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Tikera; or, Children of the Queen of Oceania

Chapter XXIII Monsieur le Docteur attempts to explain the peculiar colonial beliefs

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Chapter XXIII Monsieur le Docteur attempts to explain the peculiar colonial beliefs

I counted on Tempski's return, and he came—but not alive. Rumours of his death reached us several days before his body was brought back to the town. These were eventually confirmed by an official despatch. People came out on the streets, moaning, grieving, cursing the Maoris, England, themselves, and the Island to which they had come. Every household in this coastal town had suffered loss. Perhaps only Egypt suffered a similar calamity, and was similarly maddened by despair, when the plague carried off all its first-born.

All the strong promising young men—and with them a hope for so many others—had recently left this quiet little place. They went, they fought, and the news of their victorious advance daily consoled their mothers, wives, and sweethearts. New Plymouth lived on this news, basking in the reflected glory of its sons.

Then suddenly like lightning from a clear sky came the news that the whole column, under an experienced leader who was known for his caution, all the men—seasoned as they were, and equipped with the best weapons available—had fallen to a small band of savages who had prepared an ambush for them—and the flower of the province had vanished forever. Those who were left alive now drank the humiliation and bitterness that war invariably produces: they bathed their hearts in the bloody news and tears of mourning. That was the fitting end to this war of conquest.

‘Tempski drove hard into the bush,’ reported the Taranaki Herald in the special issue published an hour after the arrival of the official couriers, ‘pursuing the scattered enemy under the guidance of the friendly natives, who led the vanguard and escorted the flanks of the long column as it struggled through the undergrowth. These guides and skirmishers, riddled with the adherents of Pai Marire, suddenly abandoned the troops just when the roughness of the terrain meant that they were most scattered. The commanding officer was then in the middle of the straggling column. Before he could be informed of the treason of his allies a shower of bullets came from every tree, page 265 falling as thick and fast as rain. Half the column fell to the ground, killed instantly. Tempski, although wounded, encouraged the survivors by his example to take cover behind trees or fallen trunks and to return the Maori fire. The enemy, numbering a few hundred men, were hidden by the trees and creepers. Panic overwhelmed the troops. They fled, throwing away their weapons and running blindly against the hatchets which waited for them. Their colours were trampled into the mud and their officers' commands were ignored. The major stood in a circle of fire. Only his gleaming sword lit the surrounding gloom. A single sunbeam penetrated the canopy of the murderous tree tops and illuminated the valorous Pole. He substituted a handkerchief stained in his own blood for the lost colours. He waved it in vain. In vain he called. Finally, he too fell. When the vanguard and the rearguard reached the battlefield and repulsed the Maoris in a hard-fought battle, they found over three hundred bodies in an area of four hundred square paces. Half their number lay about the major. They had fallen in the first volley. Others lost their lives in the rout. Nearly all the dead were the children of this town. The other troops suffered much less. The couriers inform us that the whole encounter lasted no more than fifteen minutes. They say that if the troops at either end of the main column had been on time the losses would have been very much smaller. But instead of advancing unhesitatingly to rescue the ambushed column the troops faltered for a while and then opened fire at their invisible enemy, in open order and extremely cautiously. Once the Maoris knew that the centre had been wiped out they withdrew without offering any further resistance, well satisfied with the results they had obtained. The fallen leader cannot be blamed for the rout. He had been wounded the previous day and was confined to a stretcher. It is quite understandable that he could not personally supervise the order of the marching column. Those to whom he delegated this task are already facing court martial. We do not expect them to escape a punishment equal to their guilt and the disaster resulting from it.’

This short description of the action ended with laments, which no one read. The afflicted hearts of the townsfolk cried more eloquently than the newspaper's columns.

The defeat forced the survivors to fall back on the town—now their only base for operations. The retreat was not unpursued. The hapless local farmers once again had to quit their half-restored houses, which, with the approach of winter—the rainy season—would certainly not improve by their absence.

All men up to the age of fifty were called to the defence of the page 266 Province. Only women, children, and the very aged were left at home. Once again, despite my own wishes, I read my name in the long list posted outside the Town Hall. This time I was not in an ambulance unit but in the infantry reserve. The arrival of new stocks of ammunition from Auckland kept me in town for several days, for cartridges were being manufactured day and night. Even the ammunition workers would be called upon to defend the farmers once their job was ended. New forces were apparently advancing from Wanganui to repay the Maoris for their victory over Tempski.

My plight in this unhappy country, where I could not be the master of my destiny, and where I had been forced to turn from vagrant into soldier, induced me to think of moving to the Middle Island. There was no war in that part of New Zealand: sweet peace reigned for the simple reason that the Maoris were too few to start a similar venture against the more numerous white people. Newspapers told of the good mining prospects there. I felt sorry to leave my Maori friend, but I could do little for her now that my protector was dead. Mr Wittmore had undoubtedly given in to the entreaties of his spoiled daughter, Patrick went away—or rather, he was sent away, drunk, with a well-filled purse, to the schooner departing for Auckland. It seemed to me, as I watched the boat vanish beyond the seething surf, that the most honest man in town had now departed. At least he did not pretend to be a paragon of virtue, a model citizen, an exemplary officer in the militia. He carried his villainy openly and repelled everyone by his lack of pretence. It was more difficult to know what others were really like. I discovered this skilfully concealed rot when its malodorous poison spattered over me. In a world where people such as Wittmore were the cream of society, whose conduct became the ethical criterion for the other well-to-do citizens, it is permissible to consider drunk, crude, sly Patrick as the most upright specimen of the lot.

The war had increased the number of vessels calling at New Plymouth and I was able to leave at my convenience. Although at this critical period the privileges of foreigners in the Province were not recognized, nobody had the courage to stop those who intended to leave it rather than to waste their time in the militia, scattered about in the bush. Having made my plans I went to tell the Williamses of my impending departure.

Jenny was not in the Quaker woman's parlour. Two people were there: the widow in her customary grey dress and black bonnet, and a surgeon whom I knew by sight and who was visiting his patient, if that is the proper description of a girl who, though still lame, was page 267 moving round the house as busy as a bee. The doctor rocked back and forth in a rocking chair, humming a tune to the great indignation of our hostess. To her Quakerish way of thinking, songs and idle music, brightly coloured frocks, cards, and other obscenities provided for the human race in its passage through this Vale of Tears were vanity of vanities, true inventions of the father of evil. No wonder that she rolled her eyes until only their whites were visible in her pale face, that she lifted her arms in horror at the sound of the doctor's singing, which fluttered round the room like a bird trying to escape through the window to the flowers and the blue sky. What would the pious Samaritan have said if mischievous but invisible Asmodeus—who was already present in the room, attracted by the catchy tune—had told her the meaning of Béranger's words which the lusty minstrel was singing?

Aux filles, morbleu! nous tenons;
Faites-en, faites-en de gentilles:
Qu'elles soient anges ou démons,
Faites des filles;
Nous les aimons!

How glad I was to meet the physician! For some reason I had not managed to speak to him sooner though I had looked out for him for some weeks. I introduced myself to this unusual person who was of course charmé to make the acquaintance of un Polonais. To show his delight he swallowed the last ‘aimons’ of his song, offered me a cigar, and lit one for himself, despite the widow's silent protest. Even the Quaker's patience could not endure the trial of tobacco fumes. At first she noisily opened the window. Clouds of smoke followed the vanished song. The doctor either pretended not to understand her action or genuinely did not. Then the lady of the house left the room. Before she slammed the door, I heard her muttering about the queer manners of foreigners. She was justifiably surprised: it must have been the first time she had seen men smoking in the presence of a lady.

The doctor, who pretended that he did not understand her behaviour, got up from his rocking chair, hurried to the door, opened it, bade her goodbye with a deep bow. Closing the door again he returned, settled down comfortably, and expressed his pleasure at being rid of the raide creature who had turned up her eyes and waved her hands at him, more and more shocked by his compliments.

‘I hate that woman,’ he said. ‘Elle me tutoie.’

page 268

‘What's your opinion of the condition of my friend, your patient?’

‘Excellent! What a constitution! What strength! In three or four months time she won't even be limping.’

Then he added with a strange note in his tuneful voice, whose harmony was ruffled by a shade of suspicion and good-natured irony, ‘So you are the friend about whom she talks at such length, and whom she describes as son preux chevalier?’

‘Yes, I imagine she must mean me. I indeed feel gratitude towards her. She once did me a great service. I try—without much success.’

‘There's nothing more to it than that?’

‘We aren't in Paris. If I felt something different you can be sure I wouldn't admit it even to such a pleasant acquaintance as yourself.’

‘Why won't you call me “friend”? My patient's feelings for you mean that I cannot be indifferent to you—for I am not at all indifferent to her. In a light moment I felt like laughing a little at your Platonic attachment. But believe me I wasn't serious then. I know the whole story, your relationship to the family, and I respect you for it.’

He took my hand. His hearty grasp proved that for all his mocking eyes and ambiguous songs he had a heart worthy of a man of noble birth. I contemplated my new friend with some curiosity. He was still a young man, perhaps thirty years old. His dark hair was sprinkled here and there with silver threads, and when he smiled, as he often did, treacherous wrinkles appeared at his temples. Either he had lived eagerly or he had wandered from place to place, an occupation which bestows wrinkles and grey hair even more quickly than fast living. I concluded from our conversation that difficulty rather than joy had somewhat aged his handsome head.

‘You won't believe how glad I am to have met you. I have heard so much about you from Jenny and from poor Tempski!’ I said, trying to be just as courteous to him as he was to me.

‘Ah! pauvre Tempski. He was a compatriot of yours? Pity he is dead. What a man! He got involved with matters which really did not concern him. That's what happens when one becomes a mercenary. Pity; he was a rare man. I treated him once—a year ago. He had a wound, and he stood the operation as a Maori would have done. I used salt and camphor on him.’

‘Salt and camphor?’ I asked, staring at him.

Oui monsieur. Salt and camphor—they're my chief medicaments. It's a treatment of my own. I dissolve them in ether and alcohol, and apply them both externally and internally. If ever you are ill I will prove the efficacy of my methods….’

Merci, but I don't at all want to be ill.’

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‘That's not what I mean. I don't want you to be ill either. Salt and camphor diluted in ether or spirit and properly applied are a universal medicine—the panacea for which the Arabs searched so fruitlessly, and the Alchemists after them. And I have here’—he pointed to the place where some keep their heart and all their purse—‘the secret. Alas,’ he added sighing, ‘the world is not ready to recognize the merits of my discovery.’

‘Have you offered it to the world?’

‘Of course. I perfected my invention ten years ago, during the last months of the Crimean War. As a very young man I served as assistant naval surgeon. Understandably enough I reported my results to my superior. Do you know how he reacted? He didn't react at all: he was so old-fashioned and prejudiced that he didn't even finish reading my report. So I went back to Paris to study medicine, published a pamphlet about salt and camphor and their dilution in ether and alcohol. I sent this pamphlet to countless medical faculties and learned bodies, and crippled my fortune in the process. And with what results? They refused to recognize my invention, and the envious professors refused me a degree. They said that I had been wasting my time by thinking and writing on salt and camphor instead of studying sensible subjects. So I called the Old World an ass and went to America. There I got my degree without any examination. Just then the Civil War started. I offered my salt and camphor to Lincoln and to Davis. No one would listen to me. It's hard to believe what a thorny path an inventor has to travel even if he carries the salvation of humanity in the palm of his hand!’

‘What brought you here?’

‘Well, I thought that the Old World was an ass and the New backward, so I decided to come to the newest of all. As a surgeon and bone setter I made a sensation in Melbourne, Sydney, everywhere. But the moment I mention camphor and salt, and their alcoholic and etheric solutions, my patients vanish. So I sailed still further in search of recognition. That's how I came to the end of the world. If I sailed any further I'd reach America again. There isn't a corner of the world where I wouldn't try out my invention if I could. J'ai perdu mon temps et mon travail.’

‘Do you mean to stay here?’

‘I'll have to. I have spent the last penny of my savings. Here at least I have a steady income. I like the place better than anywhere else. To tell the truth, I have found a few people who have agreed to my trying my salt and camphor cure on them: in fact, they use nothing else. It's incredible how healthy they are.’

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‘Have you actually cured anybody with your concoctions?’

‘No! No! My patients have never been sick. They came to me perfectly healthy. No Englishman has anything wrong with him until he destroys his stomach with medicines and plum pudding. My patients are healthy enough but local custom demands a family doctor and they accepted my services. I prescribe only salt and camphor, taken in drops of alcohol and ether. They don't swallow patent medicines which might spoil their stomachs, and so they are never ill.’

‘I wish you success.’

‘If I could only find a bigger and better place to display my genius. Just several thousand francs a year … an attic in Paris … money for publicity, and I would grasp my fortune and reputation from the claws of this miserable world.’

‘Perhaps your savings would run out all the sooner!’

Non! morbleu non! Experience has taught me to be careful. I wouldn't exceed my income. I'd spend all my time developing my idea. Look here, even now, without any capital whatever, I have made new converts. Mr Williams and his daughter trust my treatment absolutely, with the reservation that she takes all the camphor and he all the alcohol.’

‘Evidently the camphor has helped her a great deal,’ I agreed with the doctor, thoroughly convinced that it was advisable not to question his madness. ‘It must be a most efficacious concoction if it cured her so quickly.’

‘Thank God!’ he exclaimed, with a rather suspicious emotion.

‘You show more than the customary sympathy of a doctor for his patient!’

‘Yes. Pauvre fille. I have to be careful … this is a difficult situation.’

‘Aren't you mistaken, doctor?’

‘Oh, no!’ After a moment he added, ‘Weren't you struck by her beauty? I never saw anything like it in the French colony of Louisiana.’

‘To be sure, she is quite extraordinary. But what about her exaggerated dimensions?’

‘That's what delights me so much in her’—the doctor was of small stature—‘After all, there's plenty of grace and agility in her, and such symmetry in her proportions that her size is more than acceptable—even to an admirer of tiny women.’

‘You are quite right.’

‘She'd cause tremendous excitement in the French colonies, amongst the creoles and quadroons, particularly if her movements were trained page 271 by the discipline of an elegant environment. The Maoris are chivalrous by nature, and their women have an inborn taste and graciousness of movement. Their contacts with the English destroy the natural harmony in the choice of colours and designs which they possessed in the pre-Christian era. Have you noticed how beautifully they colour their braided hair and with what coquetry they wear it? Under French influence they would become true artists.’

‘My early acquaintance with Miss Jenny made me feel that she had a natural feeling for beauty. Since she came here and began to imitate her white sisters she has lost it.’

‘That's it. If she spent some years in a French colony where her complexion would not outrage anyone and her figure would be found enchanting, I guarantee that she would equal the most refined creole ladies in polish and charm. She seems to be quite clever too. Since she began to recover she's been doing a lot of reading. She repeats the French words she has heard accurately and remembers them well.’

‘With her abilities it would be worth persuading her father to leave this country and go to a place where she could really blossom.’

‘The madman will never go away. He says he cannot part with his herds and this savage world, which he knows and enjoys. Besides, he says he has no money.’

‘You don't know much about him, doctor. When the war ends he could realize some twenty thousand pounds sterling from his farms, herds, and the rest. I have that from the Crown prosecutor who was previously the old man's lawyer and knows every atom of his property.’

‘What?’ shouted the doctor, jumping from his rocking chair as though something had pricked him. ‘Does that old man possess half a million francs? Why, he walks about in a coarse seaman's shirt, and his daughter is dressed in cotton!’

‘Yes, and his fortune grows accordingly. Such wealthy and frugal people are fairly numerous both here and in Australia.’

‘How these people squander God's gifts!’ muttered the doctor, deep in thought as he did some reckoning on his fingers. Finally he whispered, ‘Oui, oui. C'est un demi-million.’

‘How wonderful that sum sounds in francs,’ I thought. ‘In pounds, and in the colonies, it's really quite modest!’

The doctor expressed his thoughts out loud. ‘And in spite of the huge heritage which the girl must eventually receive—for old Williams loves her, and will certainly recognize her as his legal daughter—that page 272 stupid faithless German adventurer abandoned her! Did he know about her fortune?’

‘I doubt it. The old man is one of those secretive people who live simply, often make money as publicans, and limit their topics of conversation almost entirely to cattle and swine. Even his lawyer doesn't know whether the girl is legally adopted or not. Schaeffer didn't expect to get a lot out of a dark-skinned wife, so he chose a white one, who doesn't come from a poor family either. He's a very prudent man.’

‘That's excellent! What a mistake he made!’ exclaimed the jubilant doctor. ‘Entre nous, this dark-skinned girl is little darker than sunburnt country wenches in Europe. If her mind and her heart were properly cared for she would be worthy of a prouder destiny than that of any settler's proud daughter. Many of them have neither mind nor heart, and no amount of upbringing or education can amend the lack. The man who marries Miss Jenny even without a dowry will make a better choice than someone marrying Miss Wittmore, even if she had the wealth of the Rothchilds. I know her pretty well: I used to go to that house as a friend and as a medical practitioner. She is no worse and no better than most girls from the same background.

C'est par-ci, c'est par-là,
Trala, trala, tralala,
C'est par-ci, c'est par-là,
C'est le diable en falbala!’

‘If your judgement is correct,’ I said, interrupting the doctor's song, ‘Master Charles will have found a match in his wife.’

‘Serve him right! She'll drop him after a year—that's what generally happens round here when the local girls marry foreigners. The whole way of life here is quite beyond my comprehension. The longer I live in this society the less I understand its ways. Consider, for example, the incredible talent of the Anglo-Saxon and Teutonic settlers for destroying and dissipating all they find. At first they have to plunder, exterminate, uproot, to make a desert out of a living country, and then they implant a new life there. They don't want to use what is already in existence. The idea of amalgamating with the natives and appreciating their nobler characteristics never crosses their minds—irrespective of their origin, beauty, or complexion. And yet they seem to be the only successful colonizers. Obviously, this must be the only practical way of conquering a new land. They destroy to create. Let's take the example of this young girl. Many a young page 273 man would fall in love with her in our part of the world, without asking for her dowry or greatly bothering that she is as wild as a forest bird. If he wooed her successfully he would try to bind her to him for life with his love. These men disdain even her fortune, and treat this Maori lily as though she were dirt. Pity that her father has no divine spark in him.’

‘What would you advise him to do?’

‘I've already told him. I told him to sell out everything he possessed and emigrate to our colonies—Martinique or Guadeloupe—anywhere. No one there would ask about his past—or hers! The local populace has always been very indulgent, and particularly to wealthy heiresses. But nothing will make the old fool budge from here. He won't listen to anything. He finds his only entertainment in alcohol and solitude. He sits, drinks, threatens, and plots his revenge.’

I was just going to ask the doctor whether he had any idea what the old man was plotting when we saw, through the open window, a tall lame figure walking along the path.

‘Here she is, back from her call. I must go now—I've stayed far too long already. Besides I left some ether and alcohol uncorked at home, and some camphor which I should have put into a tin … and it will all evaporate. My other patients are waiting too. But I must ask her how she is before I go. Adieu! Adieu!’

Paying no attention to the flower pots on the sill he leapt through the open window, a clear demonstration of his nimble-footedness, for he did not upset anything. He landed lightly on the shelly path some two feet from the wall. Turning to me he called, ‘I hope to meet you again. If you need my professional services don't forget my address: Doctor Abrabat, 27 Church Street—c'est en face de la cathèdrale. I see patients between nine and eleven o'clock in the morning, and in the evening too. You can be treated with traditional methods or with salt and camphor …. I particularly recommend the latter …. Adieu!’

With his right hand on his heart and his left holding his hat so that it almost swept the small shells on the path he gracefully approached the pensive Miss Williams and greeted her with a snatch from Béranger.

‘Grands dieux, combien est jolie,
Celle que j'aimerai toujours!
Dans leur douce mélancolie
Ses yeux font rîver aux amours.’

page 274

I did not hear what he sang next. As I backed away from the window crabwise so that I faced the garden and could see how the doctor greeted his patient, I stepped on the tail of a fat cat which was sunbathing on the floor. The cat gave a despairing yowl. The Quaker woman rushed into the room armed with a feather duster.

‘That doctor will end up in the madhouse,’ she muttered. ‘Who ever heard of leaving a room in a respectable house by the window? This room is full of smoke!’—here she coughed. ‘And what a lot of ashes and dust!’ Here her duster flicked across the table. ‘The woman who takes him will never finish her housework. He scatters dust as though he were a sack filled with it. He must have trampled on my poor pussy's tail … see how she's licking it. Thou,’ she looked at me with a profound confidence, ‘thou who likes cats and art a steady man ought to keep away from this giddy Frenchman. I keep on telling Jenny to treat him sharply … but she doesn't listen to me at all.’

This time, though, Jenny had acted as her hostess recommended. I noticed that she exchanged only a few words with him, and that having picked a few flowers—the gifts of this blessed climate even in winter—she sat down on a bench. Bowing low to the widow I left the room on tip-toe (which she liked very much) and went straight to the pensive girl, who was arranging a nosegay with all her natural artistry in colour. The news of my imminent departure did not please her. She dropped the flowers, which strayed across her light dress.

‘Couldn't you stay until … he … sails away?’ she pleaded. ‘I'm sure that will be soon now. Father has been so severe and silent these last days. I tremble for him, and I pray for that other. Oh! How unhappy I am!’

She wrung her hands as she sat there, looking with her humble tear-stained face like a suffering Mary Magdalene. Tears rolled like pearls on to her brown cheeks from beneath her lovely lashes. She looked more beautiful than ever. Her illness, and new sentiments of humility, had entirely obliterated her previous somewhat manly expression.

‘Is your father plotting revenge? Do you want to stop it?’

‘I can't do anything more …. I feel disarmed. Take pity on me, and forget everything that's happened. Help me to save him. If I only knew the date of their wedding and when they sail …. Unfortunately, they're keeping it all secret, which means I can't help them. I could watch Father for one day but I can't watch him all the time. If something goes wrong it will be their own fault.’

‘That's often the way. Many a criminal has met his end through his own excessive caution. To please you I'll delay my departure—so long as I don't have to join the militia.’

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Having bound myself with this conditional promise, I went to see the old man. He was alone in his room, enjoying Dr Abrabat's medicine in such cleverly calculated doses that though his cheeks were aflame and his eyes bloodshot, his common sense and his shrewdness remained intact.

He accepted the news that I would be going away with complete indifference. He even remarked, ‘It's all right that you're going. There are better chances on the Middle Island for young men like you. Gold's as plentiful there as sand is by the sea shore.’

‘I'm sorry to be leaving you ….’

‘I know—I know. You are different from that other, and you don't forget your friends. But even the best of friends must part someday—if only at the grave. There are people who nurse the memory of certain friends….’

‘Yes, they even watch them at night,’ I said abruptly, looking straight into his eyes and recalling his spying trips to Mr Wittmore's garden.

My interruption confused him a little but he did not deny my accusation. Indeed, he confirmed it. ‘I keep an eye on him and his doings, and be does the same to me. He's my match all right. I know he pays men to follow me wherever I go. In the garden, the town, the bush—I always have a shadowy company. The stupid fellows imagine they can keep an old pioneer under their control. Ha, ha, ha …’ he laughed heartily.

‘Why are you laughing?’

‘I can't help it when I think about my guardians. They appeared from the time I lost my temper and threatened that German. They must be well paid, for I lead them a dreadful dance. I often get up in the middle of the night and go for a walk through the town: then I go out through the suburbs and into the country. They follow me—track me down like a pack of hounds. Then I go into a clump of ferns, turn round, lead them through the sharpest grasses and the thorniest bushes—and run away. It takes them hours to find me. Meanwhile I overhear their plans. I listen beneath their windows, as they talk in the open—everywhere. Nothing escapes me: I know everything. When the hour comes, I'll strike.’

‘Haven't you given up your ideas of revenge?’

‘Can a leopard lose his spots or a lion his claws? I haven't forgotten anything and I don't intend to. Their watchfulness amuses me. Their secrets are no secrets to me. Soon this song will be ended.’ And he cut the conversation short with a gesture.

He had thoroughly roused my curiosity. I asked him again and again, ‘How soon? Tell me when.’

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‘You'll learn soon enough. And now be off with you. I have no more time.’

I took leave of the old man with a premonition that this colonial drama would reach its climax without my intervention. I had played my part in it once, and could do no more.