Virginia Lake beside the Great North Road in Wanganui provides what is surely the loveliest Sunday afternoon walk in New Zealand.
I was alone as I approached the lake for the first time, leaving the chatter of the traffic to cross the soft wet lawns that sweep to the water's edge. After four days of incessant rain, clean fresh sunshine had cut through the long white cloud and was warming the seagulls in their solemn Sunday promenade.
As one walks along the crunching pebble path that dips through the woods and into the deep blue shadows cast by red oaks, redwoods and Himalayan cypresses, one steps into another world. It's here at sunset that the mists roll off the ice-cold waters of the lake and bring legends to life.
In a leafy glade not more than thirty metres from the water I came across the statue of a Maori girl backlit by shafts of sunlight. She is seated casually, bare legs and bare feet to one side, supporting herself on one slim bare arm. Her other arm is stretched forward to feed two doves and two sparrows. She is wearing an off-the-shoulder dress, tassled across a slight bosom. Her small eyes stare forlornly in the direction of the lake.
In the moss at the foot of the statue a small sculptured book stands open, its pages gleaming in contrast with the dull bronze of the main figure. Etched finely in black lettering is the legend of this beautiful maiden who sits alone in the forest mourning the death of a young man called Turere who once lived with his tribe at Putikituna Pa on the banks of the Tangarakau River where it joins the waters of the Wanganui.
I leaned over and read with feeling of the young man Turere who loved to walk through the forest stopping to listen to the birds and, with infinite patience, learning their language. One morning a beautiful young girl called Tainui, a daughter of the chief of Putikituna, heard Turere talking to the birds and paused, fascinated. They became aware of each other's presence and ventured a few tentative words. He offered to teach her the language of the forest and she was soon able to share Turere's joy in nature.
As the long warm summer passed they fell in love but it was with an anxious awareness of tribal jealousy and the attentions already bestowed on Tainui by a young warrior called Ranginui. When the days shortened he went in pursuit of Turere and killed him in a swift, one-sided tussle.
But retribution from the gods who loved Turere was swift. Before Ranginui could return to his tribal village a fierce storm swept across the hillside and he was struck down by lightning. It rained and rained until the water was so deep in the valley that it covered the dead bodies of the two men.
One day Tainui became aware that the birds were trying to say something to her. In the soft morning light the tiny creatures fluttered about her feet and led her into the valley and showed her the vast expanse of water that lingered in the forest where she had first heard Turere talking to his beloved friends. The water shone with a luminous light as she knelt and wept inconsolably. The inscription ended:
''In this manner the lake we call Virginia came into being.''
As I stood back in the August sunlight to look again at the bronze figure I became aware of another girl, about the same age as Tainui, hovering near the camellias at the fringes of the clearing. She seemed aware of my appreciation of the statue and the fact that I had been moved by the legend inscribed below it, but there was something excessively shy, even furtive, about her movements.
I walked slowly through the limes, the alders and the walnuts, absorbing the cool freshness of the late afternoon, listening for the ''ping . . . ping'' of the bell-bird. Mimosa trees, wrapped in their own gold, flung vivid reflections across the still water. On one of them was a notice appealing to visitors not to steal or damage the shrubs and flowers.
It was an hour later that I came full circle along the crunching wet path through the pine trees, with the blackbirds calling through the dusk. The children's voices were now gone and a soft mist was rising from the lake. There was no sign of the shy young girl with her hands clutched behind her back.
Tainui sat alone in the glade. The streams of light no longer played on her long straight hair. Her eyes gazed tearlessly at the silvering lake.
It was as though the legend were slipping into the oncoming night. The pages at her feet could no longer be read.
But in the tiny indentation in her young bosom lay a soft pink flower, plucked by a New Zealand girl centuries later to confirm that she, among all the people who had stopped that afternoon to admire the statue, most deeply understood the grief of the maid who had loved in the forests of Wanganui.