Tikera; or, Children of the Queen of Oceania
Chapter XXII Mr Wittmore falls between Scylla and Charybdis
Chapter XXII Mr Wittmore falls between Scylla and Charybdis
The militia marched away soon after my conversation with the major. Thanks to his kindly care I was left behind to receive ammunition from Auckland and dispatch it to the front line. My days passed by in counting and checking types of cartridges, and in rolling cannon balls. Frankly, playing with these miniature volcanoes, which might easily explode if carelessly handled, had little appeal for me. Nor was I any too fond of tossing the balls hand to hand up a long chain from the boat which we were unloading until they came to rest in an ammunition cart.
The town became considerably quieter but did not empty as much as I had expected. First, thanks to confidential machinations and a weakening of martial zeal, many influential people managed to evade active service. So, for example, Mr Charles Schaeffer, at the request of two physicians who found him to be in poor health, was granted leave of absence. Secondly, a number of labourers, who were exempt from military service on the grounds of their advanced age, had arrived from elsewhere. They had come because rumour had reported that the local crude oil came from some peculiar deposits of coal which had produced the precious liquid by a process of distillation. So use was to be made of this strange material. Tunnels were dug into the hills which were supposedly lined with wealth. And who do you think was behind the new scheme? None other than my erstwhile travelling companion.
Despite the resounding fiasco of Starvegut Farm, he had not lost his popularity—particularly when his initial failure was rapidly followed by a new scheme to promote riches. Apart from the discovery of the wonderful coal he demonstrated quite irrefutably that the black sand which covered the beaches along the bay contained a high percentage of iron as good in quality as the Swedish ore. The local population had long known that the countryside was rich in iron ore, but his discourse and preliminary tests proved conclusively that it could be used to manufacture steel equal to Sheffield blades, or wire as thin and flexible as the best sewing needles. From gratitude for these discoveries he was acclaimed the benefactor of the nation.page 249
It was entirely forgotten that only a few weeks earlier he had enjoyed the reputation of a common trickster. Besides, as many a colonial moralizer said, it is difficult to blame a man for carrying out a clever trick in order to recoup his finances after a disastrous speculation. Moreover, since he had started from scratch without any capital, he was allowed the privilege of not being too choosy in his methods of making money.
While Charles's reputation continued to soar, the health of poor neglected Jenny also improved. Already she could hobble round her room, and soon the cloppity-clop of her crutches could be heard in the little garden. When they struck the tiny shells with which the garden paths were thickly strewn, her pensive father would be roused from his brooding. The town gossip was kept from them by their protective Quaker nurse, whom I had persuaded to silence on the subject of the successes of the patient's more mobile acquaintances. Jenny rejoiced at her own return to health: the old man spent much of his time gazing with half-seeing eyes at the lame creature in constant need of support whom he recalled as a nimble giantess capable of carrying him effortlessly from one room to another. Sometimes he would leave her and go for a walk along the beach to the site of a Maori encampment. Probably he was looking for sympathy from the warm-hearted natives. Finally, it was difficult to hide even from this pair of recluses what the newspapers printed about the imminent departure of Mr Schaeffer for Australia where he was to buy equipment for the distillation of crude oil and for establishing a foundry to exploit the coastal ore. The flattering observations about the noble European who had fallen in love with this young colony and intended to devote his energies and ability to it, and about the estate which awaited him in the Old World, were supplemented by expressions of satisfaction that even in this little town, so beset by difficulties and dangers, there could be found a person who by her beauty and sensitivity was truly worthy of this paragon of virtue. The young couple was wished an auspicious journey to Melbourne, a honeymoon which would give them both a foretaste of Paradise, and a safe return to the community which would be plunged into darkness by their departure, a darkness which would only be lifted by their return. This is the kind of stuff with which the colonial newspapers fill their columns, for, although they are quite modest in size, they are still too large for the local theatre they serve which is more modest still. Flattery of the powerful subscribers, who advertise well and often, keeps the pages and cash box full.
Several times of an evening I caught Jenny with some such news- page 250 paper account in her hands. The crutches leaning against her chair reflected the glimmering light. They trembled as the chair did, and both movements were caused by her unsteady hands. The landlady and I guessed what lay behind it. Did her father know? I doubt it, for he never asked any questions or read any newspapers.
One day after leaving the invalid I was crossing the road to the hotel where I was putting up, the one in which I had earlier encountered Patrick. I was wondering what could have happened to the rogue when once again I felt a touch on my shoulder. The man himself greeted me in his usual familiar fashion.
‘I've some business with you,’ he said unceremoniously.
Although his touch burnt me like the fires of hell and his company filled me with the nausea which I normally associate with toads I took him to my room. I lit the lamp. Its rays showed me the inflamed features and glassy eyes of the inveterate drunkard. Patrick must have indulged in a drinking orgy lasting several days, such as is known in the colonies as a ‘spree’. On these occasions the drinker treats himself, his friends, and even all those present in the inn, so long as his money lasts.
‘I have business with you,’ he said again and again in the pauses between his hiccups. He sat down in a chair with the comical solemnity of a drunk man who is pretending to be sober.
I replied that the present state of his mind and health did not favour a serious business conversation.
‘Do you think I am drunk?’ he asked me, grimacing at this slight to his pride. ‘No, sir! Today I am as sober as a judge. Yesterday I was as drunk as a lord. Today I have been sober all day long. Scarcely ten glasses would that miserly landlord let me have on credit. I don't feel well: my hands are a bit shaky. I wouldn't mind a drop of something to fortify me. Would you order me a glass of brandy? I'd bless you for that.’
I guessed that his visit was not without purpose, so I went to fetch the brandy—a quarter of a litre of it, the quantity served in the colonies, in small tumblers of very thick glass. This modest drink is known as a ‘nobbler’.
Thus fortified, he winked his left eye, bulged out his left cheek with his tongue, and, lifting a finger to his forehead, nodded gravely. All this, and particularly the last gesture, plainly indicated that Patrick had something important to communicate.
‘Anything unusual to tell me?’ I inquired.
Patrick showed me his half-closed hand in a kind of ladling gesture, implying that he had plenty to relate.page 251
‘What is it then?’
‘All I know is that your Dutch friend is a first-rate scoundrel.’
I pricked up my ears. An English proverb has it that when thieves fall out honest men may come into their own. Who knows what might be the outcome of the present quarrel!
‘Has he swindled you?’ I asked.
‘Has he swindled me! Do you know that for this whole oil business he only gave me a hundred pounds. And I had to wait a good few weeks for even that paltry sum—he wouldn't pay it straight away.’
‘They certainly didn't pay you much for your silence!’
‘They certainly did not. I had spent it all in no time. And today, the pubkeeper says “No more credit”. So I go to the German and ask for money. “What for?” he says. Can you credit it? He asks me why I want money! “What for?” I say—“For the thousand pounds you earned when I didn't put you in gaol!” Then he asks again why I need money. I say I don't feel well and need to be fortified. He says that soon I'll fortify myself to death. That's none of his business, is it?’
‘Did he give you any money or not?’
‘He didn't. I threatened that I'd spill the beans.’
‘What did he say to that?’
That I can say what I like. He is so well in the saddle, he says, that nothing can harm him. He says no one will listen to me: my story is no more than gossip, for you are my only witness, and if I talk too much he'll get me locked up. The doctor has disappeared, the workers have vanished too, and I'll come to a bad end in the long run. When he goes away the doctor will come back, but I won't have much success there either. And he isn't even afraid of a lawsuit, for all his property will be in his wife's name. At last he threatened that he would call a constable—threatened me, his benefactor—if I didn't go away.’
‘He'd have done it too. The doctor and the workers have gone. It's impossible to reopen the case.’
‘But suppose I knew where to find them?’
‘Could you find them? Where are they?’
‘What's the bush there for? What do they have friends there for? And the farms? Do you really think I don't know where the law could put its finger on them?’
‘Do you know where in the bush, or on which farms, they are hiding?’ I asked hopefully.
‘I didn't waste my money when I treated all and sundry last week. Pat may be drunk but he's still got ears. I heard quite a bit from the page 252 bushmen and farmers who had such a good time on my money. I pieced together enough to be able to find the doctor in a couple of days. And I can find the others easily enough. The bushmen always know when there are strangers in the neighbourhood, though it's never any of their business why they are there. Pay them enough and they'll show you where they're hiding out.’
The Irishman's story buzzed round my head. Undoubtedly, the old drunkard's help would allow the Crown prosecutor to clear up Mr Schaeffer's little plot. No matter how leniently public opinion judged the abuse of speculation, with all the tolerance in the world it would be outraged if someone could only show Schaeffer's conduct, and that of his partners, in its proper perspective.
Yet I was not really concerned with punishing my former companion for the sake of revenge. On the contrary, I pitied the poor nomad who had been made so selfish by the unhappy circumstances of his youth and the absence of any real home life. Perhaps he suffered more for it than anyone else. But I pitied even more the proud family with which he was now all too closely associated, and feared that the blot on his name would stain them all. I recalled the little episode when the pretty girl had defended me so warmly against her fiancé. Why should I allow disgrace to fall on people who had never harmed me? I could warn them, nay even compel them, to sunder relations with the adventurer, send him out of town without any scandal or fuss, and close the case once and for all. From all I knew of Mr Wittmore I believed he would accept the plan. I could not have foreseen that this adamantine soul, whose main purpose in life seemed to be the accumulation of money and the improvement of his social position, would be like wax in the hands of his beloved daughter. At that time I knew nothing of the strange permissiveness of colonial parents.
I gave Patrick a pound, which I facetiously referred to as a loan, to amuse himself and keep his silence until the following day. When he had gone, I looked at my watch.
It was nine o'clock.
I donned my hat and set out along the main street. I passed the gaol and the Methodist chapel—the oldest buildings in the town—which stood vis-à-vis one another. As soon as the pioneers of civilization step ashore they erect a church and a gaol, and post a clergyman with a cross and a collection plate before the former, and a constable with a truncheon before the latter. Between them they rule the community with the threat of imprisonment in this life and eternal damnation in the next, never suspecting that their authority might be page 253 established on much firmer ground by love and education. The man I was going to see truly believed in the effectiveness of both institutions. He was a typical specimen of a society which during six working days concentrates on increasing its wealth without crossing the spiderthread boundary of morality, and on the seventh goes off to church where by singing hymns it hopes to forestall the penalties of the Judge whose sharp eyes see everything, even those things which the Crown prosecutor and the constable can ignore. Cleverly avoiding gaol and excusing themselves from Hell, such people sleep well, enjoy a good appetite, and live in peace with their own conscience and public opinion.
I approached Mr Wittmore's house. Behind the high iron railings a young couple were strolling in the dark, lost as usual to the world outside. I paused for a moment and overheard a few words of their conversation as they walked along a winding path beside the railings. Once again I learnt the lesson that eavesdroppers seldom hear good of themselves. The man bent towards the woman so nearly that their cheeks almost touched, and he pronounced my name—with an unflattering addition. The existence of his enemy clearly preoccupied him, even when he was with his beloved.
As I made to move off I heard a faint rustle on the lawn beside the railings. A figure in a long black or navy blue coat leaned forward from the plantation of young English trees—here cultivated as carefully as we cultivate roses at Home. Whoever it was trailed the lovers stealthily. It must be a spy—but who? From what I could see I could have sworn that it was old Williams.
Half a mile further on I stopped in front of a huge building like a square box on which a sign announced ‘Wittmore and Co., Ship Chandlers’. Here was the object of my expedition.
I knew where the back entrance to the private office was; and I moved round the building towards it. The window of the master's room showed light. I rang. He himself opened the door. When I stepped forward he pulled rather a wry face but shook my hand nonetheless and led me into his sanctum.
In its own way, the office struck me as being a somewhat peculiar place. Order and disorder reigned in it side by side. For all the rigorous tidiness of the bills and ledgers, each neatly upon its hook or shelf, the space along the walls was cluttered with boxes, tins, cases, and barrels of all descriptions and shapes. Their labels revealed the great variety of goods stocked there: they ranged from herrings and salmon to salted meat, candied fruit, and dehydrated potatoes. The place had practically everything.page 254
‘Business is so good that we haven't enough room in the shop,’ said Mr Wittmore, observing my astonishment at this unpleasantly smelling accumulation of comestibles crowding the room. ‘We'd have to build on if we didn't spread the stock through the offices, the passages, any other available space. Frugality is the mainstay of business and building costs are high these days, especially with the shortage of labour. So we are making do by using my office as a temporary warehouse.’
‘What you say about frugality makes me conscious of my demands on your time. So I won't keep you with excuses for the lateness of my call. I'll get straight to the point.’
With this brief introduction I explained concisely what the Crown prosecutor and I had learnt about the doctor's perjury.
‘Why should I be concerned with the doctor's doings—or those of his bribed witnesses?’
‘That's not the whole story. Someone much nearer to you is involved in this.’
‘Do you mean to renew your accusations against my daughter's fiancé? I know you're jealous of his success.’
‘You're wrong there. If I continue to meddle in his affairs it's only because I'm thinking of other people. He has never harmed me personally.’
‘None of this is your business. These other people don't need your help. They can look after themselves extremely well. Charles has told me about a brush he had with that hussy's father. He actually threatened him with bloody revenge.’
‘So they have met again. When?’
‘Yesterday. The old fool accosted Charles when he was leaving our house last night. It's a wonder he didn't strike him. He said he had a gun ready for him if he married my daughter. Apparently he was so worked up that he became quite incoherent.’
‘It would be quite in character for him to take such action.’
‘Oh, it's not so easy, Our law anticipates such cases. If a lawabiding citizen is threatened with murder, maiming, or physical harm by a ruffian, the offender can be called before the court and ordered to pay a large sum of money as a guarantee that he will not disturb the Queen's peace.’
‘Do you really think that would deter Mr Williams from putting his threat into action? He'd be prepared to lose his whole property if it would help him to satisfy his justified rancour.’
‘We'll see to it that he doesn't harm anyone. You can tell him that other people, no less shrewd that he, are seeing to it that nothing page 255 happens to Mr Schaeffer. It so happens that he has met his match. Violence will achieve nothing,’ he said, striking the table with his fist and almost overturning the inkstand.
‘It looks to me as if you want this marriage.’
‘No … no,’ he replied with pretended indifference. ‘Still, I don't want a man like Mr Schaeffer, from a good family, with ability and a great future—who is doing us a great honour by staying in this town—to have to change his plans because of some ignorant adventurers. My dear sir, we stand here on English soil and under the English flag, the emblem of order, law, and protection. We have no room for jealousy.’ So saying, he preened like a fighting cock, with the characteristic English arrogance at the thought that he lived under a government specially constituted to protect even a fishmonger's daughter, and to exert all its power to enable her to marry the scion of a feudal family.
‘I'm really surprised by your eagerness for this aristocratic union,’ I said, quite disregarding his fiery outburst. ‘If you were contemplating a penniless English squire as a son-inlaw, I could understand it: but this foreign adventurer—whose expectations are really very uncertain! After all, you reached your present position by your own exertions, and you should be free of such vanity.’
‘Have you come here to tell me how to behave?’ exclaimed Mr Wittmore indignantly. (He was angry because his logical argument had not impressed me.) ‘If so, we have nothing more to say to one another. Time is money, and I have to go through my accounts today.’
He sat down immediately and began writing busily in red ink in a ledger full of black figures.
‘I haven't come to teach you anything. I've got news for you. Will you listen to me?’
‘Be quick about it.’
I told him of my second meeting with the Irishman, of his quarrel with Arabella's fiancé, and its cause. I also told him of the Irishman's threatening demeanour and determination to hand Mr Schaeffer over to the Crown prosecutor. Wittmore listened to me, at first with a mocking smile, later with obvious dissatisfaction, and finally with very close attention. He did not move his eyes from me, judging the truth of my story by my facial expression.
When I had ended I asked: ‘What do you say to that?’
‘Where is the Irishman?’
‘I'll bring him here tomorrow.’
‘Come at midday. I'll have to see the Crown prosecutor first. I'll page 256 come to a decision when I've heard what you all have to say. Goodnight.’
He began to write busily, carefully hiding his contorted features.
At noon on the day following, the Irishman and I entered Mr Wittmore's emporium. The proud merchant of yesterday had quite vanished. In his place I found a tired old man with a pale wrinkled face who paced up and down the shop with his hands behind his back, quite oblivious of the many customers and the assistants who attended to them. The book-keeper called from his office quite in vain. One of the assistants solicited his help, probably to ask whether he might reduce the price of some article which a lady customer fancied but found too expensive. Mr Wittmore attended only to us. When he saw us he snatched up his hat and invited us to accompany him home.
We went along the street, up the garden path, on to a verandah lined with exotic pot-plants, into the house. It was a mixture of English comfort and colonial exaggeration. Everything was new, very new, and expensive, very expensive. If there had been a price-tag attached to each piece of furniture the illusion of looking into the window of an elegant shop would have been complete. We repaired to the master's study which was furnished with rocking chairs. Containing as it did objects which ordinary mortals could use, it was a good deal more inviting than the other rooms. He invited us to be seated.
‘Sit down! Sit down!’ he prompted, throwing himself on to a small sofa. ‘This is the only room in the house where I can smoke a cigar and lock the door. My good ladies are very house-proud. They can't stand smoking and the ashes that fall on to the carpet. Luckily they are so thoughtful for my comfort that when I return from the shop I am allowed to have rest in here, with a cigar in my mouth, without having to change my shoes for slippers. And now,’ he said to the Irishman, ‘tell me the whole story of this oil.’
‘Who's paying me for it?’
‘If you tell me the truth, I'll pay you well.’
‘Excuse me,’ I interrupted, ‘have you seen the Crown prosecutor?’
‘And have you checked my story?’
‘Every word of it. Now I expect to hear it confirmed by this firsthand witness. I don't like secondhand information.’
The Irishman told his story all over again. Mr Wittmore frowned, stared intently at the loquacious fellow, did not interrupt him, allowed him to repeat himself and divagate, and listened until the accusation page 257 was complete. When Patrick had finished he asked him: ‘Would you tell the same story in court?’
‘A hundred times. May I go blind if I'm lying,’ swore the witness, after the custom of his more boorish countrymen.
Our host turned to me. ‘Now we know for certain that Mr Schaeffer acted fraudulently. Secondly, when he found he could not profit by his fraud he did not warn all the shareholders but only his friends. Thirdly, we know that he has encouraged other people to buy from us and his associates shares not worth the paper on which they were written, and has collected a commission on these sales. What I've heard from the Crown prosecutor indicates that he was also instrumental in sending you away. A court hearing will probably bring out that he secured his defence by bribing the workers, and that all the shareholders who had managed to get rid of their property paid him a percentage of the price as a reward for hanging on to his own worthless shares.’
At the end of this summary I remarked, ‘I can see that you know exactly what Charles has done.’
‘It's not difficult to work it out, once one has the facts. The young man has rapidly adopted our local business morality but he hasn't learnt our moderation. We never exceed certain limits in our pursuit of money.’
Major Tempski's little lecture about the spider's thread recurred to my mind.
‘He overstepped the boundary,’ continued Mr Wittmore, with the air of a judge pronouncing a verdict rather than of a man with a deep personal concern in the case. ‘He disregarded it and he did it very clumsily too. Because he's well-born—and that counts for a lot here….’
I could not help smiling.
‘Why are your smiling? Do you think all of us here are foundlings, or that we have come here by compulsion as in the days of the penal colony? My dear sir, I could prove to you, for instance, that my own family in England has been in business as ships’ chandlers for three hundred years. All that time we have prided ourselves on our soundness and have always been well thought of. Our business has passed from father to son. When the grandfather retired, the father took charge of the counting house and the eldest grandson stood behind the weighing machine and learnt the trade. He in turn advanced slowly through the office and finally replaced the patriarch. Younger sons have gone to India, the Americas, and the colonies, to return after thirty or forty years as wealthy men. They have come back to page 258 lay their bones in the family vault. You'll find more than one family here with a similar tradition. Their sons leave the family home to climb to a higher rung in the social scale and earn the family's respect. Their marriageable daughters take their equals or even their betters in wedlock: they never marry below their station. Upwards and onwards has been the motto of these traders. I have stuck to the watchword through thick and thin, even if I have wanted a foreigner for a son-in-law.’
‘Luckily he isn't yet your son-in-law.’
‘I trust he never will be. To get back to the point, however, I'll try to explain Mr Schaeffer's motives and what he did. He ignored the line between speculation and swindle—very crudely. If he had respected the principles of honest conduct he might have lost over his speculation, but he would still have kept the hope of making a fine career through an alliance with a well-to-do family, from which he would have gained support in the business world. He risked all that, and he lost.’
‘He risked gaol, which is worse.’
‘No, he didn't risk that. He counted on me for that. In spite of my disappointment, I can't abandon him altogether, for that would reflect on me too. We'll cast him out of our lives, but we won't disgrace him. That would damage our own reputation. Everyone knows about his link with my family. What would they say if my daughter's former fiancé was in gaol?’
‘That's why I have told you all this before the law has a chance to claim him and make him its own.’
‘Thank you, sir. I appreciate your fine feelings, and hope to reward them as best I can. Now I'll have to ask you to tell my daughter what you know about all this. I … I … can't.’
For the first time since the previous day the impassive mask fell from him. He did his face in his hands and with this silent gesture begged me not to inquire why he gave me this unpleasant duty. I well understood his motives, and answered, ‘I'll do it—reluctantly enough. Where is Miss Arabella?’
Mr Wittmore rose and from the door called his daughter. The voices of several women replied. After a second call, one of them—a gaily tinkling silver bell—rose above the others. Soon Miss Arabella appeared, in riding habit and with her curls disordered. She must have returned only a moment before from a ride during which the heavy sea breezes had disturbed her luxuriant hair. She paid no attention to us, kissed her father's forehead, and exclaimed: ‘What a gallop we had, Charles and I, on the iron sands! What a beautiful day! Who page 259 would think that it's the end of autumn! How lovely the autumn is here! It is warm enough to be out of doors, and there are more flowers man in the summer. And winter is prettier than autumn—and spring is nicer than winter. Isn't it a real paradise? I'll be sorry to leave the Island and sail to dry dismal Australia.’
Then she noticed that there were visitors present and, quickly pushing back her loosened hair, greeted us with a nod. When she recognized me, she knitted her brows and moved towards the door.
‘Wait!’ said her father. ‘These gentlemen have something important to tell you.’
‘Something important to tell me? You must be joking, Papa. What business can these two persons have with someone they don't know?’
‘Sit down and listen. Tell my daughter your story,’ he said to me.
Confused by my thankless task, I bore the fire of her contemptuous eyes, her coolly reserved features, and, as my story progressed, a growing interest that she could not altogether conceal. She was at once struck dumb with astonishment, pale with despair, and pathetic with humiliation. She interrupted my story only once, and that was when I spoke of my unexpected trip to Wanganui and of the Maori attack.
‘Oh, I am sorry for you!’ she exclaimed commiseratingly. But she at once became my enemy again. My account of the complicated offences which her fiancé had committed and my attempt to demonstrate how he had crossed the borderline between shrewdness and dishonesty was quite beyond her comprehension. When the story was over, her father asked:
‘Now what do you think of Master Charles's conduct?’
‘I can't judge such a muddled case. Isn't it the same old story with a new twist to it? I don't understand.’
Wishing to clarify the difference between the two versions, the old and the new, Mr Wittmore interjected: ‘These slight variations may cost him a term of imprisonment. They seem very small, but they alter Charles's position just as much as mine would be altered if, supposing I was a bankrupt, I concealed part of my assets from my creditors or compelled them to give me enough capital to start a new business. In the first case, everyone would justifiably label me an impostor. In the second, I would be no more than a hard man to bargain with. I might even make a bigger profit from bankruptcy than from any other scheme. Under pressure of a threat to squander my remaining assets in a costly lawsuit if my creditors were to take the case to court, I would—by fair means—save twice as much by haggling as I would get by stealing from them.’page 260
‘Do they want to put him in gaol?’ cried the crestfallen girl, who had paid no attention to her father's lecture on the various forms of failure in business. ‘Oh no, no, no! That can't be true…. Why do you keep on saying that frightful word? He must be saved!’
‘He's not in danger so far. His misconduct is known only to us,’ said her father soothingly, taking his favourite in his arms and embracing her.
In a moment she tore away from him and cried angrily and imploringly, ‘Could you really hand him over to the law? Have you no heart? No pity?’
‘I don't mean to do that. What I want you to do is to understand why you must break off the engagement.’
‘You … don't mean that?’
‘I certainly do. He can't frequent our house any more. We must get him out of the colony as quickly as possible. Let him go so far away that we shall never hear of him again. He must leave at once.’
The offspring of this curious society could not understand her father's words. Nor could I blame her. She was the daughter of a colony which produces young people who are strangely shrewd in the ways of the world, but limited in other respects. Her reply to her father gave a vivid demonstration of this failure.
‘Didn't you say that no one would betray him, and that no one was thinking of doing so? Who is going to prosecute him? Why must he go away? Can't we keep quiet until we leave the country together, as we intended to do, and sail to a place where the threat of discovery and trial won't hang over him?’
‘Do you want to become the wife of a common criminal?’ asked her father, wringing his hands in horror.
The young girl paid no attention to his words and gesture, but continued, ‘I didn't look for him, and he didn't know me. You brought him here: you threw him at me and me at him. All kind of rumours were busy about him. You laughed at all that. How can you ask me to deny the sentiments I now feel for him, and for which you are responsible? Just by sending him away and keeping me here—the laughing stock of my sisters and the neighbours?’
Her small shapely nose swelled with indignation and hurt pride, and she eyed her father reproachfully. Then she began to lament, ‘Yes, you are responsible for our relationship. Everyone knows that. If he left without one word of explanation to the world which drove him out, everyone would say that he had jilted me—that he had treated me as he treated the other woman—that he broke his promise to me page 261 because he was frightened of the law, and had gone to the other side of the world simply to laugh at us.’
Here was the logic of vanity. It was swiftly followed by the logic of love when her father proposed these conditions: ‘You can go with your mother to Auckland, Melbourne, even England, if you want. We have enough money for that. There you'll meet a hundred young men—handsome, honest young men—and you'll forget this one. You'll be the centre of attention in society and no one will ever know of your disappointment.’
‘No! Never!’ cried the girl, stamping her foot. ‘I don't want to run away like a criminal. I don't want any other men. I don't want to shine in society overseas, to deceive my new acquaintances with affected gaiety—like a marble tombstone over a casket of ashes. I'm not an actress. I belong to a society which allows its daughters to love as they please. We are the judge of whether the social and financial positions of our lovers is suitable. I chose him. His position satisfies me. I want to shine with him—and not in this parochial atmosphere, or in Melbourne, or in European capitals. He can introduce me to a society quite different from the one open to the daughter of a shopkeeper. Besides, I love him—more than my life … and it's your fault … and I won't allow you to barter with my love and my future.’
After this long and passionate outburst she threw her arms round her father's neck and bestowing a shower of kisses on his sorrowful face, she begged him, ‘Save him, Papa! Don't make me unhappy!’
‘Take pity on me!’ begged her father, almost beside himself. ‘What's the good of loving a man who may one day be taken from you and put into the hands of justice?’
‘Would you do that?’ she asked sharply.
‘I wouldn't, but there are others who will?’
‘Will he betray him?’ she asked, pointing to the Irishman. ‘Even if he means to, he'll surely keep quiet if you pay him enough. After all, according to his own story, he only decided to betray Charles because he didn't get enough money out of him. Let Charles stay with me and send him away instead.’
‘You're forgetting about me,’ I interrupted.
‘Would you give him away?’ she asked in surprise. ‘Why?’
‘Out of a sense of duty. You mentioned the other girl. She loved him too, and she had to give him up—but she didn't do that for you. I won't allow her to be laughed at and suffer through no fault of her own while the criminal stays here unpunished and triumphant.’
‘Do you mean to say you will take the side of a nigger girl against one of the town's leading citizens?’page 262
‘I don't hestitate for an instant. Indeed, my sympathies are even more strongly with the nigger girl’ I added emphatically, ‘for, with the exception of beauty, in which you undoubtedly excel’—I confirmed the compliment with a bow—‘ a comparison between that betrayed and wounded girl, who is suffering in silence, and the cruel daughter of the town's leading citizen would certainly turn out in her favour.’
‘You forget yourself!’ exclaimed her father, whose racial pride momentarily blurred his impartiality. His blue eyes, usually cold, gleamed with a promise of thunder, and his face was suffused with blood.
‘He doesn't forget himself!’ cried the daughter. ‘He's acting according to a well thought out plan. I understand it all—Charles warned me long ago.’
‘Did he? What about?’
‘That you envied him the other girl. You envied him everything—his success, his career, his love. And because of your vengeful nature you have become a tool in the hands of these rascally niggers. You're nothing more than a ….’ Her father clapped his hand over her mouth.
‘My God! Take hold of yourself’ he begged her.
As for me, I watched the female phenomenon with a mixture of astonishment and delight. I had heard about colonial women who inherit their pride from the nation which faithfully believes in its superiority over all others, even Europeans. The belief is indeed, intensified by their incessant comparison between themselves and the peoples they meet in the new countries. And I had heard how imprudent they are, and how they apply a mixture of calculation and love to their choice of a mate, and that they entirely disregard anyone's advice. One of these women, a product of this unusual society, stood before me—prouder than a planter's wife, as ungovernable in her passions as the hurricanes of her Island, sensitive and intractable in the extreme, never asking her family for advice but, on the contrary, imposing her will on them, childishly sly, and—with all this—angelically beautiful, as frail as a reed and craving like a pussy cat for fun—and, too, as treacherous as a cat. Her fair complexion might have been Scandinavian in origin: her black eyes reflected the heat of Spain: her features had the purity of a Greek profile: the gloss of her flaxen hair was English enough: and, as for her waist, I have never seen its like, even in North America—I could have encompassed it in my hands. Her delightful bosom, fully developed in a country where a child matures suddenly into a woman, vibrated and billowed with suppressed sobs and threatened to rend her bodice. She faced me page 263 furiously, her small fists clenched, a real maenad—enraged, enticing, and all aflame. Blood almost seemed to spurt from her cheeks, and the light filtering into the room through the purple curtain over the window tainted her dress with the colour of passion.
Her father turned a stony gaze on her. He had been toughened in the business world and could cope with all the difficulties which arise in day-to-day life: but in this strange world, in which his principles must struggle against the tears and embraces of his beloved child, he hesitated like a seaman who has lost his compass. For any man—whether father, brother, or husband—to guide a woman's will is in this part of the world quite unheard of. A man's willpower, normally so adamant, softens and melts—rather like a piece of ice lashed by heavy rain—when it is under the attack of a capricious but beloved wife or daughter.
I was in no position to help him curb his stubborn child's will. I felt I could not have been more awkwardly placed. A handful of gold would certainly stop the Irishman's mouth. Who knew whether Mr Wittmore, caught between the fires of his daughter's despair and his own sense of honour, would not agree to conceal her fiancé's disreputable behaviour? If he declared himself for Charles, my chances would vanish altogether. His influence was greater than the demands of justice.
I still counted hopefully on Tempski's return. But when would that be? A whole month had gone by without any news from him, except that we knew him to be advancing steadily and successfully into the Maori lands.
At length I broke the silence and addressed Mr Wittmore: ‘I must go away after this scene and the insult I have suffered. I shall leave the affair in your hands, trusting in your conception of honour and your sound common sense. My part is over. I have fulfilled my duty and all the interested parties have been sufficiently informed. If by any chance your daughter should persuade you to disregard my advice, or should you ignore the voice of duty and conceal Mr Schaeffer's felony, you will not fall under my vengeance or that of the injured father and daughter, but under the eternal one which poisons one's mind and marks one's life. Though its brand is hidden from the outside world, it is more disgraceful than that which the hangman marks on the criminal's forehead.’
Having concluded this long useless lecture I went out of the house, leaving them with the Irishman—who was no doubt calculating how much he would ask to satisfy his appetite and how he would waste the riches so obtained.