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Tikera; or, Children of the Queen of Oceania

Chapter XXIV We part: some go to the place from whence no one returns

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Chapter XXIV We part: some go to the place from whence no one returns

Without confiding my plans to anybody I resolved so to arrange my affairs that I would depart from the Island immediately after Schaeffer had gone. This date was a great mystery, even in that gossip-ridden little town. Everyone knew that it would be soon. Several ships were already in harbour, about to sail for various destinations, and the young couple would surely be aboard one of them.

My main task was to learn the time at which each ship would sail. A small boat which I borrowed from an acquaintance helped me to accomplish it. I passed through the surf without any major mishap and rowed towards the rocks and the schooners and brigs moored beside them, stopping at each vessel to ask where and when it would sail. Everyone gave me the information I sought, with the reservation that in the end the wind would decide their time of departure for them. Only one skipper treated me brusquely. Finally, I came to a schooner which was sailing to Dunedin on the Middle Island, the chief town of the newly discovered goldfields.

The master of this vessel recognized me. He hailed from Sydney where some time previously I had rendered him a small service. He was pleased to see me. English seamen willingly receive friendly land lubbers aboard their unsteady wooden realms. The skipper was so friendly that he offered me a free passage to the Middle Island. When I would not accept this favour, he insisted. ‘Forget about money. You've surely learned something about seamanship: you can help me out if I need you. Men who can do that can travel all over the world without spending a penny piece.’

‘When do you sail?’

‘Not for some time. This easterly will blow for a while. If you were off to Australia that would be different. For instance, that small brig down there … about a rifle shot off from us … she'll certainly sail before dawn. I can see that they're ready to go.’

‘Whose brig is it? When I spoke to the skipper, he'd scarcely answer me.’

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‘He's just a little bit too secretive for my liking. All the same, I know he's only carrying cod-liver oil and kauri gum for Mr Wittmore. Usually the ship serves as a packet boat between Melbourne and the West Coast. But don't let's stand here talking. The skipper and his crew aren't pirates: they can sail where they please. Come down to the cabin and have a drink. The air is quite cold today: we can do with a bit of warming up …. I have an excellent brandy from Sydney, something you probably haven't tasted since you left Australia. Really, I'm damned if it isn't quite first-class.’

Of course I went down to his cabin and assisted the capable skipper in his skilful preparation of grog by mixing brandy, water, fresh lemons, and sugar as white as driven snow. We could not agree about the proper proportion of water to alcohol. We didn't argue at all about the quantities of sugar and lemon juice but when it came to adding water the skipper and his helmsman outvoted me. I called for at least seventy-five percent of this innocent fluid. At length, my entreaties softened their hearts, and they added a quarter of a litre to a quart of grog.

The evening passed merrily enough. After a final toast I decided to return to the town. The seamen unrolled a rope ladder. I climbed speedily down to my boat and with one sweep of my oars pushed off from the vessel.

I made slowly for the town, hoping that a longish stay on the water would cool me down from the fever heat which the tobacco fumes, grog, smoked cod, and lack of fresh air in the skipper's tight little quarters had occasioned.

I have previously mentioned that the bay had a group of rocky islands off shore, and that these provided the sole protection for ships during the frequent strong westerlies. Billows from the open sea broke on their brown and grey backs, which were stained here and there with mosses and algae. The modest merchant fleet of New Plymouth always sheltered to the east of the islands when the wind blew from the west, changing sides with the change of wind.

I had previously undertaken several trips through the passage between these rocks. On fine days I would go through to visit ships moored in the bay. There too I fished, to while away the Sunday boredom of this puritanical town. Sometimes I would collect oysters from the abundant beds on the surrounding beaches which were so richly-stocked that there was an oven on the largest of the rocks in which oyster shells were baked to produce lime. Now as I returned I feasted my ears on the metallic hum of the waves rolling against the rocks and my eyes on the glimmer of the jewelled waves.

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I pulled slowly at my oars. Streams of white foam flowed from their clean sharp blades, marking the smooth surface of the bay with two trails of white circles which broke the reflected image of the sky. This moving furrow marked my route. The splashing cadence of my oars and the rhythmical knock of their handles against the boards of the boat were the only sounds to break the silence.

As I entered the passage between the rocks I heard another splash of oars which did not sound like wood striking against wood. It therefore could not come from a European boat, but from a Maori canoe, whose oarsmen stand holding their paddles in both hands and supporting them on the gunwale, as do the Polish fishermen on our lakes.

I was intrigued. I knew that a few hundred Maori families were camped just south of the town. Most of them were the wives and children of friendly natives, but a few men were there too. They were exiles from their own lands, driven out by their kinsmen for their loyalty to the white men, and were in no hurry to go home although the English troops had already recovered a part of their lands from the foe. So long as their young men were serving in the army, the Provincial Government supported the rest of them, though they were not allowed to frequent New Plymouth or to stray among the neighbouring farming settlements. The men were employed at the lime kiln I have already mentioned or in fishing—at the rare moments when, tired of lying in the sun or in the smoke of their fires, they took to work. Probably it was the sound of their oars that I heard. There was nothing unusual about it, except the lateness of the hour. ‘I would never have imagined,’ I said to myself, ‘that the industry of the Maori women would make them work so late at night.’

In a moment two long canoes moved out from behind the rocks. Propelled forward by a dozen rapidly moving paddles, they drove towards the town like a pair of fast dolphins.

I could not possibly catch up with them; however, I increased my number of strokes per minute so as not to lose sight of these nocturnal seamen. The high curved stern-posts of their canoes loomed black and more distant from my boat with every splash. In a few moments their shadows were scarcely visible in the thick curtain of night.

The town's lights rose higher and higher over the foggy shroud which was rolling in from the sea, and becoming thicker as it got colder. In half an hour,’ I thought, ‘the whole harbour will be swallowed in fog, and without a compass it will be difficult to find page 280 the ships or even to make the shore.’ By good fortune I was already in shallow water and could wade ashore in perfect safety.

The place was normally deserted, but a strange occurrence interrupted my thoughts. Three or four hundred paces away to my left I observed the black outline of a cockboat with several people in it, their dim contours magnified by the semi-darkness of the night and by the thick mist. I concluded from the splashes borne to me on the wind that there must be four oarsmen. It must be the crew of a ship returning to their quarters.

Further away, the Maori canoes, their prows facing westwards, moved in the same direction as the cockboat. Evidently they were following it. It was impossible to tell why. From the increased speed now audible in the splash of the cockboat's oars it seemed that its occupants were aware of the presence of their pursuers and meant to evade them. I tried to solve the problem, quite in vain.

Then I noticed one more boat, a small one. A lone man stood in it, propelling it skilfully with one oar set in the stern, like the rudder on our river rafts. The oar acted like the screw of Archimedes, and a nimble hand drove the boat soundlessly in the direction of the cockboat and the canoes with such speed that the water buzzed around it like a swarm of bees, leaving a lathery trace on the green surface of the bay. I passed pretty close to this boat. A seaman's sou'wester and oilskin concealed the identity of the oarsman, but I could still see that he was watching the Maori canoes very intently. He could do this the more easily because the way in which he propelled his boat allowed him to look ahead. If he had been rowing, he would have had to face the land. I found this all extremely strange. When I had landed and beached the boat, I walked slowly away pondering over the convoy which had passed me and was already swallowed up in the foggy distance, as cold and opaque as a December day in London. I went along the street where my hotel was. It was never a very lively thoroughfare. Carts seldom passed along it, as the faint tracks of wheels plainly showed. The paths on either side were overgrown with grass. By day one saw more calves grazing there than passers by. At night all the dogs of the neighbourhood invaded the empty street, or an adventurous cat came to chase a pack of rats.

About a hundred yards from the beach I stopped at the door of my temporary dwelling. I began to hunt for the key to the back door which normally lay under the verandah for the tenants who came home late. A familiar tapping sound interrupted me. Jenny appeared at the corner of the house. She must have been waiting for me for a long time. Her teeth were chattering with cold. People page 281 born under a warm sky detest cold air and fog. I was lightly dressed and found the chilly evening quite pleasant: but she, warmly clad though she was, found it a real affliction.

‘What are you doing here? Why are you out in the cold? You are only allowed to move about a little, and now you're doing your best to catch a chill!’ I remonstrated, alarmed at her behaviour.

‘I've been waiting for you. If only you had come an hour ago you could have helped me so much. Now it's too late.’

‘What's happened? What can I do? Perhaps there's still time?’

She pointed in the direction from which I had come. ‘Something frightful is happening there. My father is out there, and the others too, and God knows who else.’ She trembled as she spoke, whether from cold or horror I could not tell.

The race between the boat and the canoes at once came to my mind. I asked anxiously, ‘Is Charles out there, and his sweetheart?’

‘Not his sweetheart, his wife. The wedding took place in Mr Wittmore's house this evening. They went straight to her father's brig—it's about to sail for Melbourne. The ceremony and their departure were kept a strict secret. I only heard about it an hour ago from one of the neighbours. I have expected it ever since yesterday.’

‘What about your father?’

‘I don't know. He left the house soon after you did. Either he guessed the date of the wedding, or had an intuition about it. Yesterday he gave himself away by saying that what a Justice of the Peace tied, he could untie just as easily. That's why I'm afraid of what may happen.’

‘Surely he won't risk his life attacking a whole boatload of people?’

‘You don't know him. He prepares all his undertakings with a cunning worthy of my mother's people. His plans never misfire. For the last few weeks he has entirely changed his habits. Where do you think he spends a lot of his time?’

‘In the Maori village by the sea?’

‘That's right. We have many friends and former neighbours there. He asked for their help.’

‘Most of them are women.’

‘There are some men too. But even the women are ready to help him in this business. You know very well that the women go with their menfolk on the bloodiest expeditions!’

‘Do you think he will use them to attack the newly-weds’ boat?’

‘I'm quite sure he will. He has spent the last two or three days collecting all the ready cash he could lay his hands on—even borrowing it. He took it all with him. I watched him with deep foreboding. page 282 Oh my good lord!’ she exclaimed, leaning forward despairingly, clasping her hands and supporting herself against one of the pillars of the verandah. ‘If something terrible happens, I shall be responsible. I told him everything in an effort to disarm his anger. It only made him angrier.’

‘What will you do?’ I asked, pitying her hopeless case.

‘I don't know! I truly wanted to save him …. Alas! It's too late now. Oh how unhappy I am!’

‘The longer we stay here the worse it will be. There's no doubt that if the Maoris hired by your father and the crew of the cockboat have clashed already the harm's been done. We can't prevent it but there may be casualties, prisoners. I can help them. I must go.’

‘Take me with you!’

‘You! In your condition?’

‘But I feel all right. I need to move about and keep active. It's not night freshness that may kill me, but a stuffy room. Going out in a boat won't harm me: anxiety certainly will. I must know what's happened. Please take me with you!’

For the second time in my life her pleading pose reminded me of a statue of Niobe sculptured in dark marble.

Without more ado I helped her to walk the short distance to the beach, pushed the boat down to the water, carried her into it—which her size made more than a little difficult—and we set off. By now a dense fog covered the whole harbour. It did not matter greatly, for many other boats were now moving in our direction, and there were many guides. Lights gleamed in the grey damp curtain: the splash of oars and the voices of seamen filled the bay with clamour. The alarm had been raised. Racing boats belonging to various clubs, the long launch of the harbour police, and the shapely yachts of wealthy businessmen easily outpaced us in the long procession, leaping gracefully from wave to wave and darting their oars to left and right like spiders. All of them were speedier than we. I could almost have sworn that my strong arms were not moving at all. Soon I realized that our small vessel was in fact advancing, and that it would even quickly outdistance the heavy big-bellied fishing boats in the flotilla. I rowed side by side with one of them for a moment or two, beating in rhythm to the music of its twenty-one-foot oars.

‘What's going on up there?’ I asked its helmsman, jerking my head towards the rocks and the ships ahead.

‘How should I know? Shots were fired, then rockets went up from the anchored ships. The harbour police roused the whole town. Perhaps the Maoris are up to something.’

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I had not heard any shots. Probably I had been struggling through the surf at the time. Its noise would shut out everything else.

Twenty minutes of hard rowing took us to the rocks. The passage between them was crowded with many boats. Nobody could or would explain what had happened. Only when I met the skipper with whom I proposed to sail for the Middle Island did I learn part of the story. He told me what he knew, without paying much attention to the girl behind me who was hanging on his every word.

‘Not long after you left we heard shots from the rocks. I'm inquisitive by nature: I gave orders to lower the cockboat and took four of my men to investigate. Boats from the other ships were on their way there too. The man-of-war sent an armed patrol. We heard further shots before our boats reached the rocks. When we finally got there everything was quiet. We searched in vain for some minutes. Eventually the lime-kiln workers who live on one of the rocks showed us where they said a fight had taken place. There we found Mr Wittmore's boat caught on a submerged rock, without its oars or its crew. In it lay two bodies ….’

‘Bodies! Whose bodies?’ cried the girl from behind me. I felt the full weight of her body leaning on me.

‘Those of Mr Wittmore and one of his sailors. Two women were lying unconscious in the bows—the wife and daughter of the boat's owner.’

‘Where was the rest of the crew? There should have been at least six more people on board!’ I said.

‘There were, on the rocks. The seamen, attacked by the Maoris and heavily outnumbered, fled to land the moment the boat grounded on the rocks. No one stopped them. The Maoris concentrated on dealing with Mr Wittmore.’

‘Was no one else found on the rocks?’

‘Why, yes. Two friends of the bride's parents. They had come to see the newlyweds off. They're quite safe.’

‘And where was the bridegroom?’

‘No one knows. The sailors say that when it became clear that the Maoris were following them he jumped overboard. Mr Wittmore and his friend had pistols and defended themselves for a time, without much success. The excitement was too great for the crew to see in which direction the fugitive swam away.’

‘Did he escape?’ cried the girl.

‘I can't say whether he did or not.’

‘Where did the Maori canoes come from?’ I asked the skipper.

‘The lime workers say that they had been keeping a look out all page 284 evening. No one paid any attention to them—they were thought to be fishing boats.’

‘Where's Mr Wittmore's family? What's become of the bodies?’

‘The ladies were sent home; the police took the bodies.’

Since we could gather no further information there or on the beach I decided to take Jenny home. The next day I was wakened before dawn to be told that both canoes had been found close in to the shore, lying upside down. Probably the natives had escaped by swimming to land. The European boat was discovered in a similar position, without its helmsman or its oars. Patrols were sent along the coast to search for the fugitives, if they had escaped alive, or for the bodies if the crews had drowned in the waves as they upturned the boats.

When I heard this I went to the Quaker woman's house. I found the doctor applying camphor to the girl, who was now seriously ill. Sick as she was, he still hummed softly:

‘Fiévreux, buvez votre tisane!’
Fiévreux, buvez votre tisane!

No wonder his patients ran away from him!

Presently a little Maori girl, a genuine little gnome too small for her age and utterly destitute, with shifty eyes and a swollen cheek, knocked at the door. She looked as if she suffered from inflammation of the gums. She would speak to no one but her kinswoman. When she saw her she took a ball of wax from her mouth and the swelling vanished. The ball contained a short missive written in the illegible hand of Jenny's father.

The note had obviously been written the previous evening before any of these events had occurred. Mr Williams told his daughter to which solicitor she should apply to claim the formal deed of her adoption and the transfer of all his property to her name. He recommended her to return to his farm as soon as the war allowed, even if he stayed away for a long period. The letter did not tell us what had happened to its author.

The fate of Charles Schaeffer also remained a mystery for the whole of that day. Strange rumours about the newlywed pair circulated the town. Mrs Schaeffer was reported to be saying that if her husband appeared she would disown him as a cheat and a coward. In the pauses between her hysterical outbursts she declared to the Crown prosecutor, who was present to take details of the previous night's tragedy, that her wretched husband had turned out to be quite unworthy page 285 of her, for instead of defending his new wife and her father he had slipped into the water and, trusting in his skill as a swimmer, disappeared into the fog.

‘He must have drowned,’ concluded the Crown prosecutor. ‘Even the best swimmer couldn't find land in that fog. His body will be washed ashore sooner or later.’

‘As long as he doesn't come ashore alive! I could live with a criminal, but to live with a coward would be unbearable!’ cried his wife.

The body was found the following day when the wind changed direction and came in from the west, filling the bay with crested waves. One billow, higher than the rest, a formidable knight in a silver helm, came riding among the boiling surf. Seagulls and albatrosses soared above it, complaining and squabbling like evil spirits arguing over a sinner's earthly remains. This mighty wave cast two bodies on to the beach: the old man and the young scape-grace, joined in a mortal embrace. Slime disfigured their faces: but the brutal rage on the one and the terrible fear on the other were imprinted with a deadly stamp so distinctly that I could read them even through the slimy masks.

Many different yarns were spun over the bodies of the drowned, and to my ears each version sounded more fantastic than the last. Why should I contradict them? Why should I tell that I had seen the old man hanging behind the Maori canoes and the cockboat like a vulture which sails in the sky above two armies drawn up for their final encounter? Why should anyone know that the swimmer probably lost his sense of direction in the fog and on hearing the sound of a lonely boat called for help? And that when the boat approached him … who can guess the ending of this scene? Not even the all-seeing stars could pierce the mysterious fog to witness the fell encounter between the girl's father and her seducer. Who can tell whether they struggled in the boat or in the water? No wounds were found on the bodies. They must have drowned simultaneously.

I recommended the dusky orphan, who had been in a delirium from the moment she heard about this double death, to the care of the honest Quaker woman. The doctor assured me that she was not in any danger.

‘A pinch of salt and camphor diluted in ether will relieve her paroxysm, and then ….’

Just then a wave more energetic than usual filled his mouth with sea water (we were sitting in the boat in which he was taking me off page 286 to the schooner), a merciful action which prevented him from reeling off the remedies with which he proposed to cure his patient.

I discovered that the doctor was not really worried about the state of her health when I took him to my cabin, where he helped me to drain a bowl of grog—mourning with each glass for the wines of his own country—and sang at least a dozen ditties by Béranger. That was his way of saying goodbye. Then he settled to his oars and returned to the town. The retreating splash of his oars beat time to his new song, its words rising above the fog:

‘Sur une onde tranquille
Voguant soir et matin,
Ma nacelle es docile
Au souffle du destin.
La voile s'enfle-t-elle,
J'abandonne le bord.
Eh! vogue ma nacelle
(O, doux zéphyr! sois moi fidèle),
Eh! vogue ma nacelle,
Nous trouverons un port!
Nous trouverons un port!’

The harsh rattle of chains pulling against the arms of the seamen who were raising the anchor prevented me from hearing the next stanza of the receding tune. After a brief struggle the chains yielded to the men. The schooner trembled, bent her bow to the waves, and began to flee before the wind. As if she were cold she leant to one side, half buried in the warm blanket of the ocean, snuggling into its white pillows. Several hours later we were passing through Cook Strait. The sulky ocean lay behind us, and the dark blue pyramid of Mount Egmont. The outline of the Middle Island was looming on the distant horizon to our right. The round face of the morning sun emerged slowly from the East Pacific, wondrously illuminating the older northern Queen of Oceania, from which I was parting for ever to become a resident of her younger sister, the Middle Island. I stayed there for a long time, and shall relate at some other time the adventures that befell me during my first visit there. I left it and returned to Australia and then longed to see it again. Now I am visiting it for the second time.