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Tikera; or, Children of the Queen of Oceania

Chapter XX My discovery enables me to learn more about Maori customs

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Chapter XX My discovery enables me to learn more about Maori customs

Quiet, please. The patient is asleep,’ whispered the little frail woman, who was dressed in a grey frock of antique cut and wore a black bonnet on her smooth hair. She sat by Jenny's bedside, to which I had been brought by the girl's one-eyed father. ‘A short while ago she was so distraught that I had to give her a potion to calm her.’ Then the Quaker woman added, ‘She will wake soon, for the wound is painful, very painful.’

‘I'll wait. I'm in no hurry,’ I told the Good Samaritan.

‘Sit down, then, and please be quiet. Here's a paper for you.’

I sat down with the paper in my hands, but not to read it. Instead I gazed at the exhausted face of the sleeping girl. Her head was sunk in the full white pillow. A spotlessly clean white nightdress draped her statuesque figure. Framed in all this feminine whiteness, her features seemed even browner and more aquiline than they were. Her long black tresses, as silky as ever, spread over the white bedclothes like melted tar. Never before had she appeared more like a strange exotic monument. If it had not been for the light movements of her bosom and her full lips, I would have taken her for a fragment of statuary.

Sitting there beside her I thought of all the injuries she had endured from me, from Charles, and from every white man she had met. Even her own father had harmed her by bequeathing to her the unquenchable ambition of his race. He had harmed her too by taking her away from her dark-skinned mother, even though he had left his elder daughter in happy ignorance of the joys and pains of the white world.

I glanced at him. The poor man had paid for all his past misdeeds. The girl he loved so passionately lay before him, betrayed, bedridden, and crippled for life. For all these reasons he loved her still more devotedly. A short time ago he had been a miserable drunkard: now he was keeping vigil at the bed of his beloved child.

We waited in silence for her to wake. The Quaker woman spoke to me only once: ‘You must have something important to say to her page 228 for her father to expose her to another emotional scene after the one we had an hour ago. You must realize that another upset like that might bring back the fever, which the drugs have almost driven away. Serious wounds always entail delirium, and we had to work hard to overcome her fever. Mind what I say, and be gentle and quick with her.’

I nodded my agreement. In a few moments Jenny awoke with a light groan. Probably pain had interrupted her sleep. Was it from the wound in her leg, or that in her heart? Her father bent over her and asked in a trembling voice:

‘Are you suffering?’

‘I did …. I had a frightful dream. I dreamt he left me.’ Then as she remembered their farewell she continued, ‘But I wasn't dreaming, was I? It happened.’

Then she turned her eyes to me. The old sparkling light which had tempted me in the past was quite gone. Though her eyes were still splendid and expressive, they did not burn with the animal passion of the untamed creature who was wont to kindle equally fiery emotions in the breasts of others. They were not defiant, as they once had been; nor did they promise that they would repay one loving look with a hundred others. They neither loved nor hated. All I could read there was resignation. Only when she recognized me did they light up a little.

‘You have always been my friend,’ said the sick girl. ‘You were good to me when I was well, and you are not abandoning me because I am a cripple.’

‘I must pay you all the more attention because you are lame.’

‘His conduct is different, very different.’

‘I know. And as I mustn't weary you with a long talk I shall come straight to the point and ask you about him. Did you really release him from all his vows and obligations?’

‘I couldn't do anything else. He is white, a nobleman, and has a great future. He can't marry a girl who's been cursed by her mother's kinsmen, whose father's people won't accept her, a girl who's a cripple. I couldn't demand that he ruin his future by making such a marriage.’

‘Your motives don't concern me—only the fact. If you have really renounced him, I can only ask your father whether he intends to avenge you. I want to remind him that if you have forgiven Charles neither he nor I has any right to seek revenge.’

‘I don't want to avenge my daughter,’ interrupted old Williams. ‘I was furious with him, but Jenny begged me to leave him alone. ‘I'll forget everything if only he'll keep away from us. If he went away, page 229 or the war ended and we could go back to our farm, I would ignore all the white people and live quietly with Jenny and my herds.’

‘We would be happy then,’ Jenny assured him.

‘In that case there's nothing more for me to do,’ I said, preparing to leave them. ‘Charles assured me that he would soon be leaving for Melbourne to look after Mr Wittmore's affairs there.’

‘Mr Wittmore?’ said the girl, her voice vibrant with indignation. ‘He promised me he'd break with that family.’

‘His friendship, not his business contacts. That's what he said to me.’

‘He'd better be telling the truth,’ muttered the old man. ‘If he ever showed off his pretty white wife in front of me, I might forget my promise to Jenny.’

The picture conjured up by her father's words was too much for the girl. Her eyes burnt with their old fire. Her former ambition and her desire to be loved had not weakened in intensity, and it was obvious too that a spark of her old Maori vengefulness still lingered.

‘Do you think he is telling the truth?’ she asked anxiously.

‘Who know's what he's thinking! There's no doubt that the young woman is fond of him and that he could have her if ….’

‘If what?’

‘If he wasn't afraid of me, of you, of your father—for the safety of his wretched carcass.’

‘No, no!’ denied the girl, hurt by my disparaging comment and rushing once more to the defence of her treacherous lover. ‘Don't say that in front of me. He isn't as cowardly as you make out. He vowed he didn't care for her.’

‘What if he did?’

The volcano had only been dormant. It erupted again in her blazing eyes and contorted features. ‘He mustn't try my patience,’ she said sharply. ‘I can bear everything, and forget everything, but I won't stand seeing her at his side. I still remember how haughtily she looked at me when I came here, and the white mob who gathered round the cart pointing maliciously at the nigger girl who was ready to give her life for her white lover. She stood at her door and gazed at me through her eyeglass. She said loudly enough for me to hear: “What a giantess! What do men see in that clumsy half-caste?” I could tolerate any other woman, but that … with her lily-white complexion and her golden hair and dressed as the angels must be. And her black, empty heart.’

‘Don't talk so much,’ the Quaker woman admonished. Turning page 230 towards me she added, ‘Now that you've finished your business why don't you go and stop upsetting her?’

Bending over the patient and squeezing her hand, I said: ‘Look after yourself, Jenny, and get well quickly. I'll see to it that you are left in peace.’

I left, so preoccupied with my thoughts of her that my original intention to expose the oil fraud quite vanished from my mind. The illuminated hands of the municipal clock were close on midnight. Their slow movement proclaimed that it was time to go to bed and gather strength for the next page in the book of life whose leaves we flick over from day to day. I reached my tent and lay down heavily on my bed, not even bothering to remove my boots.

I did not sleep for long. I was roused by an orderly from the company commander. He told me to report to the captain.

The captain was sitting on his bed, fully clothed despite the early hour, signing papers on a table improvised from a collection of boxes and cases. I waited at the entrance to the tent with other men from my company until he had finished what he was doing.

‘I am told that you are a good seaman,’ he said to me as he sealed his despatch.

‘Not bad, sir.’

‘You'll make the sixth seaman then. We're sending a detachment to Wanganui at General Cameron's request. You're to serve on the river, which is why we need men with some experience of boats. A schooner is waiting for you in the bay. The wind is favourable, and the general's in a hurry. You will report at the beach immediately.’

‘Sir …’ I had the courage to mumble.

‘There's no time for argument. About turn! Quick march!’

In five minutes I had packed my kit and was marching towards the sea. We were all surprised that we were marched not through the town but round its outskirts, along the beach. A sizeable Maori canoe, built especially to travel through surf, was already there. We clambered into it. The crew seized their long flexible paddles, bent their bodies, and with one swoop drove the canoe into the chaos of water and sand.

‘Hold on to the sides!’ someone shouted.

It was essential to grab something. A huge wave, all foam and roar, rolled over the boat half filling it with water. The boatmen, each dressed in oilskin and a large sou'wester, laughed at our soaking. The sodden troopers had to bale the water out of the canoe. It seemed a very long time before we moved over smooth water. A black schooner swung ahead of us with the grace of a wild swan, her slender masts page 231 tipped slightly backwards, pointing towards the circling stars. As best she could she hugged the easterly side of a huge rock in the inner bay while a brisk westerly stirred the roadstead.

Then came the solid thump of oars being shipped and the screech of the canoe's gunwale against the schooner. Calls for a rope ladder mingled with hearty swearing from the ship as the skipper upbraided the sleepy seamen for their dilatoriness in lowering the ladder to us. Then the shuffle of feet climbing up the shaky ropes like clumsy flies on a slippery wall; a groan from the capstan and the clatter of chains as the anchor was raised; the chant of the sailors hoisting the sails; the flapping of wind-swept canvas; the protesting creak of the yards in the playful wind which was trying to snatch them away; and finally the schooner, leaning a little into the wind, leapt down from the top of a wave, and then sailed up and out its other side, just as the hills surrounding the Taranaki bay caught the first glimpse of the morning sun.

Several civilian passengers were aboard the ship including a Jewish merchant from New Plymouth. I fell into conversation with him and discovered that my captain was one of the chief promoters of the new oil venture. He gave me this information quite casually in the course of conversation. I followed it by saying how shocked the shareholders would be when the Irishman's story came out. None of those present had taken part in the speculation: they were merely amused as the prospect of other people's disappointment.

It was easy to see why I had been despatched so speedily from Taranaki. Mr Schaeffer had given fresh proof of the energy which I had observed him employ in so many of his shady dealings. While I was busy paying a sentimental visit to the girl he had abandoned, he wasted no time; he cross-examined the Irishman and made ready his clever scheme for getting me out of town. Probably he let my captain into the secret. If he had, it would not be the first time that such shopkeepers in uniform had used the state of emergency prevailing in the province to further their private interests. If they gained only a week—a few days—perhaps even one day, it would be enough. A voyage under sail to the mouth of the Wanganui might take a day or a week—it would depend on the wind. However it was, they had time to sell their shares before any warning of mine from Wanganui could reach New Plymouth.

Despite favourable westerlies our journey lasted longer than I had expected. The skipper and some of the merchants on board, it transpired, had their own interests to consider. After we had rounded Cape Egmont the ship stood in to the shore. Several double canoes— page 232 Maori craft coupled together and bobbing up and down on the waves like seagulls—came out from a small bay. They quickly approached our ship. We soldiers assumed that they were enemy craft. The skipper assured us that the natives belonged to a friendly tribe and had been sent to the ship to receive a consignment of arms and ammunition. We believed him, never suspecting that a ship carrying Government despatches and men could be supplying arms to the same Government's enemies.

The canoes surrounded the ship. The Maoris were at once allowed on board. Rifles, ammunition, many other goods fell into their canoes. The merchandise included Bibles for the Christians, hatchets for the warriors, purple kerchiefs printed with white and yellow texts from the Maori Bible. These calico scarves were intended for the pious Maori women. The men would be better satisfied with muskets and barrels of brandy. The Maoris paid for the goods in cash, in whalebone (probably from a recently harpooned specimen), or in sacks of kauri gum.

A sudden scuffle broke out between a sailor and one of the natives. The latter claimed that he had been defrauded in an exchange of tobacco for fruit. The sailor maintained it was he who had been wronged. They came to blows. The sailor struck the Maori so violently that he knocked out one of his eyes. Before the skipper knew what was happening or could call his men to arms, the natives, probably acting on a preconceived plan, rushed on us. Those who opposed them were knifed. Those who surrendered were driven astern, away from the cabin in which the ship's firearms were stored. The schooner was theirs: we were their prisoners. The quarrel and scuffle together lasted scarcely more than quarter of an hour and ended disastrously for us. But we had been quite unprepared. How could we have resisted?

During the brawl, the helmsman perforce neglected the ship, which was hurled about by the wind and the waves like a ball kicked by a child, or a wanderer—hard-pressed by destiny—who leaves his home and can find no haven or purpose in life. The sails flapped uselessly against the masts and the yards. The schooner, making at least nine knots, headed straight for the shore, which rose in a sheer and apparently unbroken cliff against which the deep blue waves pounded in a white surf. Soon after the brawl, the terrified Europeans plainly saw that disaster was imminent. We could not navigate to the open sea: we were too close to the shore to manoeuvre the ship with any ease. A powerful wave could lift the schooner high against the cliff, throwing her at its granite face. When that happened the sea would quickly be spread with planks, beams, and bodies. There page 233 was no sign of any bay, haven, or beach, either natural or artificial, where we might shelter if we were wrecked. Several black rocks projected like deadly stings between us and land. Whenever the sea ebbed, it left a deep chasm of water above which the rocks rose streaming with cascades. Then a new wave leapt upon them in a green shroud, battering and enveloping them in its white mane, howling its intention to crush, grind into pulp, and carry away. Instead the exhausted wave disintegrated, slunk away, and died on its stony bed with a noise like metal chains rattling on an anvil. In the glare of the southern sun the foaming flood, glittering with all the riches of Golconda—diamonds, sapphires, rubies, topazes, and gold—showered the rocks on which our ship was doomed to fall. It seemed for all the world as though this line of rocks stretched in an unbroken barrier between us and the shore, leaving no passage between. The ridge swept along the shore marked only with patches of black and white. Fearsome and marvellous, magnificent and beautiful, it was also dreadful and mortally dangerous—a boiling realm of whirlpools, turbulence, and utter confusion to which we drew closer and closer.

‘We are lost!’ the pakehas wailed. And then they all—Jew, soldiers, seamen, and the rest—fell to their knees.

The Maoris said nothing and seemed to glance neither at us nor at the sea. Yet it was plain that they were not indifferent to the fate of the ship. Without any audible command being given some climbed up into the yards, others loosened the ropes on the port side and tautened them to starboard. One of the chiefs stood by the wheel.

The skipper, despite his terror, was unable to refrain from loud admiration of their calmness. ‘They must all have some knowledge of the sea,’ he exclaimed, ‘very likely on American whalers—that's the best training for seamen. Just watch the way they rolled up the yards to catch the wind so that the bows don't aim towards the rocks but will touch land at an angle. Good God! There must be a passage there. It can't be more than fifty paces wide. Even Nelson, if he were alive, or the Flying Dutchman, if he existed, wouldn't try to steer a vessel through such a tight twisting passage, flanked with such fearful reefs!’

True enough, the stretch of calmer water between the land and the rocks, although we could now see it quite plainly, seemed so narrow that I doubt whether even the Flying Dutchman in his ghostly ship, in which he has been travelling the globe these three hundred years, would have been able to pass into the haven sleeping calmly behind the rocky barrier, quite oblivious of the tumult outside.

Then, as the water began to stream over the starboard side, we page 234 heard a command from the Maori on the bridge who had assumed the role of skipper.

‘Steer off the wind … fast … square the yards … hurry up … keep before the wind … clear the deck … quickly … up the rigging … as high as you can.’

He issued these orders in plain though heavily accented English. Such men often know nothing of the English language except a few nautical commands. They are like Polish recruits to the Prussian army, who learn nothing from their instructors save imprecations and words of command.

We jumped to the rigging, for the waves were sweeping the deck clean, leaving nothing in their wake. The schooner turned about in response to the new skipper's bold command. Though her bow had been aimed towards the land, she now had the shore to port and the foaming sea and its rock to starboard. We changed direction at such giddy speed that I have never been able to understand how the Maoris were able to tauten the ropes, turn the sails, control the steering, and climb up into the rigging all at the skipper's command, in so short a time. I very much doubt whether a crack crew of Scandinavians or Englishmen could have done so well in such an instant—although it seemed to us as long as eternity.

In the twinkling of an eye, the schooner had slipped between the projecting rocks and the shore. It seemed to us that she leapt over the rocks rather than sailed between them and we thought for a moment that she would break up—but no, that was illusion. See, she is in calm water; she circles majestically and turns her bows towards the narrow gate through which she has made such a magnificent entry! Then the Maori skipper shouted: ‘Let the anchor go—quickly!’ A clatter, a splash, a screech, the rattle of chains, a quick flabby flutter of sails, and the ship stopped as if turned to stone. The Maoris had borne their prize away to a secret hiding place—a little harbour cut off from the land by cliffs and from the open sea by a wicked reef.

Who knows what might not have happened next! Who knows whether the Maoris might not have kept the vessel and murdered all its passengers and crew if one of the chiefs had not recognized the Jewish merchant. His companions were even then debating our fate, but he informed their leader of his find. Taking his courage in both hands, the Jew approached and greeted them both. His presence on board was soon known to all the Maoris: they gathered round him to show their friendship. To these followers of Pai Marire he was a saintly man. His presence on board the ship presented a real problem. What should they do with him and with the ship he had page 235 sanctified by his presence? The good man conducted himself admirably. Trading on their crazy beliefs, he threatened them with the vengeance of Atua if they did not release the ship and her crew, which had done them no harm—supplying them indeed with arms to use against the English. After a long debate, and after they had thoroughly ransacked the ship's stores, the Maoris allowed us to continue our journey. They took ceremonious leave of the Jew. But the seaman who had begun the morning's battle was hanged. After he had dangled from the yard for half an hour or so his body was lowered and they gouged out his eyes and devoured them—convinced that they were fulfilling the Holy Word by taking an eye for an eye.

The following day we departed from the bay through a wider passage. A day's sailing took us to the mouth of the Wanganui River which we reached in a very poor state. We were met there by a small steamer. When he learnt of our brush with the Maoris, her captain clapped the skipper and several of the merchants into irons, charging them with trading in arms with the enemy tribes.

‘You'll be shot!’ roared the sailor of the Queen pacing up and down his quarterdeck. ‘This damned war will never end if every dirty skipper—and in the Government's service too—keeps on supplying arms to the rebels. I'll take you back to New Plymouth the day after tomorrow and you'll be tried there. We'll make an example of you. Call yourselves Englishmen! You'd sell your country for a few sacks of kauri gum or whalebone!’

Taking advantage of a momentary pause in this tirade, I asked for permission to speak to him. ‘Sir, are you taking us to General Cameron's headquarters?’

‘Yes, I am.’

‘Are they very far from here?’

‘Only a few hours’ journey at high water, but with this tide we'll have to tow you all day before we get there.’

‘Are you going back to New Plymouth after you've taken us there?’

‘Yes, as I said I would. I want these dirty shopkeepers to be severely punished. If they were in uniform they would face a court martial: as it is, the local court must see that justice is done. Civilians or not they needn't expect any mercy. Under the emergency regulations anyone who supplies arms or ammunition to the rebels is liable to be hanged. They knew very well whom they were dealing with. Part of your detachment will accompany me to testify that the skipper and his crew gave the Maoris rifles, gunpowder, and brandy.’

‘Could you make me one of the party, sir?’


page 236

‘Sir, you are a decent man, a stranger here, and probably have no part in this oil speculation. Am I right?’

‘I am in the Queen's service. I don't supplement my pay by gambling.’

‘Will you listen to my story, sir?’

I gave him a full account of my relationship with my company commander, and the oil frauds which had caused my exile from New Plymouth.

‘You're making a very serious accusation against your commanding officer,’ said the captain when I had finished my story.

‘I can prove it if you send me back there, sir.’

‘I'll send you back all right. This is a very serious business. I'll speak to the Commander-in-Chief about it. Can you give me any guarantee that you have not invented the whole thing in order to get yourself back to Taranaki?’

‘Major Tempski knows that I'm an honest man. The day before I was hustled away he sent me a note inviting me to his house.’

Luckily I still had the note in my pocket. It helped to influence General Cameron's decision. Two and a half days after my arrival in Wanganui I left it again aboard the tiny Wasp for the capital of Taranaki. A few hours later I was able to show her captain the mysterious Maori harbour and the passage we had used.

‘By jove!’ exclaimed that brave sailor, ‘I wouldn't have the courage to take the Wasp there, even if the steam hissed in her boilers like a hundred devils and her steering was infallible. To take a sailing boat through …. They must be mad or …. heroes!’ After a short silence, he added, ‘They're heroic all right What a waste of good men.’