The Cedar Trees, Christmas 1867

Lizzy pulled back the tissue paper to reveal a dozen beautifully carved wooden bobbins for lace making, fashioned in the same style as the ones given to her in Fremantle during their voyage to New Zealand. Each one was slightly different, each one weighted down by three coloured beads strung on a wire loop. 

“Goodness,” she gasped. “Thank you, Samuel, they are just wonderful.”

Carefully taking one of the bobbins from the box, she held it up to the light so that the three red beads glistened as if they were rubies. “How did Samuel have the time to make these?” she thought to herself.

“Oh, Samuel, you are so clever,” said Sophia. “I am sure Lizzy can’t wait to use the lace cushion you have made too. Perhaps we can all expect lace handkerchieves soon?”

“I will need to practice a bit first,” replied Lizzy.

“Come on, Aunty Sophia,” said Caroline. “It must be my turn next.”

Everyone was sitting in a circle in the Combe parlour, taking it in turns to open their Christmas presents. It being an unusually large group of people this year, Combe had been chosen to play host to the Christmas Day celebrations. The day had begun early, at least for the younger children, who had woken to find a stocking hanging at the end of their beds. Sophia, Nancy and Lucy, along with their extra helpers, Amelie and Lizzy, had been hard at work secretly organising an appropriate toy to fit into each stocking. Each child also had a book to read and a handful of precious nuts saved from the autumn harvest. Bertie, John James and young Sam had spent all morning pushing their toy trains around, getting under the feet of the ladies preparing lunch, while Polly, Grace and Lily played outside with their new spinning tops. Even Vicky and Nancy’s youngest, Ezra, both too young to appreciate Christmas yet, had new dolls to play with. Vicky’s a rag doll wearing a pretty blue dress stitched by Lucy, while Ezra’s toy was a soldier wearing a bright red jacket and smart black trousers.

The older children insisted on still having their stockings, although the toy was replaced by a new pair of long socks for the boys and stockings for the girls. It had become a tradition that the older girls received a diary for the following year. Even though they knew exactly what each stocking would contain, they still held on to the childish excitement of dipping into it to see what had been left for them. This year, Freddie and the twins had found a small notebook in their stockings, with a tiny pencil that fitted down the spine.

In all honesty, the presents placed in each stocking were cunningly designed to keep the children occupied for the morning while their mothers worked in the kitchen. Following their traditional pattern, luncheon was eaten outdoors sometime after midday, regardless of the weather. Neither Sophia nor Nancy had ever been able to adjust to Christmas in the summer. Even though it was normally a hot day, they were still inclined to prepare the traditional roast dinner followed by heavy plum puddings, which nobody really wanted to eat in such warm weather. As was usual, a wind had blown up as the feast came to an end, requiring a sudden rush indoors carrying plates and serving dishes into the kitchen before they got blown away.

Nobody minded coming indoors because they all knew that the next stage was opening their presents. Chairs were hastily arranged in a circle and the children given the task of distributing the parcels from under the tree. Of course, the youngsters found it really hard to wait their turn, especially Bertie and John James, who had spent a great deal of time under the tree that morning, feeling each parcel in order to guess its contents. Lizzy had been given the privilege of going first, mainly because the ladies knew exactly what was in the box, Samuel having been encouraged to give them a peek at his handiwork last evening. Caroline came next, followed by her brother and sister, then Samuel. So it went on, round the room, each person carefully unwrapping their parcel, exclaiming the contents to be just what they wanted, even if it wasn’t!

The older folk had not been forgotten either. Betsy Franks had come up trumps with a selection of handkerchieves for James senior, Job Nicol and Atewhai. Sophia had Atewhai’s ready to deliver the next day. The old Maori woman refused to join their party, but would, no doubt, be happy to accept a small gift, protesting, as she did every year, that Christmas was for pākehā, the white man, to celebrate.

There was no doubt that Lizzy’s lace bobbins were the star of the show, and Sophia was pleased to see Samuel’s obvious affection for Lizzy. Poor Lucy was the odd one out this year as her beloved Ned had reluctantly joined his brother in Marytown for the day. Sophia wondered briefly if there would ever be a Christmas when Lucy would find joy. It may be a few years ago now, but nobody could forget that dreadful year when that man Drummond had come to stay, shooting Lucy’s precious pheasants as if they were fair game. It had been a rather strained Christmas Day that year.

Once all the parcels had been opened, the children were sent outside to run off some of their excitement. This gave an opportunity for the ladies to tidy up while the gentleman wandered out into the yard to get some fresh air. Lucy and Lizzy declared themselves perfectly capable of sorting the kitchen out between them, so Sophia, Nancy and Amelie found themselves selecting the most comfortable chairs back in the parlour. 

“Ooh, that’s better,” said Amelie, with a sigh of relief at taking the weight off her tired feet. She was now some six months into her pregnancy and finding herself tired after the slightest exertion.

“Not long now, my dear,” said Nancy, considered by them all to be an expert when it came to babies. “You will have a son or daughter before Easter.”

“For Guy’s sake, I hope I carry a boy,” said Amelie.

“As long as the baby is well, it matters not if it is a boy or a girl,” said Sophia. “Guy will love his child whatever he or she turns out to be.”

“Atewhai will tell you beforehand,” added Nancy. “She has a knack for knowing.”

Amelie was not too sure about Atewhai’s involvement in her confinement so far. The old lady had insisted on laying her hands on Amelie’s growing belly before declaring the child to be in good health and growing well. Amelie would have preferred a proper doctor to have made such a judgement, but there seemed to be an acceptance of Atewhai’s ways here in the basin, so she had little choice but to go along with it.

“Have you considered names yet?” asked Nancy, always one to get that aspect of childbirth organised early.

“I have not talked with Guy about it yet, but I do have an idea if it is a girl,” replied Amelie, unconsciously placing a hand on her stomach. “Guy was very fond of his Nanny Bee, and we found out when she died that her full name was Beatrice. I rather like it. Of course, there is also Guy’s Aunt Emmeline to consider. Perhaps Beatrice Emmeline. What do you think?”

Nancy considered for a moment, rolling the name round in her head. “Perfect,” she declared. “In my experience, boys are much harder to name than girls. Perhaps you could leave Guy to choose a name for his son.”

“Goodness,” said Sophia, “I dread to think what my children would be called if I left it to James to decide.”

While the ladies’ conversation continued in the parlour, James was leaning on the gate with Freddie, who had felt very grown up indeed when he found he was not included in the group of children to be sent out to play. Edmund was showing Guy and the older men how the cattle were coming on, but James had taken the opportunity to speak to Freddie on his own for the first time since they had made the journey back to Applecross together. That day, Freddie had greeted his father enthusiastically and declared himself pleased to be going home, but on the journey back from Marytown he had been unusually quiet, responding only when asked a direct question. James had assumed that Freddie had just been sad to leave Pine Tree Farm, but Sophia had been suspicious that there was more to it than that, when James had told her how quiet he had been. After all, Freddie was about the same age as George had been when he and Sophia had started walking out. She wondered if Freddie had met a girl.

“If you find an opportunity to do so, James,” she had said, “ask him about it.”

James had been quite convinced that he would more likely talk to his mother, but Sophia reported on Christmas morning that he had said very little to her. So, when they found themselves leaning on the gate that afternoon, James asked gently, “Freddie, you have been so quiet lately. Do you miss Pine Tree Farm?”

Freddie hesitated before he replied, unconsciously reaching a hand to his pendant. As usual, it seemed to give him strength, but he was not sure he was ready to tell his parents about meeting a girl and even less sure of telling them that she was a Maori girl.

“It is not the farm that I miss,” he said, eventually. “I did make some friends there, but I do not miss eating ham every day, and I certainly do not miss turnips and potatoes.”

James laughed. “Yes,” he said, “it is not as if you have need of a dog to herd them up, I suppose.”

Freddie smiled too. He decided it was time to tell his father about meeting Ngahuia and how it had led to the incident with the two bullies. He took a deep breath and began the story of his first day off. James interrupted only once to say that he now realised why Mr Heutinck had mentioned his courage in the letter he had written. Otherwise, he let the boy speak until he finished with, “On my last day I was given an afternoon off to go to Oamaru to find presents for you all. I did so, but I hurried back to the beach to see if Ngahauia was there. I bought her a present too, which she was pleased with, but then she just turned and walked away from me without a word. I suppose I will never see her again.”

James knew better than to laugh at his lovestruck son, so he merely said, “Ah, these things have a habit of working out, my boy. There are plenty of other pretty girls to choose from.”

“But I want Ngahuia,” sobbed Freddie. “I don’t want any other pretty girl.”

“Come now,” said James. “I rather think we had better tell this tale to your mother. She has been worried about your quietness. She will know what to do.”

“Will you tell her, please?” asked Freddie. “I can’t find the right words. Maybe if you speak to her first?”

Sophia was pleased to see Freddie coming back into the house with a smile on his face. He seemed to be happier. Perhaps James had spoken to him. It was only once they got to bed that night, though, that her husband told her the full story. On the one hand, Sophia was glad to hear that Freddie had met a girl, but a Maori girl was something else entirely. 

“Ah,” said James. “I doubt you need be concerned about that. After all, he is not likely to see her again and there are plenty more fish in the sea.”

“Hmm,” replied Sophia, laying her head on the pillow. She had a vague feeling it may not be quite as simple as that. 

She lay awake half the night, her mind full of thoughts. Even when she fell asleep her dreams were full of Freddie chasing after a native girl and being chased himself by a huge native warrior brandishing a spear. She woke exhausted, finding James already dressed.

“You had quite a nightmare, my dear,” he said. “You gave me a good kick in the back at one point.”

“Did I?” she said. “I am sorry. I was dreaming about Freddie, but I think I know what to do now.”

“That’s good. I had a feeling you would know best,” said her faithful husband.

Atewhai had entered Sophia’s dream just before dawn. Atewhai wanted to speak to her. Sophia had a present to give the old lady, so it was the perfect excuse to visit her in her little hut after breakfast.

“I’ve been waiting for you to come,” said Atewhai. “Did I not tell you that our two families would become one?”

“How can you be so certain of these things?” asked Sophia. “Has Freddie spoken to you?”

“He will come when he is ready,” replied Atewhai. “I received a message from Ngahuia’s mother. Hunu is her ancestor.”

It did not surprise Sophia one tiny bit that Atewhai and this girl, Ngahuia were related. She knew that Atewhai’s family were spread far and wide throughout the area.

“Ngahuia is a good girl, of high birth and with a strong spirit. She will make a fine wife for Freddie,” continued Atewhai, as if the proposal of marriage had already been made and accepted.

“But they are unlikely to meet again, surely?” said Sophia.

“Her mother tells me that Ngahuia cried for several days when Freddie left the farm,” said Atewhai. “We should not stand in the way of love and there is no reason why they cannot meet again soon.”

“Do you not see that other people may be unwilling to accept a union of our two cultures?” said Sophia. She wanted Freddie to be happy and it certainly sounded as though this girl had fallen for him too, but a native girl and her son would be viewed by others with disapproval. She could foresee nothing but problems ahead for a young couple of mixed heritage and especially for any children they had together.

“It will not be easy,” Atewhai nodded in agreement. “However, Freddie will not be the first pākehā man to fall for our beautiful young women, neither will Ngahuia be the first Maori girl to find your white skin attractive in a man. We must let nature take its course.”

Over the years, Sophia had come to realise that Atewhai spoke nothing but the truth, having an innate ability to see how events would turn out. In this case, she could do little but agree with her. Nature would take its course, of that there was no doubt.

“Well, I suppose it is not up to us to stand in the way of true love,” she said. “Nevertheless, I see problems ahead for them both. Not least finding a way to meet again.”

“Leave that to me,” said Atewhai. “Now, what’s this you have for me? You know I do not believe in your Christmas celebrations.”

Sophia was not the only one who had lain awake much of the night. Freddie had found it hard to sleep since returning to Applecross, partly because of the lack of noise. Having got used to the snores and snuffles of his fellow workers, he now found the absolute silence at Applecross distracting. Then, in a way, he didn’t mind being awake at all. He could conjure images of Ngahuia into his mind, picking up shells, putting a hand to his bruised face, waving to him as she turned towards home. It always ended badly, though. That final image of her turning away without a glance. He would never see her again and no other girl would take her place. He was glad he had told his father about the girl, but now his mother would know too. He really wasn’t sure he could cope with her talking to him about Ngahuia. 

Across the valley, Nancy was awake as well. Not usually one to worry about her children, her concern for the twins’ trip to Australia was growing by the day. She had never quite recovered from James’ story about Friday’s littermate being killed by a snakebite. What if one of her precious boys suffered a similar fate? Or they fell off a horse, or the ship sank on the way across, or they met a girl and chose never to return. Edmund would have none of it. 

“Silly woman,” he had said when she voiced her concerns. “The fact is they are turning into men, and they need to make their mark on life. Would you have them stay as boys, pulling at their mother’s skirts forever?”

The dawn had broken before Nancy fell into a fitful sleep, to be woken only a short time later by her youngest son, Ezra, bawling for his breakfast.

Next door, Lucy had not enjoyed a restful night either. The new Applecross homestead was nearing completion, which meant that Ned would be needed elsewhere. Last week, before he left for Marytown, Ned had asked her to consider a future with him. It was not, he said, a proposal of marriage. Rather more a suggestion that they spend the rest of their lives together. It required her to decide whether she could bear to leave the basin. After all, Ned’s building work would be their only way of making a living and that could take him anywhere, depending on the assignment. He had asked her to think about it over Christmas while he was away. In truth, she could think of little else, although it meant she went round and round in circles all the time. Her life had been in the basin for so many years now, surrounded by good friends and amongst her precious creatures. Not to mention her life as a teacher now that Clara had gone. But she knew she loved Ned, perhaps even more than she had loved her first husband, Levi. They had been so young. No older than Freddie was now. All she had left of him now was his plot in the Marytown churchyard. She had been lonely for long enough. But could she face leaving the basin? 

Across in James Shepherd’s old house, now the home of Mr and Mrs Pender, two more ladies lay awake too. While Guy snored gently next to his wife, Amelie tossed and turned, unable to find a comfortable position for her growing bump. Today, more than ever before, she was missing her family, wondering how her mother and sister were celebrating Christmas and wondering where her father was spending the festive season. Her mother’s last letter had said that there had been no word from him. In her worst moments, she had an image of him lying dead in a ditch somewhere. But then again, he was on a diplomatic mission for the emperor of Austria, which meant, perhaps, that he could not let them know what he was doing anyway. She merely had to hope that he was safe.

Just next door, Lizzy lay awake too, her carved wooden bobbins in their box on her bedside table. When Samuel got back to Applecross they had picked up just where they had left off, their affection for each other turning to love, especially when Samuel had found out that his children were already fond of Lizzy too. Little did she realise that Samuel’s last thoughts as he fell asleep had been of the proposal of marriage he planned to make to his beloved Lizzy the next morning.

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