The tangi was over and Horima had at length been buried. The visitors had departed to their various homes. Not so John. He had practically but one excuse for lingering on—which he refused to admit. The excuse was a woman and the woman was Ruta.

She and John frequently met To him such meetings were as forbidden fruit. To her they were delightful. Nor did she make any pretence of avoiding him. With the quickness of a woman she realised the fulness of her victory, and gradually she took complete possession. One evening, about a week after the burial, John strolled over from his tent to the "whare" where he knew Ruta was likely to be. The night was clear, bright and cool. Outside the hut he found a large fire, around which were seated a number of natives. She was amongst them. There were the usual low cries of welcome at his arrival, and room was made for him. page 27It seemed almost as a matter of course that he should seat himself next to Ruta. His liking for the girl was guessed. Her love for him was understood. Already they were accounted lovers. Presently, in the midst of the general talk and laughter, these two were absorbed in each other, speaking of everything save quite the one thing each was yearning to confess and hear. Love makes cowards of the boldest men, and how much more so when an honourable man feels himself drifting to a love that is dishonourable!

It was all so horribly real, horribly ugly, horribly beautiful. It was no mere passion that was urging these two. Her love for him was the love of a pure, gentle woman, though but a Maori. His for her was, in itself, honest, although based on dishonour. It was born of his craving for a sympathetic friend. His sin was the sin of circumstances—and Social law. Apart from his English marriage, his union with the Maori woman would have been pure and perfect. He had no hankering for the artificial existence of society. The hardships of a surveyor's life were perhaps likely to prove one day too much for him, but a life in the country was the life of his preference.

His great mistake was his marriage; his awful misfortune was the law of his people. He forgot that it was not his privilege to disregard the one or to discuss the other. For Social laws must be obeyed; questioned perhaps; railed at perhaps; but obeyed— implicitly. The sun round which the orbs of society circle is "Appearances." If all men did as John Anderson did, society would cease to exist; and civilisation without society would be mere barbarism.

Neither thought of the baseness of his act, nor any reflection on the consequences, came into John's mind that evening. He loved and was beloved. Not yet in so many words had the truth been told. But by the girl's side, alone with her, as it seemed, among the page 28merry fire-lit crowd, all thoughts, all considerations, passed into forgetfulness. They stole away from the flickering, crackling fire, out into the quiet peace of the evening. Together they wandered down by the strange little river with its warm water and the bubbling springs and tiny geysers steaming up from amidst the "manuka" on either bank. They spoke perhaps but little, but each grew, beyond all doubting, to understand the other. Suddenly in a wild, delirious moment, they stood clasped in each other's arms, and their secret was told.

Pity if you can; condemn if you must; but admit that they were but human.

John awoke in the grey of the early dawn, and that awakening was the first daylight of his new life. He had yielded. On the pile of rugs and blankets that formed his bed lay Ruta, quietly sleeping. Through the thin tent the soft light came stealing in. He looked upon her. She was almost beautiful, though Maories seldom are. The face was a good face; and John realised a sense of delight as he reflected that the soul, the faith, the worship of the woman was his— that at last he was beloved. Yet she had trusted herself to him, and in return he had deceived her. He had kept his pakeha wife a secret and had betrayed her.

His delight dimmed to remorse.

"But Ethel shall never know, she shall never know. By my God, I swear she shall never know I" he whispered, and he buried his face in the hard pillow.