Tikera; or, Children of the Queen of Oceania
Chapter XVIII Tikera proves that her sojourn in town has not softened her
Chapter XVIII Tikera proves that her sojourn in town has not softened her
I sat by the fire meditating on the erudite and enterprising adventurer whom yesterday's mishap had once more made a slave. He would not be able to get away from these captors as easily as he had from our common prison a few weeks earlier. If they managed to evade our pursuit they would surely take him north to manufacture gunpowder for them. If they fell into our clutches his fate would be even less enviable. The Maoris kill their prisoners sooner than allow them to be rescued.
As though in answer to my thoughts I heard a voice above me cry: ‘Save him!’
I raised my head. I could not believe my eyes. Jenny Williams towering over me dressed like the Tikera of yore, whose shining eyes and full lips had been present in my imagination as I thought about her lover. ‘Where have you sprung from?’ I called to her. ‘I thought you stayed with your father, and surely he is still in the last bivouac, where we left the wagons.’
‘How could I stay with Father when he is there?’ She pointed to the west where the steepest mountains and densest bush stood out against the starry curtain of night.
‘So you have deserted your father?’
‘I have, although he watched me closely.’
‘How did you manage to follow us up here?’
‘Your trail is clear enough.’
She said it quite calmly, as though it was entirely natural for a young woman to spend twelve hours walking through these backwoods.
‘You've tired yourself out in vain. He isn't here.’
‘He is not far away. My eyes are sharper than yours. They are even sharper than the eyes of your guides, which see nothing because they want to see nothing. From a hill behind the camp I saw fires glowing. He will be where their fires are.’
‘What fires do you mean?’page 207
‘The fires of the Waikatos, the Taranakis …. He must be there.’
‘What do you want me to do?’
‘To pay ransom for him—to rescue him somehow.’
‘Will they return him?’
‘They will if you and I see to it.’
‘For God's sake, Jenny, what do you think I can do? If I go anywhere near them those savages will either shoot me or make me a prisoner like Charles.’
‘No they won't. You have a friend there.’
‘You told me yourself that you had only to move your finger and Pehi would have died. The Maoris remember injuries, but they remember good turns too.’
‘I wouldn't be able to get to the old man. The Maoris guard their camps better than we do. They wouldn't let me see the prophet.’
‘But I can get to him. They can't bar the road to the daughter of Tauranga. And even if they barred all the approaches and had sentries at every pass I would overcome them all. They would all be in vain.’
‘Suppose I'm not allowed to leave camp?’
‘Tell them why you want to go, and you will be. Ask your company commander, go to the major himself. You told me you are both from the same country. Oh, no … no … they'll let you go … they have feelings. I beg you, go and get their consent.’
‘Why do you want my help?’
‘I want you to go and see the old chief. I'll bring him to you. At your request he will free the prisoner and repay his debt of his own life with Charles. That's our custom. Will you go?’ she concluded, her arms about my neck.
‘I must say I don't feel very enthusiastic about exposing myself to a nocturnal stroll, wounds, perhaps even death—and all for whom? Do you think I care a rap for your beloved? I've learnt too many discreditable things about him. I'm sure he has betrayed you and I pity you. All your exertions will earn you only ingratitude.’
The girl drooped her head towards me and once again I felt her warm breath. Her silky curls tickled my face. I brushed away this temptation perhaps a little too abruptly. Ignoring my movement she whispered: ‘You so often promised to care for me. Don't you owe me anything for your freedom? Won't you go with me?’
She saw that I still hestitated and added very softly, her voice scarcely louder than the rustle of the evening breeze or the crackling page 208 of the fire. ‘Rescue him and you will save me too.’ She wrung her hands and lifted her eyes to heaven. Tears rolled down her swarthy cheeks. She resembled a statute of Niobe carved from some sombrecoloured marble.
‘My poor, poor girl. I'll do anything to save you. But I strongly suspect that his rescue will be your undoing. Had he vanished for good, you would eventually have forgotten him. If he returns and then vanishes in town, this time of his own free will, you will never recover from the blow. What will you have left but your shame?’
‘At least I will avenge my shame. If you don't want to save him for my love's sake, do it in vengeance. Many people have told me what he is like. I know it all, and have little hope. But I mustn't neglect anything that might help. Save him … save me!’
She begged and sobbed, softening me with her tears, flattering me with her caresses, and recalling all my old obligations. What was I to do? I asked the captain for leave of absence, and once I had explained the whole business he granted his permission.
So we set off. I held her hand firmly, like a blind beggar being led by his guide, and followed her with hesitant steps—or rather, I slid and crawled among the trees and fallen trunks. Sometimes she would hack the way clear with her knife, and then both of us would push the dense creepers aside. I have never properly understood whether it was instinct or her knowledge of the place which guided us on that expedition, for she could seldom glimpse the stars through the thick curtain of foliage which shut us in from the open sky. From time to time she pointed to a pink haze floating over the forest. We would see this bright mirage as we stood atop a rocky hill higher than the surrounding trees and falling away on every side save the one we had climbed and were to descend. These labyrinthine rocks frequently ending in vertical cliffs were so dangerous that I dared not take a single step forward without her consent, and feared that one false move would hurl me down a precipice to my death.
After an hour of this arduous advance I heard the ripple of water and felt large round basalt boulders beneath my feet. The glare of Maori fires painted the surrounding rocks a vivid scarlet. I was more than a little alarmed by the strange appearance of their fantastic shapes, brightly coloured on one side by the light escaping through the bushes. I had the impression that we had penetrated into a subterranean domain ruled over by mysterious gnomes. Above me soared the vaults of large caves, and all around were rocky arches and capitals, entwined with leafy festoons.
Jenny silently gathered a few logs, handfuls of dry grass, and some page 209 bark. She set fire to the grass with a match and in a moment the resinous bark blazed like a torch. The flame was very bright. In its trembling light the trees and rocks quivered in a lunatic St Vitus's dance. She led me some hundred paces from the fire.
‘Wait here for me—for us, rather—and don't go near the fire. Once they notice it they may start shooting in this direction. Watch the fire closely. When you hear the cry of a kiwi, answer it. When I call again you can approach the fire safely. Don't answer any other signal.’
She disappeared without further explanation. After some fifteen minutes I noticed a human form move stealthily among the trees and hide behind the rocks. A second and then a third figure appeared momentarily, and vanished. Again I glimpsed them, closer to the fire. They came nearer and nearer. I caught sight of them only when the fire outlined their figures. They crawled like serpents, leapt through the patches of light like cats, and strained their ears like dogs. These were the Maori scouts trying to discover who had lit the fire. If they found me before the girl returned my expedition in search of the prisoner was likely to end suddenly—and not too well for me.
They did not find me. After lying silently behind a rock for another half hour I again saw human figures by the fire. Among them I detected a woman's form. I heard a kiwi's shrill cry. I replied with a poor imitation. When another call came from the direction of the fire I emerged from hiding and found myself among the Maori chiefs.
Not a muscle of their faces moved at my appearance. Their look was uniformly severe. Even the ‘sackful of bones’ merely continued to smoke his smelly pipe, shaking as if with the ague. I knew that their impassivity was a pretence. The Maoris like the Red Indians are unwilling to give away their feelings by gestures or facial expressions.
Jenny acted as interpreter.
‘Does the pakeha claim the debt of life?’ asked the youngest chief, whom the girl introduced as the famous Rewi.
Rewi addressed the old man with all the reverence which we show to our greatest dignitaries. This served to remind me that old Pehi was something more even than the representative of the king. He stood for the power of theocracy. The tohunga, the missionary, and the prophet of Pai Marire could all sway the Maoris as they wanted. In this the Maoris differ little from many nations enjoying a considerably higher level of civilization whom the theocratic caste has abused for centuries.page 210
Old Pehi embarked on a long discourse. Most probably he was describing his escape to the young chief. All present listened to him with strict attention, but none of them would look at me. They deliberated the matter with all the solemnity of a mediaeval secret tribunal. Their features afforded no clue as to their probable verdict. Only Jenny's face served as an indicator of what was going on: sometimes it reflected a deep anxiety, sometimes hope. Obviously the votes were divided. I surmised that the chiefs from the north, to whom the prisoner undoubtedly belonged, were unwilling to return him. Several times Rewi held up his outspread fingers, presumably offering an exchange of a number of other prisoners. Two, three, and finally four fingers were plainly to be seen in the light of the blazing fire, stretched towards the noses of his kinsmen. One of them, with a gesture towards his shoulders, showed (as I guessed) that a prisoner with epaulettes outweighed four privates. Eventually I understood their bargain. Rewi was exchanging his prisoners for the second lieutenant. At last they all agreed on the terms.
‘You will receive the reward for your debt of life,’ Rewi said to me through the interpreter. ‘Wait here until he comes. From now until dawn no one will bar your way to the pakeha camp. But if we catch you anywhere thereafter we shall treat you like any other redcoat.’
‘Would you treat me as your enemy?’ I protested through Jenny.
‘We have never considered you our friend. You took pity on Pehi, and therefore we are in your debt. We acquit ourselves from that debt by giving you these few hours’ grace. That is our custom. If you do not accept our conditions, the fault will be yours. We now owe you nothing.’
These were the last words I heard from the chiefs. I was left alone with the girl, who irritated me by expressing her thanks in the coarse way natural to such an expansive rustic creature. The arrival of Charles with a guide pleased me greatly. Her passion found an outlet in him, who had a better right to her violent embraces and abundant tears.
He was glad to see us too. He hugged her repeatedly, and embraced me—and even the guide, who was visibly shocked by such lack of restraint. The shiny piece of gold I gave him appealed to him far more than did Charles's overflowing sentiments. Thanks to my sovereign he led us a fair distance towards our camp along a passable road. This time I did not bump my forehead against the branches or rub against the malicious thorny bushes which lurk in the forest to give the traveller bruises or a scratched nose. My walk with Jenny had not been so trouble-free. The path took us back to the camp page 211 in less than an hour, but, as we discovered later, led us to the opposite wing from that in which our company was quartered. When the guide had left us my two companions were in no hurry to meet other people. Mr Schaeffer behaved as though he had never spent his evenings reading poetry to Miss Arabella. He babbled ceaselessly of his gratitude to the sweet creature who had returned him to life and freedom. The echo of their tender affections roused the sylvan dryads and reminded them of their own love affairs with the ubiquitous Pan. ‘Who knows,’ I thought, ‘whether this proof of her love and the memory of her efforts on his behalf will not at length rouse his sense of duty, of noble pride—perhaps even real love. Perhaps her devotion will drive from his fickle heart the overweening ambition which has lately made him ignore the poor girl so entirely.’
It was now light enough to differentiate between the surrounding shades of green, the various brown nuances of the dry leaves, and the pearly grey mist lying heavily above the trees and bushes encircling the camp. Before we got within firing range of our sentries, I said to Charles, ‘In half an hour the breathing space the Maoris gave us will be up. Luckily we are among our own people, and need fear no pursuit.’
‘Their threat was just Maori bragging,’ interrupted Jenny. ‘The warriors must have left that camp an hour ago. If they hurry anywhere it certainly won't be in this direction.’
‘Do they make such an early start?’
They have to. They want to scatter over a wide area. The Maoris know these woods well. Tempski will never succeed in forcing them into the open. Some of them will sacrifice themselves for the rest, and hurriedly build a pa to check the advance of the English troops until the tracks of their fleeing comrades are too indistinct even for the friendly Maori guides to read.’
‘By waging war like this they can harry the English for some years yet,’ I said to Charles.
‘Until they are gradually exterminated. All the Maori wars have been a series of attacks and flights, and the sacrifice of small numbers to save the majority. In another fifty years there'll only be a handful of them left. Let's gol Let's go!’ he shouted. ‘Yesterday they starved me to such an extent that the smell of the very smoke of the campfires is tempting. Breakfast is more welcome now even than your kissing,’ he added to his mistress, kissing her unashamedly in contradiction of his cynical remark.
We continued on our way, she gazing lovingly at him, I listening to the morning song of a parson bird which was balanced on a branch page 212 watching us suspiciously with its little black eyes while it chanted its matins. Preoccupied though Jenny was with her lover, she was alert enough to notice something which alarmed her. With a gasp she tore her hand from the clasp of her beloved and threw herself in front of him, covering him with her breast and outstretched arms. I glanced at her face. Through sudden fear it had become as green as verdigris, as swarthy people do when they turn pale. I tried to guess from her staring eyes the direction from which danger was approaching. Her pallid features were turned directly towards a rifle barrel, aimed at us from the distance of a hundred paces. The soldier could see no one but her, for she was almost as big as I and a whole head taller than Charles, and obscured us both.
Before I could draw out my handkerchief the rifle vanished in a cloud of smoke and a clap of thunder. The poor girl fell to the ground stained with her own blood.
Charles bent over her. I, fearing another shot, frantically waved my handkerchief and shouted for help. A patrol ran forward, recognized us as friends, and cursed the silly recruit who in his eagerness had fired without first challenging us.
‘She'll be all right,’ said someone, who might have been soldier, seaman, and medical orderly in one. He dressed the wound nimbly and quickly. ‘He aimed low and only got her in the leg. If the bone is broken an early amputation will save her life.’
‘An amputation!’ I thought, watching Charles, who appeared to be at his wits' ends. Perhaps his despair was genuine. Unfortunately, his heart was as changeable at April weather and as impressionable as soft clay. Even with all the obligation he owed this daughter of a criminal and a Maori slave would he be true to a young cripple?
The soldiers improvised a stretcher from branches and brush to carry the wounded girl into camp. The same day a section of the medical detachment to which I belonged left the camp with mules and casualties to return to the supply column. With them went Jenny. A sad gift she made for her drunken father, who sobered at once at the sight of his child. Tearing his ginger sidewhiskers and rubbing his freckled forehead, he cursed war and love in the same breath. He abandoned his mobile canteen to the mercy of the soldiery (who took full advantage of the opportunity), paid a large fee to one of the young surgeons who had joined the expedition for pleasure (for since he was serving on a ship which was only temporarily in New Zealand waters he was not obliged to join the militia), and took him with his daughter back to New Plymouth on his cart. In a few days we followed them after two days of pursuit and the conquest page 213 of a small pa which was defended to the last by a hundred natives. We had been obliged to use our cannon before we ventured to take the stronghold by assault. After its fall we had no hope of following the scattered Waikato warriors, who had left no track. Among the dead in the pa we found only local tribesmen. The corpse of the ‘sackful of bones girt with a string’ was among them. His boast that no enemy bullet could destroy his prophet's body had been proved false.