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Tikera; or, Children of the Queen of Oceania

Chapter XXV Goodbye

page 287

Chapter XXV Goodbye

Not many weeks before my second trip to the Middle Island, I stood on the Circular Quay in Sydney Harbour. It is a long semicircle against whose granite walls packet boats cuddle up like puppies against their mother, spewing out or devouring huge piles of heavy cases and boxes. Most of the ships boasted the English flag; occasionally one flew the stars and stripes of the Yankees, or the colours of the free city of Hamburg. One was quite different: its stern was adorned with the French tricolour. A white pennant with a sky-blue rectangle in its middle fluttered at its mast, the sign of its imminent departure. A large crowd was gathered to watch it. The English love to comment on the clumsiness of the French seamen as they go about their tasks, setting the great sails or navigating in a busy harbour, and to laugh at their faults.

A narrow gangplank, scarcely wide enough for two people to pass, joined the ship to the quay. La Belle Bordelaise, as the barque was called, was fully stowed and waited only for her passengers. In half an hour or so a rope would be thrown to the tiny tugboat circling her and the little steam-propelled spider would pull this huge sailing fly from the port's granite wall.

‘See how clumsy they are!’ remarked my companion, a sailor of the umpteenth generation, watching the slowness with which the Froggies loosed the ropes which tied the barque to the quay. ‘If they're as drowsy as that, they'll never get to Bordeaux!’

‘Out of the way!’ someone called behind us. We jumped aside. Several large trucks were rolled by, at some cost to my corns, for the heaviest piece went over them. I was busy grimacing in pain when my comrade remarked, ‘What a peculiar woman! A mulatto or a metis, but really beautiful!’

In those days mention of a beautiful woman would make me forget even my painful corns. For someone who answered that description I would leave a gold claim or a really good dinner—neither of which were easily come by. No one will blame me for that. At the time I must have caught a glimpse of a so-called civilized woman once or twice a year at most, and even these did not really deserve page 288 the qualification. I had just returned from Northern Australia and from among the Papuan women.

Therefore I gazed greedily at this beautiful woman, not at all dismayed by the colour of her skin.

Good lord! Her height, graceful figure, and raven-black hair, now artfully dressed, were very familiar. I did not see her face: but I knew who she was.

Her dress was in the fashion of the day, in very good taste, and quite expensive. She walked gracefully, no longer Jenny Williams of the militia camp but truly the Tikera of yore. Behind her, in Australian fashion rather like a footman, came her husband leading a little girl.

If I had not recognized him by his appearance, I would have identified him by his continuous singing. Evidently he sang for the child whose hand he held:

‘Chère enfant, dansez, dansez!
Votre âge échappe à l'orage:
Par l'espoir gaîment bercés,
Dansez, chantez, dansez!’

The unusual beauty of this cherub—unusual even in a country of lovely children—with her oval face, large eyes, and delicate features, and her lively intelligence struck the seamen who stood rooted to the spot by the gangplank.

‘Look at that angelic child!’ said one of them.

‘What silky black curls!’ remarked a second.

‘And those blue eyes!’ interrupted a third who, bolder than the others, lowered his grimy face to the child and gently kissed her temple—proof of the tenderness toward other people's children which all seamen have, for these Bedouins of the sea do not know the joys of family life and the delight of rocking one's own little one.

While the Frenchmen were carried away by the beauty of the child, one of the Englishmen observed, ‘It's a pity that pretty child is a quadroon or a metis! What a strange pair her parents are! A white father and a half-caste mother …. They must be wealthy, though. Lady Young’—the Governor's wife in Sydney—‘doesn't wear finer satins and feathers.’

‘Good morning, doctor!’ I shouted, seizing the physician's delicate fingers in my rough hand.

‘Ah, mon brave Polonais!’

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Needless to say we greeted one another with the exuberance of old friends.

His wife, who retained her former energy and did not need masculine assistance, nay, acted like a man herself, was busy attending to their trunks and did not notice me until her husband called out, ‘Tikera, mon amie, look whom I've found!’

Startled, she gave me a quick look. Her brown cheeks at once took on that metallic lustre which in coloured people replaces a flush. Was she ashamed to meet someone who knew of her ups and downs in New Zealand?

Not at all. She ran to me as in the old days stretching out both her hands, which were as strong, round, and beautiful as ever, though now many jewels glittered on the smooth fingers. These trinkets stood out strangely on the dark background of her hands.

Tikera greeted me in fluent French, asking many questions about me and my life since we had parted. The bystanders on the quay seemed quite concerned at seeing a white man compromise himself in such a way with a coloured woman in a public place.

When her curiosity was satisfied I questioned her in my turn. ‘Are you going on a voyage?’

‘Yes. First to Bordeaux and then to Martinique,’ replied her husband. ‘We sold all our possessions at a better price than we had hoped for—that's her father's property, you know. For the last couple of years we've tried to settle first in Melbourne and then in Sydney, but Tikera's complexion and my notions have roused only contempt and laughter wherever we went. So we've decided to move to a French colony, where we'll buy a plantation. Not so much for the sake of making money—I'll be able to experiment on our servants with my solutions of salt and camphor and she will be part of a society in which she can be proud of the lightness of her complexion, in a place which swarms with Negroes and hideous mulattos. Moreover,’ he added emphatically, ‘if someone insults my wife there I shall be able to obtain satisfaction. Here I can only use my fists! C'est de la canaille!

At that moment the child came to me and clasped my knee with her little hands. ‘What a beautiful child!’ I exclaimed.

Her mother's eyes lit up with pleasure. Her stepfather was almost equally delighted, and said, ‘Isn't she a real little angel? She'll grow into a fine lady, won't you, Tikera?’

‘Tikera? So you gave your little daugher a Maori name?’ I asked, a little shocked.

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‘Of course,’ answered her mother. ‘My daughter and I shall always be proud of our Maori name.’

‘And I am proud of it too,’ said the goodnatured physician. ‘It's a constant reminder of the exotic isle where I found my jewel. Can you imagine, mon cher Polonais, that I even learnt a little of her language, so I can speak to Tikera in Maori, and she answers in French—good French, as you may hear for yourself. She's certainly no rattlebrain. I doubt whether the most gifted pupil in Sydney makes better progress in studying what fashionable ladies should know. It's no effort to her.’

‘I have a good teacher,’ whispered Tikera.

Her husband thought that a brief explanation was needed. ‘In our family I teach the mother and daughter, and my wife looks after our finances and our needs generally. This distribution of duties is not the generally accepted one but it suits us very well and we intend to keep it up. It's true that I caught a well-to-do wife, but I didn't set out to catch her. Her dowry was unexpected and I don't want to let it turn my head, particularly now that I have to write an important work speculating on the question of whether one might profitably use chloroform as well as alcohol and ether for the dilution of homeopathic doses of salt and camphor.’

‘Do you still believe in all that, doctor?’ I asked.

‘Just as much as I love my big Tikera and my little one, whom we shall turn into a great and learned lady—don't you agree, my dear? God will not grant us another child …. So we must more than love the one he gave us. We must make her worthy of a noble people whose blood may flow in her children's veins on a far-away tropical island when everyone in New Zealand will have forgotten what the Maori people even looked like!’

‘You'd better hurry aboard,’ I warned them. ‘The ship will soon be sailing.’

We all hastened aboard. I stayed with them and helped them to empty a bottle of champagne, waiting until the visitors bidding farewell to their friends would return to shore on board the tug which was now towing its gigantic charge. Soon the barque would be cast off from the tiny steamer and would sail on alone. Having found a peaceful corner on the deck for the time being, I found myself alone with Tikera while her husband went below to select a cage, politely called a cabin, from a dozen others. He walked slowly along the deck, singing as usual, this time a snatch from Béranger's ‘Qu'il est lent à trouver un port?’

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‘Qu'il va lentement, le navire
A qui j'ai confié mon sort!
Au rivage où mon coeur aspire,
Qu'il est lent à trouver un port!
France adorée!
Douce contrée!
Mes yeux cette fois pourront te découvrir.’

He altered the last phrase to adjust it to their changed conditions. Then he disappeared over the precipice which led to the bowels of the floating town known as a ship.

We looked at one another under a frail cloud of smoke and steam. Above us, the barque's huge noisy wings were being unfurled. Their white curtain divided us from the other travellers and their flutter muffled our voices from the ears of eavesdroppers.

‘He is always happy, always singing,’ I said to his wife. ‘And you?’

‘Just as happy as his love can make me. He is so good, so gay, so learned, always writing; and he knows Béranger by heart. When he isn't busy weighing his camphor the whole house shakes to his voice—he has such a clear, manly nature. And yet he's helpless too. I have to give him a daily allowance for his experiments. It's a cheap hobby: chloroform is the most expensive item. I like to look after him. Sometimes I feel as though I had two children.’

She bent down and looked shyly at the little girl who was playing with her fan. I knelt to kiss the forehead of this daughter of two wild parents—one half-Maori and the other European. He was no longer alive, and, in a way, she was no longer alive either, for she had been transformed into an entirely different person.

Merci,’ murmured this highly civilized mother of a child which had been conceived in uncontrolled passion. ‘You have always been my friend … and cared neither for my colour nor for my past.’

‘You are going to a place where many people feel as I do,’ I replied. ‘You will find rest there, my poor Maori girl. Make full use of it for the rest of your life. You truly deserve it.’

‘He says the same thing. But’—and here tears filled her eyes, even more beautiful now than in the days when I had been allowed to dry them with my own cheeks—‘it won't be my own country. A daughter of the pearl of the Antilles would be able to find true happiness there, but not I, for I am from the pearl of Oceania.’

Hiding her face in her hands she stood in the pose of an exile who has not the courage to watch the Motherland recede behind the blue rolling hills of the ocean. How attractive this sentiment made page 292 her! A new thread of sympathy joined our hearts. I felt friendlier towards her than ever before, an exile recognized an exile. Drawing her hands from her cheeks I consoled her with the hope that sooner or later, if not in body then in spirit, she would return to her own land, to float above its mounded graves for ever and ever.

‘Mon épouse fait ma gloire:
Elle a de si jolis yeux!
Je lui dois, l'on peut m'en croire.
Un ami bien précieux ….’

So sang that most discreet of husbands as he struggled with the canvas shroud which isolated us.

‘The tug is casting off!’ he shouted. ‘Allons! It's time to say goodbye.’

Obeying his command, I shook her hand. At that moment I envied the admirer of Béranger the treasure he had appreciated more than had a wastrel and his selfish former friend, and which, despite his French flightiness and his head crammed with notions of salt and camphor, he had taken to himself. Truly, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven’.

To the tune of the doctor's song, which lamented that part we must, I and the other passengers' friends were pushed on board the tug. Steam hissed from her cylinders; she hooted, turned in a tight circle, and rushed us back to port.

Far away the masts and yards of La Belle Bordelaise stood out clearly, now against the bright sky, now against the smooth ocean. The outline of its white wings hung between the air and the water.

From beneath those wings, a brown hand waved a handkerchief, whiter even than the sails … which grew ever smaller and more indistinct until it finally disappeared altogether.

I can no longer see the hand … nor the handkerchief. I have no telescope … and I am all alone. Before the ship vanishes altogether I shout for the last time:

‘Farewell, exiled children of the Queen of Oceania!’

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