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Tikera; or, Children of the Queen of Oceania

Chapter XV Major Tempski explains colonial notions about the relations between the two races and hears what he has not heard for a long time

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Chapter XV Major Tempski explains colonial notions about the relations between the two races and hears what he has not heard for a long time

Newly formed companies of militia departed daily into the bush. Messengers despatched by General Cameron spread the good news of several conquered pas, large numbers of prisoners taken, and a successful action against the Hau Hau. A martial mood gradually prevailed over the speculative fever raging in the garrison. Although each day the drills penetrated deeper into the earth and came closer to solving the mystery of the oily streams, the rocks soaked in oil, and the great lumps of bitumen which were scattered around, one detachment after another marched merrily away, hoping to gain a brilliant victory and to return safe and sound, after a short campaign, to the riches awaiting them. Major Tempski, wishing them good luck as they left, invariably ended with these words: ‘The better the lesson you teach these heathens, the sooner you can come back to your claims. I wager that the very day you return, the first well will strike oil.’

I always thought that the oil existed only in the imagination of the sniffing committee of pseudo-Pennsylvanians. My views changed when a mining engineer was sent from Auckland and after two days' examination declared that oil was certainly there in large quantities. New Plymouth businessmen immediately set up a joint-stock company with a capital of fifty thousand pounds to start its exploitation. The local newspapers printed the war news in small letters and the oil gossip in large headlines. How I regretted refusing the claim which Charles had offered me! Others in the area were worth at least five hundred pounds apiece. Charles himself could hope to receive several thousand pounds for his claims and Jenny's. One-eyed Williams tore out his carroty hair in despair at missing such a chance, and assured me that it was the first time in his life he had sinned through excessive prudence. On this occasion Charles showed talents I had never expected of him. He soon succeeded in winning the confidence page 184 of the Company's directors, and ultimately became the head and front of the organization. By the influence of these gentlemen he was granted furlough from his unit. He worked hard enough for two men or more. He knew how to advertise, how to attract people with money, how to judge which machines should be used. On his advice a sailing vessel was sent to Sydney for a large number of drills, pipes, and traction engines. He organized all the local coopers to manufacture barrels. In order to make barrels which could be transported by sea he studied assiduously to learn the secret of applying varnish to timber, thus rendering it impervious to oil. I met him less frequently than before. The increasing casualties from the front line forced the Government to build a field hospital, and I was very busy. Sometimes as I returned to my tent after a day's work I would meet Jenny looking longingly towards the hills where the drills screeched and her lover's voice could be heard raised in command.

‘Jenny, Jenny,’ I asked on one such occasion, ‘aren't you looking forward to becoming a great lady?’

‘No,’ she answered. ‘Charles has very little time now. I only see him for a brief hour in the evenings. And even then he's longing to get back to his papers and what he calls his calculations.’

‘But you still see him every day.’

‘Seeing him like that doesn't give me much fun. I would like them to strike oil and finish the whole affair for good and all.’

‘Then what would happen?’

‘Charles would have all the money he's ever dreamed of. He wouldn't have to tire himself out writing and calculating in town. He says that when they strike oil he will live on his income without needing to work. How happy we shall be then!’ she added, touching her raven tresses—now more elaborately arranged than ever—and straightening the crinoline which made her ample figure look even larger. The simple creature had quite lost her old natural grace. I often had to smile as I watched her trying to walk daintily like a well-bred young lady … with the build of a prize-fighter.

One of my chats with her was interrupted by the bellicose major.

‘Did I disturb you?’ he asked in German when the girl had gone far enough to be out of earshot of his commanding voice. ‘A Pole is always a Pole. I can see that although your stay has been short you have managed to catch quite a prize. A little swarthy but very attractive.’

I explained that I looked upon Miss Jenny as my friend's fiancée.

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‘Is she the wench I hear Charles Schaeffer has promised to marry? She's the one I saw after that brawl some time ago, isn't she?’

‘That's right, sir.’

‘What nonsense! A young man, quite clever, with some prospects now; and even if he was without them he has good contacts here. He is a real geologist: he can apply his skill and knowledge in mining. He'll make a fortune in no time.’

‘Yes. He is an uncommonly capable young fellow.’

‘And from a good home too. His family owns what we call in Silesia a rittergut. They have not treated him too well. They pretty well drove him out. But he will get back his estate eventually. I know the family and their property: my parents were his people's neighbours. In the last few days I've learnt to know him better and I've thought about his family quite a lot. They are all eccentric, emotional characters, buried in books, debauchery, and strange passions. To be quite honest they're cranks. Everything about them is topsy-turvey. But all this is no discredit to him and shouldn't deprive him of his natural rights.’

‘He will have wealth, but not enough strength to enjoy it. What's the good of such hopes when at the moment he's not doing too well?’

‘He has ability, a solid education, together with his industry—’

‘But he doesn't like work.’

My interlocutor looked at me questioningly, as if to remind me of Charles's present energy.

‘I mean to say that he doesn't like systematic work,’ I replied to that silent enquiry. ‘At present he's working like a madman because he hopes to get rich quickly. But give him a steady job where the money comes in only slowly and he will be as upset as Pegasus in harness.’

‘Do you know him well?’

‘We tramped together from Auckland to Cook Strait. We slept, ate, and worked together, and endured captivity and misfortune in one another's company. Isn't that enough?’

‘Aren't you sorry that he associated with that nigger?’

‘Yes. I am. He could do better; and he will ruin her life.’

‘This marriage is so much nonsense. The whole town gossips about it. If he breaks the engagement, her father will take him to court for breach of promise and the jurors will dry her tears with a hundred pounds. The money will be voluntarily contributed by all the citizens of New Plymouth, who will be only too happy to prevent a misalliance between a white gentleman and a half-caste.’

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‘Would all the sympathy be for the man? Wouldn't anyone feel sorry for the girl?’

‘Why should anyone feel sorry for her? Any young farmer of mixed blood would be able to console her. She's only a Maori girl.’ He waved his hand in a contemptuous gesture.

‘Suppose the Maori girl was an innocent, affianced to a Maori chief, and tricked by an unscrupulous white adventurer. Would she deserve pity then?’

‘Of course a man should behave decently. But should he be penalized and forced to marry the girl?’

‘Supposing—developing that line of thought—that this same white adventurer, having spoilt all her prospects by turning her against the young Maori, abused the girl by taking advantage of her fiery temperament and half-savage upbringing, and finally discarded her as something for which he had no further use?’

Tempski turned his manly, rather despotic face towards me. ‘Are your insinuations based on reliable information?’ he asked me sharply. He waited for my answer with a threatening look on his face. He took life seriously and did not approve of ambiguous statements or treacherous friends.

‘I don't know for certain,’ I replied, looking at him squarely in response to his implied accusation that I was a scandalmonger. ‘These are my suppositions, supported by knowledge of the people concerned and by examining one of them as you have questioned me. I asked the girl a number of leading questions—and although she is no relative of mine I do exert a certain influence over her. It seems to me that I know the truth of the matter—but I have no further proof than that.’

‘What do you think is the outcome of my examination of you?’

‘I think you believe my story, sir. I have some reason to fear that Charles may forget his promise and abandon the girl. His inborn moral instability, his new hope of acquiring riches quickly, and the ready advice of his town friends might prompt him to this crime. Now I will ask you, sir, what is your view of this affair? Do you still pity the gentleman who squanders his chances?’

‘I feel all the sorrier for him, for he has carried the matter too far. If he behaves honourably, he will be demeaning himself: if he acts as his station requires he will disgrace himself in the eyes of those who judge by European standards. But I doubt if that will harm him in the settlers’ opinion. You and I and a few others will condemn him as a perfidious seducer, but most people will overlook his misconduct. Your suspicions are inspired by concern, but they page 187 cast a shadow on the character of someone who was your companion through many adversities. Let's hope they prove to be unfounded.’

‘I hope to God they do!’

The major changed the subject. ‘When did you leave Home?’ he asked me.

‘A few years ago.’

‘Do you long to return?’

‘Not yet. I like the colonies.’

‘You're lucky. I am often homesick.’

‘You are lucky, sir, if you still long for Home. Your new way of life might have changed you so much that you no longer understood your own people at all.’

‘You've been away only a few years.’

‘Yes, not many.’

‘It's more than ten years since I came here. That's the secret of my nostalgia. It grows with age.’

‘But you don't speak Polish, sir.’

‘No, I don't. But I understand it. I was born in Upper Silesia and brought up in the Prussian army. I never spoke Polish fluently. But do me a favour and speak to me in your tongue. I'll answer in German.’

The major put one hand to his ear and bent a little towards me to follow the flow of my words more readily. It seemed to me that he blinked his eyes as though to hide some emotion which welled up despite his strong will and martial features. The suppressed and uninvited emotion, which he nonetheless welcomed, welled up from deep within his heart straight to his eyes and flooded them with tears—the tears of a Pole who, after a quarter-century of wandering and misery, triumphs and disasters, sweet words from foreign sirens and belligerent exhortations from fellow soldiers, listened again to his mother tongue, even though it was marred by a Podolian accent.

We conversed long in this manner, I in Polish and he in German. Before we parted he admonished me: ‘You were foolish to choose the pioneers. You have to do menial work, you have no hope of advancement, and you're badly paid. Forget your daydreams. You must remember that the present war is a fight between civilization and barbarism. You can side with the invader without contradicting your principles. Conditions in this country cannot be measured by a European yardstick.’

‘Even if that were true, what business would it be of ours? Suppose page 188 the English were really sincere in introducing their enforced salvation—religion and civilization hand in hand, just as the Arabs enforce their Koran to bring happiness. I ask you again, what part should we play? Why should we waste our strength and perhaps our lives, here or anywhere else, for people who ascribe their victories to their own bravery and impute any defeat to their foreign mercenaries? I've had enough of these unnecessary deaths, of mercenary expeditions from the poles to the equator in support of an ephemeral idea, or just for the sake of adventure! Is this the only way we can show the world our courage? Suppose instead of gratitude we are greeted with jeers? If we used this energy in learning or to some other proper end we might become the leaders of the human race. We should advance the slow but inevitable march of progress by which, sooner or later, all the nations will be united and their wounds healed.’

The major shrugged his shoulders contemptuously at my sermon. ‘I can see I'm wasting my time arguing with you about this,’ he said. ‘You're a stubborn Utopian. But I want to do you a good turn. If you were in the militia I would help you with promotion. As it is I can't do much except recommend you for a clerical post in the commissariat.’

‘If I asked you to help prevent a wicked deed, or to inflict due punishment, would you do it?’

‘Of course. I would in any case. I'm already interested in the girl's fate. But I will also help you if you need a recommendation for a position.’

I thanked him for the offer. When we had parted I busied myself preparing my humble supper, pleased that I had unexpectedly found such a mighty ally.

The next day I was ordered to report to the local militia commissariat, where I would henceforward be employed as a copyist. In any crisis I would be recalled to the camp as a medical orderly. Since all the able-bodied men—even the provincial Superintendent and members of Parliament—were drafted for military service, I could not grumble at being destined on some hypothetical future occasion to join a field ambulance or something of that sort, and meanwhile to occupy my time as a well-paid clerk.