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Tikera; or, Children of the Queen of Oceania

Chapter XVI I learn about society and listen to a lecture on colonial notions of seemly behaviour

page 189

Chapter XVI I learn about society and listen to a lecture on colonial notions of seemly behaviour

News from the theatre of war now came less frequently. General Cameron had driven the rebels from South Taranaki, and his army was operating near the Wanganui River. Everyone believed that the militia still remaining in town would never see active service.

In our office we talked more about oil than about the war. The commissary general in whose office I worked, thanks to Tempski, was one of the directors of the Company. Charles Schaeffer often called on him. He looked somewhat perplexed when he first saw me in the director's office. When he had finished his business he greeted me in the same old way.

‘Do you know one another?’ asked my chief.

‘Yes, quite well,’ answered my friend. ‘I owe a great deal to this gentleman. I'll look on it as a favour if you will recognize his ability and his upright character.’

I could not help thinking that he sounded a little too familar when he spoke to my superior officer and downright patronizing in his recommendation. His few words nevertheless ensured that I received a better-paid position.

Several days later I had a chat with one of my colleagues about the head of our office. Everyone, apparently, praised him as a businessman of substance and honesty. I was told that he had several daughters, one of whom enjoyed the reputation of being the prettiest girl in a certain circle in New Plymouth. I say certain circle, because this middle-class town, like all English towns, was divided into a dozen tight little coteries, each of which was entirely separate from all the others. Bankers' wives would have nothing to do with lawyers' or parsons' wives, and these in turn would not stain their delicate fingers by touching the hands of plumbers' ladies. Nonetheless when General Cameron, a baronet and a companion of many orders of chivalry, visited New Plymouth he paid several calls even on shoemakers' spouses. Nothing could deprive the baronet of his dignity and respectability, because he was Right Honourable by birth. Law- page 190 yers' wives, on the other hand, won their respectability by spurning the trade peoples' good ladies, and would immediately have lost their hard-won honours if they had ceased to do so.

‘What a pity,’ said one of the young clerks, ‘that Miss Arabella had lost her senses so completely.’

Having voiced this daring statement he began to clean his fingernails with a pen nib.

‘Really? Aren't you saying that just because she turned you down?’

‘She turned me down because she has a swollen head. Her father is a self-made man and he doesn't limit her choice at all. As long as she chooses a steady character she can marry anyone she wants.’

‘Why did she refuse you, in that case?’

‘Because I work for my living, and my family is not well-connected, though it's wealthy enough. She turned me down because I'm thrifty and my business prospects are good. Because I prefer writing up bills to composing poetry, and because I don't like to linger on the beach and recite elegies in the moonlight. She told me that a young man who knew nothing at all about literature did not meet her requirements. I am too prosaic for her. What scores of other young girls appreciate in a single man, she disdains. She doesn't want a decent man for a husband.’

‘Her refusal was really a godsend for you,’ interrupted another clerk. ‘My wife tells me that while her sisters attend to their household duties Arabella devours one novel after another. I would be glad to have you for my brother-in-law, but you'll be much better off if you're not.’

‘Don't you worry about me. I still had a gleam of hope, and used to mix in her circle. But since Tempski has introduced this count or baron or whatever he is—a foreign nobleman anyway—recommending him as the worthy descendant of sixteen generations of knight-robbers and heir to all the castles in Spain—that's to say, an old ramshackle manor with a romantically meagre income but an impressive halo of medieval German legends—it's not just me she spurns, but all us colonial shopkeepers.’

‘She spends whole evenings with him, playing and reading,’ added Arabella's brother-in-law.

‘What do her parents have to say about that?’ someone asked.

‘What can they say? You know perfectly well that Arabella chooses her own friends without asking for advice from anyone. This isn't the Old Country.’

‘It doesn't look right, even in the colonies, when a young attractive page 191 girl from a well-established family gets too friendly with a man whose reputation is none too good, at least in one respect.’

‘I don't see anything wrong in it.’

‘What? Is it becoming to spend whole evenings wandering about under the light of the moon with a man who comes to her straight from his coloured mistress, whom he has promised to marry?’

‘How long have you been in this country?’ Arabella's brother-in-law asked this persistent questioner with an indulgent smile.

‘I left London a year ago. What's that got to do with it?’ asked the clerk, touching his forehead with his index finger in a gesture of perplexity.

‘A great deal. If you stay here for any length of time, you'll find that if we insisted on closing our homes to everyone who had a liaison with the delightful dusky daughters of the tribes, our ladies would be quite deprived of masculine company.’

‘There's more to this affair than the right to enter a respectable family's house. She's flirting with him.’

‘Keeping open house implies that too. Do you really think that the daughters of our Scottish or Irish parvenus will be content to become old maids because we kiss their coloured servants? In the colonies you must adapt yourselves to colonial customs. Besides, our own ladies are such prudes that we have occasionally to embrace the half-castes just to keep in practice.’

‘But this fellow intends, or at least intended at one time, to marry the girl. It's not at all the proper thing to make eyes at someone who is engaged to someone else.’

‘So long as he was a vagrant or a private soldier—neither of which reflects any discredit on him, for many of us have passed through the same school—he could contemplate marrying a girl of mixed blood. Today he is one of the most eminent people in town and moves in the best circles. Why, he even comes from an aristocratic family. Marriage with a Maori girl would finish him morally and financially. All his business contacts would be cut off. He'd do better to stop going to church than to marry a native woman. He's no fool: he understands all that quite well. Don't for a minute think that he'll marry her. His courtship—the whole affair—is a remarkably well-played comedy.’

‘I don't follow your reasoning at all,’ insisted the disappointed suitor. ‘You are strictly divided into separate social classes, and are mortally afraid of rubbing shoulders with your inferiors. And yet any titled beggar is given the entrée whereas decent neighbours have no chance of being accepted.’

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‘Blood, my dear fellow, has its value. Months of poverty could not deprive him of his nobility. Knowledge and talents also count for something and he has both of them. He simply returns to the place he held in Europe, while Mr Smith or Mr Robinson—who in the Old World swept my brother's shop and are now considerably wealthier than we—would feel out of place in our drawing-room, and just as embarrassed sitting at the same table with us as we would be. So we exclude Messrs Smith and Robinson from our world and accept a Prussian nobleman with open arms even though he hasn't a penny to his name. Only a union with a coloured wench could lose him his rank, and so he'll never marry one.’

‘I presume that Charles Schaeffer, Esquire, is too sensible not to break with his dusky love, especially now that her father has provided him with sufficient funds to pay for letting her down.’

‘Do you really suppose Arabella would marry him after a court case and the scandal of breaking off an engagement?’

‘Ask Arabella. Young girls don't ask their brothers-in-law what to do in these circumstances. But if she did ask me or her parents we would advise her to marry a man who is well connected and has such talents and such excellent prospects. We would congratulate her on her good luck and tell her that his connection with a native woman was one of those things which should be forgotten as quickly as possible.’

Here I interrupted. ‘Would you give that advice if you knew that a side effect of the union between Miss Arabella and this scion of a noble family would be a poor half-Maori girl betrayed and dishonoured by her affianced husband? If the happiness of the white girl was paid for by the ill fortune of her dark sister?’

‘How can you call a Maori mongrel brother or sister?’ asked the capricious beauty's brother-in-law angrily. ‘You must be a newcomer here too.’

‘You haven't answered my question.’

‘Do you really want an answer?’

‘Yes, I do.’

‘The answer won't be easy, because the question is somewhat blurred. I understood only this from your confused remarks: you want to know whether our society would be shocked if the daughter of a respectable family married a respectable white man who had abandoned his Maori mistress in favour of his future wife.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘I'll answer without any hestitation whatsoever. Our society has page 193 no interest at all in the relationship between respectable men and Maori women. We are too circumspect even to consider such a question. Society ignores Maori mistresses. Anyone who mentions their existence outrages propriety. The most rabid gossipmonger never dares touch upon that subject in decent company.’

‘Will your prudery enforce silence even when some gallant or other, a member of society, pretends love or promises marriage and commits the greatest crime that an eloquent educated man is capable of inflicting on a simple and even silly Maori girl?’

‘I repeat, sir, these matters are never a topic for conversation in respectable drawing-rooms, nor even among the members of one's family. But suppose this gallant of yours disregarded his own interests, contacts, even his sense of dignity; suppose that through association with a half-caste or a Maori girl he cut himself off from his own race; suppose that through marrying such a person he discredited himself and offended his parents, friends, and kinsmen; society would not look into his motives: it would simply discard him. I'm tired of the whole business. I can talk about someone like the German, but you're introducing a subject which is unsuitable even for these chats in the office.’

His sermon over he began to propel his pen across the paper at high speed. Clearly my shameless remarks had thoroughly upset him. The indignation roused by this low conversation could only be drowned in ink.

The spurned suitor, dipping his pen in the inkstand and prodding with it as though he were piercing someone's heart, muttered to me: Their notions of decent behaviour are rather peculiar, aren't they?’

‘We'll have to be here a long long time,’ I whispered in reply, ‘before we achieve their remarkable hypocrisy.’

‘And their devilry!’ he added, as he assiduously set about his writing.

He did not write for long. An uproar without announced some extraordinary event. Soon the commissary general hastily entered the room and without removing his hat called out loudly: ‘Close your books and put them away! Put everything in the safe!’

‘What's the news?’ asked his son-in-law, whose family ties emboldened him in questioning the despot.

‘What's the news? The warriors of the Waikato tribe are a day's march from New Plymouth. Rewi, Pehi, the whole damned lot are advancing against us. Apparently King Wiremu himself is coming with them. His Waikatos played a trick on our soldiers by outflanking General Cameron and joining forces with the Taranakis.’

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‘What are the troops on the other side of the Waikato River doing?’

‘How should I know? Put your books away, I tell you! The rebels have slipped through our columns, that's certain. They are on their way here, and where Cameron is God only knows. They say ten thousand warriors are on the march. All the settlers still left north of the town have taken refuge in the camp. They all say that the enemy horde numbers at least ten thousand.’

‘The Waikatos would have to arm their wives and children to come in such force,’ I remarked, remembering that the whole tribe did not number so many souls.

‘Anything is possible. These rebels are regular devils! Are the books locked up? Everyone out, then. I'm closing the office! You must all report to your companies. Down with Mercury when Bellona calls!’

With this classical apostrophe my golden days in El Dorado, if I may so call the commissariat at New Plymouth, ended for a while. I had to transform myself from a clerk into a soldier.

Before we had put on our uniforms, we discovered that the menacing Maoris seen to the north had dwindled to a mere thousand in number. This news was all the more reliable being brought by the friendly natives, who seldom erred in such matters. As the local garrison consisted of several companies of infantry, a troop of cavalry, a battery of Armstrong mountain cannon, and a staff that would have sufficed for a full European division, the news was received with rousing enthusiasm. Martial songs were heard in the streets. Young girls presented ribbons and posies to the uniformed youth. A brass band, of greater strength than some of the military companies, played ‘Rule, Britannia’. Everyone laughed at the sight of our medical unit armed only with bowie knives and leading mules or carrying stretchers. Our modest grey tunics stood out like poor relations from the display of colourful uniforms. The stress was on variety: almost every troop was differently accoutred. The army looked like a collection of samples from many European regiments. Troopers nattily trimmed with galloons looked like Austrian hussars. Others strikingly resembled the British Grenadiers, minus their bearskins. But what could some of these militia detachments not afford, made up as they were of the gilded youth of New Plymouth?

Charles Schaeffer appeared arrayed in the brand new regalia of a second lieutenant, a dignity to which his company had lately elected him. His epaulettes shone more brightly in the late summer sun than the brass model engines which had adorned his desk. I learnt with page 195 some irritation that our detachment—mules, stretchers, and I—was attached to his company.

Turmoil reigned in the camp. Everyone bustled about, each occupied with his own job. Some folded their tents, others cleaned their rifles. Mountain cannon were loaded on to mules, supplies were heaped up on the fourgons. Old Williams transferred his bottles and barrels from the canteen to his own wagon.

‘Are you coming too?’ I asked the old fellow.

‘What's left for me here? Where they fight, there they drink and spend their money. Soldiers on active service save nothing. Why should they when they don't expect to be alive tomorrow? I'm not a soldier and I can take care of my savings with a clear conscience.’

‘Why don't you take horses instead of bullocks?’

‘How do you suppose horses would survive in the bush? That's why there are only a few wagons following the column. Even the officers have to manage without their tents and baggage. Everyone carries his belongings on his back, even the commanding officer.’

‘Is Jenny going with you?’

‘How could I manage without her?’ replied the old man, as always answering one question with another. ‘She sells more than ten men. All the militiamen like her.’

‘Isn't she afraid of the fighting?’

‘Why should she be? What's new about it? Besides, he's going, as you know. She wouldn't stay here by herself.’

It was plain that the poor simpletons had no inkling of the latest plans of the secretary of Taranaki's first joint-stock oil company. They had no idea that every evening he recited his poems to Miss Arabella. They had not heard that society was exerting pressure on him to abandon the nigger girl unworthy of him.

The sound of many trotting hooves announced the arrival of the staff. It glittered with galloons and shone with leather accoutrements. Tempski was more soberly attired in the uniform of an English infantry major. By chance he noticed me.

‘How do you like the medical service?’ he called out.

Stiff as a ramrod, my right hand at the salute, I shot out: ‘Better than the pioneers, sir.’ It sounded like a seasoned trooper reporting to his commanding officer, a relationship which the major disdained in private.

‘Still, remember the Maoris don't respect either medical orderlies or pacifists.’

‘Thank you for your warning, sir. When the rest of the army runs page 196 away and exposes us to danger, I'll remember your advice and join you in time!’

The staff officers laughed.

‘Call on me some evening,’ said the major, spurring on his horse. ‘I'll find a glass of wine for a fellow countryman, even if he is only a private.’

That day we marched off along the coast in one long line of uniforms, mules, guns, bayonets, headed by flying colours and a brass band, with a baggage train bringing up the rear. Never had these shores seen such a magnificent display. Grey seagulls, edged with gold stolen from the sun, hung motionless in the air to watch the spectacle. Even the ocean waves scarcely stirred, and the watery waste was as smooth as a looking-glass to reflect our splendour. The pale hazy late summer sun slowly neared the horizon. The air was full of salt and fine sea spray, which floated invisibly around us. It was such a delightful evening as only occurs in these parts towards the end of summer and the beginning of autumn.

We camped beside the sea a fair distance from New Plymouth. Our outposts spread into the bushy hills which rose a little way from the shore. A flock of goose feathers in the sky foretold approaching rain, but no one thought of bad weather following so beautiful a sunset, and the band played ‘Rule Britannia’.

The sun had already gone down, the band had stopped playing. The crowd of ladies and elderly gentlemen who had escorted us to our first bivouac, in a long procession, in carriages or on horseback, prepared to go back to town. Before they left the troops lined up on parade, and all the civilians marched past in front of us. One of the carriages drove to our detachment, beside which stood a military surgeon.

I did not know him personally but I had seen him in town. I had heard that he was a Frenchman notorious for his eccentricity. According to rumour, he was odd and unbalanced. No one had any confidence in him as a physician. He was supposed nevertheless to be outstanding as a bone-setter, and it was in this capacity that he was employed in the militia. The doctor was one of those people who greatly enjoy the sound of their own voices. He sang all the time. No one knew what he was singing; virtually no one in New Plymouth understood French. Even now, in his military uniform, to the great disgust of the other officers, he hummed a song which I had once known but had long since forgotten.

The carriage stopped in front of him. In the half light of evening I saw several women in it. By their appearance I took them to be a page 197 mother and four daughters. They all had bright auburn hair and an abundance of freckles, and all sat stiffly in the crowded vehicle. No regular soldier held himself more stiffly than the ladies when they waved their handkerchiefs to the doctor and cried adieu.

The doctor accepted this warm tribute with a grimace. The carriage moved on. Soon it stopped before another officer. Again the handkerchiefs fluttered in the air and the shrill voices called—not ‘adieu’ this time, but an English ‘good-bye’. The stops and the farewells were several times repeated. The other carriages and riders were already gone but the ginger beauties seemed in no hurry. At last the troops broke rank. The officers scattered before the lingering ladies.

‘What's the meaning of the opéra comique farewell which the ginger ladies are giving to the cavaliers?’ I asked an officer who had been one of my colleagues in the commissariat.

‘Oh them! They are the Misses MacArthur,—a bunch of old maids,’ he replied. ‘Haven't you heard of them?’

‘I vaguely remember hearing about a parson's good lady who had arrived in New Plymouth with her daughters from England or Scotland.’

‘That's them. They spend their time visiting the best matrimonial markets in the colonies. They've already been to India, Melbourne and Auckland; and now they are favouring us with their presence. The money it must cost them to hunt for husbands! They cast far and wide for a suitable catch: officers, whalers, businessmen, squatters, even gold diggers! Since they came here, one of them has taken a fancy to that stupid French quack. He wouldn't swallow the hook. Today they have distributed cockades to most of the promising bachelors in the army, and now they are showing off in front of the whole column. That kind of woman is unknown in any society other than in India and the colonies. Because there are so few eligible young women, the local youths aren't too choosy and waste no time in their courting. The men in these parts often marry a week after first meeting their future wives. The gingery Misses MacArthur have a sporting chance here.’

The spinsters did not greatly interest me. I turned my attention to the surgeon. An exiled Pole takes a particular pleasure in meeting French people. In a colonial community he looks out for his natural friends and usually sticks to them. I had not so far met a single Frenchman in this country. The news that the surgeon came from the banks of the Seine, the thought that I could rattle away in French to my heart's content, filled me with jubilation. I meant page 198 to seek him out at once. But events took such a turn that evening and generally throughout the whole expedition, as I shall describe, that I could not attain my object. It was later, as my story will unfold, that I contrived to meet this unusual castaway, who had been dropped into the middle of the Pacific much as I had been myself.

Since I could not talk to him that evening I went to sleep. The night passed uneventfully and the morning dawned fine. We moved inland, pressing deeper and deeper into the thickets of flax, fern, and fir. We suffered an unexpected hailstorm followed by a gentle but persistent rain, which accompanied us for several days.