Tikera; or, Children of the Queen of Oceania
Chapter VII Every cloud has a silver lining
Chapter VII Every cloud has a silver lining
Early next morning we discovered that we had indeed to work for our keep. The potatoes, fish, and taro we had eaten for supper the previous night were to be paid for. We had to contribute to the war effort, like all the other inhabitants of the kainga.
To be sure, the Maoris could not open hostilities immediately. It was traditional on such occasions for the whole tribe to hold a general meeting. If the projected war was approved, ambassadors would be sent to the enemy to make a formal declaration and stipulate a suitable period for both sides to make the necessary preparations. At first even the pakehas had respected this chivalrous custom, and never entered Maori territory before the agreed date. In fact, the outnumbered white men gained most from these long periods of preparation, which sometimes lasted for several weeks. They could evacuate their womenfolk, children, cattle, and grain from the farms in the disputed areas. They could organize an effective militia from among the farmers, who were only too willing to become temporary soldiers. The Maoris were more or less constantly ready for war, and if they had abandoned their ancient code of chivalry would by this time have driven all the Europeans from New Zealand.
But later the situation changed radically. The dispersed Maori tribes needed time to co-ordinate their activities, to fortify their pas, and to build up their stock of ammunition. The numerous regular troops and the militia, occupying all the strategic points in the centre of the North Island, were within a few days' march from any stubborn tribe.
The Maoris are born strategists, and knew from experience that the white men's conduct of war was entirely different from their own. Although war had not been formally declared they daily expected to see the redcoats moving in on their lands. So these normally indolent men laboured to strengthen their defences, covering the palisades with green sheaves and other ‘armour’. The women cast bullets, made cartridges, sharpened hatchets, and collected the small page 64 round pebbles which the Maoris use instead of lead bullets. The chief's absence also contributed to the general air of expectancy.
An American schooner, belonging to the numerous fleet of New England whalers which operates in the Pacific, appeared in the bay of Tauranga. Her cargo chiefly consisted of guns, which came from the famous armouries of Birmingham. American or British smugglers could make a fifty percent profit by selling them to the natives at a pound apiece, and a most lucrative business it was. The settlers had a theory that the Birmingham manufacturers must be truly patriotic Englishmen, for after a short time the gun barrels burst and killed their Maori owners. Armed with hatchets and these miserable muskets the Maoris opposed overwhelming forces, who were generally armed with the most modern rifles.
The presence of the American whaler was signalled along the shore by beacons lit on the coastal hilltops. Before a Naval vessel could arrive from Auckland to keep an eye on Cousin Jonathan, the greater part of the cargo—guns, ammunition, and brandy—had come ashore and was safely in Maori hands. In exchange for these useful articles the few remaining Maori possessions passed to the Americans.
Needless to say the ammunition so obtained was insufficient for war needs. Each Maori village had to make its own contribution to local supplies. They manufactured gunpowder and bullets with remarkable energy and ingenuity. The volcanic region in the centre of the North Island provided sulphur, the natives manufactured saltpetre, bullets were cast from lead or tinkered from buttons, telegraph wires, or even tools—whether of iron, brass, or copper. Pebbles were collected, as I have mentioned. The women reduced them in size and rounded their shape. Troops of the line were even occasionally repulsed by these primitive missiles.
We were set to manufacturing gunpowder. Some years previously, in an Italian military academy, I had learnt a ‘revolutionary’ method of making gunpowder by using small barrels and brass bullets. My companion knew some chemistry and was able to help me. Understandably enough, we both preferred this task to digging rifle pits on the hill behind the palisades. We had therefore resolved to tell the natives of our skill. They sent us to work with the women. When we complained of the dirt, the rats, the insects in our quarters, they billeted us with village households. The teacher agreed to give my companion house-room for the time being, and I was sent to stay in another ‘European’ house owned by a half-caste family. They page 65 had chosen to break entirely with their pakeha relatives and preferred life in a kainga to the loneliness of a European farm.
The women with whom I worked knew not one word of English. I could not discover the name of the fortress, or of the chief, or the answers to any of the other questions which aroused my curiosity. They were so absorbed in what they were doing that it was not until the midday break that our friendly overtures met with any response. Our attempts to make the acquaintance of the betterlooking young girls met with failure. The older women saw to that. But some of them accepted our civilities pleasantly enough. Could it have been that the old women were jealous?
Our captors made us stop work early in the evening. Bidding good night to my convalescent friend, I directed my steps towards the house of the half-caste family. There I found many women, some children, and only one old man.
A heap of ashes glowed in front of the verandah, the remains of a huge log fire over which the supper had been cooked. The family sat round the fire wholly enveloped in its smoke which protected them from mosquitoes and sandflies. They were stretched out on woven flax mats, as soft as any silk, with their feet pointing towards the centre of the family circle. They slept here at night, too; they preferred the open air to their crowded and uncomfortable quarters within doors. In this they differed from pure-bred Maoris, who would never leave their doorless, windowless huts unless called outside by really urgent business. I have already described these huts, their dirt, soot, smoke, and complete absence of fresh air.
The grandparents sat on flaxen mats. The younger generation ranged from an infant to youngsters in their teens. At first I thought they were all brothers and sisters. I soon discovered they were a mixed lot—uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews, all so close in age that they were being brought up together. The baby's mother was rocking it to sleep in a monotonous Maori lullaby. The older women were clad half in European, half in Maori fashion, wearing flannel bodices with native blankets about their hips.
In the centre of the group lay a young woman beautifully though perhaps too monumentally proportioned. She was playing with her grubby little nephew, who screamed with delight as she bounced him up and down on one of her legs. While she played with him she watched through half-closed eyes to see that her clothes did not catch fire. She made sure at the same time that her noisy nephew kept warm. Each time the flickering flames near the leg on which her page 66 nephew rode died down she tossed him skilfully on to her other leg, in order to move him closer to a more lively part of the fire. This exercise was somewhat discordant with European notions of propriety, but entirely in harmony with local standards of behaviour.
The grandparents were typically dried-up, worn-out old natives. Their faces were bony and parchment-covered, their eyes empty, their lips flabby. But their woolly, negroid hair was not usual among the Maoris. The eldest daughter, the mother of the baby, reminded me more of an American mulatto than of a Maori. I guessed that her father must have been a pakeha, and that her mother subsequently found a husband from her own tribe.
The other young woman, who so lovingly nursed the little boy, also reminded me of a mulatto, in her aquiline features and noble, shapely figure. Her raven hair shone with a blue light and fell in lustrous curls. The sight of this head framed by a Maori blanket and crowned with her lovely hair, convinced me at last of the existence of beautiful half-castes. The young women spoke to their parents and to the children in Maori, but to one another in English. From the conversation I overheard during supper (which was waiting for me by the fire, and consisted of tea, kumara, and bacon), I deduced that the young women were sisters, stepdaughters of my host; that the husband of the elder had gone with his chief to the bay of Tauranga; and that the younger had come from a distant part of the Island—probably from her father's house—to visit her mother and sister. She proposed to return home to her white relations before the harvest and the start of the war.
When I had finished my supper I made for the common sitting and sleeping place. Knowing that my travel-stained trousers could not get any dirtier than they were, I sat down boldly among the ashes beside the old man.
The evening occupations of the old people reflected their primitive way of life. The hardest tasks were the privilege of the womenfolk. The woman busily turned out a clay pitcher, and a pretty good one too. She had no wheel to work on. She used wooden tools, similar to pestles, to grind the clay. Playfully, or perhaps for some other reason, she smeared her own face and body, and the children's, so liberally with the diluted clay that they could all have been taken for the yellow and black banner of the Austrian Empire.
But the old man merely sat, smoking his clay pipe and spitting on the fire with remarkable frequency and proficiency. Choosing a glowing piece of charcoal for his target, he spat until he had reduced page 67 it to a smoking, sizzling dead mass. He then selected another victim, and attacked it with the same result. After half an hour of this selective slaughter the fire had shrunk visibly.
Further round the circle the young mother and her youthful half-brother held an animated discussion. The girl explained to me later that earlier in the day the youngster had killed a well-grown pig which he had surprised among fern trees.
‘He speared it,’ she boasted of the family's young provider. ‘Do you know how to kill pigs with a spear?’ she went on. ‘Did you kill many on your journey?’
I felt that an admission of failure in this noble sport would lower my prestige in the eyes of these beautiful half-Maori women. On the other hand I did not know the proper technical terms used in describing the sport. I shamefacedly confessed that I had met several herds of wild pigs without spilling their blood. If only I had followed the example of the professional critics of the theatre or painting, and had learnt all the technical expressions which the general public do not usually understand, I could have made a reasonable story. As it was, my honesty was rewarded with a contemptuous silence.
When the baby had fallen asleep its mother began to make a large net from the local flax. Luckily she was not able to pursue our conversation any further. She had to get up to look for more flax. The topic was immediately forgotten. Her sister also rose, to shake the crumbs and ashes from her blanket, and I gradually recovered from the humiliation occasioned by the hapless piglet.
Darkness fell suddenly, as it does in the tropics. The grandmother's wooden tools and the mother's netting were tidied away in the house. The old woman (if I may call her that, for she was only about forty years old, and the mother of young children) yawned. The old man gazed sleepily towards the house. A son produced a supply of wood and a bundle of herbs to discourage the nocturnal mosquitoes. These were our preparations for bed.
My monumental beauty, who was sitting on her blanket, lay down on it with one energetic movement. She turned her lovely back, which would not have disgraced a prize-fighter, to the fire and warmed her shoulders. They were strongly modelled but wonderfully soft, and might have been carved by Phidias himself to grace a square in some mighty new Athens. They were topped by a slender neck and a finely moulded head. She yawned, stretching her clenched fists as though, like her ancestors the Titans, she threatened the sky. Then she struck a tragic pose, resembling that of Laocoon in page 68 the famous statue, and uttered deep, echoing moans, worthy of Achilles mourning over the body of his life-long friend Patroclus. Despite her powerful body, she was amazingly agile. Instead of rising in the usual way she jumped up like a ball, without using her hands, and in one movement stood straight as a sapling. It seemed as if she did not lift her body from the ground as ordinary mortals do, but shot up from the bowels of the earth. I could not help admiring her. ‘What a marvellous model she would make for a dusky Juno!’ I thought.
‘Would you like to see the pigs?’ she asked me suddenly.
I was quite flabbergasted both by her unexpected kindness in remembering me and by the prosaic nature of her question, which poured cold water on my mythological comparisons.
‘Just as you say,’ I answered, coming down to earth and suddenly aware that, as a prisoner, I must obey orders.
‘Let's go then. I have to shut the gate of the pigsty. If I don't the pigs will run away and do a lot of damage. Since my brother-in-law went away, I have had plenty to do. And I don't feel like it, I really don't.’ She yawned again, stretching her superb body, no darker than Aphrodite's must have been.
The postures she adopted had to be seen to be believed. Any circus would have welcomed her for the sake of her biceps.
‘You can help me better than our boys. You must be strong. Come on! Come on!’ she shouted, tugging the tail of my jacket.
So, her kindness sprang from a desire to save herself physical effort! O selfish creature! And I had thought ….
We went to the pigsty. A heaving mass of black and white bristles lay in an enclosure surrounded by kauri posts and a fence of thick strands of flax. My Amazon walked in amongst the blissfully sleeping animals, treading on their backs and sides with no consideration for their feelings. Their squeals of indignation soon gave way to a kind of welcoming grunt. The waves of this living sea pushed towards the source of their supplies.
‘Follow me!’ she called impatiently, seeing that I hesitated to tread on the squirming mass. ‘We'll fetch them some maize.’
We gathered several armfuls of freshly cut leaves of maize and threw them down among the hungry swine. The girl stood garlanded in sheaves, like a green caterpillar with a brown head. She was very strict in seeing that each animal received its proper share.
‘What a lot of pigs!’ I could not help saying. I was really surprised at the number of the greedy animals.page 69
‘My father has at least two hundred,’ she said proudly. She glanced contemptuously at the mere hundred belonging to her brother-in-law.
‘Where does your father live?’
‘In Taranaki, over the Wanganui River. Once he lived in these parts. He built this house for my mother and her family.’
‘What does he do there?’
‘He raises cattle.’
‘Have you any other brothers or sisters?’
‘None, except my sister and the half-brothers you've seen today. Father took me away with him when he went. He brought me up on his farm. My sister has always stayed here. You see, her husband is a Maori. He was brought up by missionaries who wanted him to be a minister or a teacher. But he is no good … not all there,’ she added, touching her forehead.
The rising moon illuminated this scene, peopled by the young woman, myself, and the herd. Its silver beams outlined the shapes of the huts and clusters of tall, pointed kauri trees behind them. The lofty fortress wore a shining crown on its battlements, as befitted the queen of the countryside. A thick mist floated over the meadows on either side of the hills, breaking and then fusing into wispy shrouds in which I thought I could detect the white ghosts of German legend. On the high hill slopes glittered mighty masses of granite, whose long shadows seemed to join hands with one another, as though they were about to dance a reel. Above us rustled New Zealand nikau palms, shooting straight and slender as arrows some thirty feet towards the sky, their long leaves fanning out from their crowns. Everything round us was beautiful, new, and strange, and told me that I had come to a country scarcely visited by tourists, to be amongst people and plants which have seldom been described. The newest, the finest, and by far the most interesting attraction was the young giantess who stood beside me, bathed in moonlight, silhouetted against the white background of the palisade like a bronze monument made by no earthly hands. Many men would have worshipped her. I on the other hand must have looked incredibly comic, hidden in the shadows, feeding the swine like a second Prodigal Son. The absurdity of the contrast brought me back to my senses. I was simply a prisoner whose life did not count for much, working under the supervision of a dark-skinned girl. Yet my guardian's beauty made my work less humiliating. Her charms allowed me to receive her orders without resentment, even with delight, for her voice page 70 was sweet and she smiled often. Each time she smiled two dimples appeared on her cheeks, so deep that even the inquisitive moon could not get to the bottom of them.
‘There is a plant in this country which has a bitter taste like that of wormwood,’ I thought to myself as I helped the young woman lift the bars of the gate, ‘but sweet berries ripen on it. Must I reject them because they come from a bitter tree? Why should I not behave as the circumstances demand and reach for the only sweetness I shall find in this bitter situation?’
Putting my thoughts into action I took her hand as we returned home, our task completed. She did not draw back. Like many Maori girls, she was delighted to flirt with a European.
We walked along very slowly. In her other hand my companion held the sickle which she had used for cutting the maize. She waved it about so violently that once or twice I feared for my safety. As she walked along she kicked at the pebbles in her path. She did not hurry to join her family, nor did she make any conversation. The duty of breaking the silence fell on me.
‘What's your name, my beauty?’
‘How old are you?’
To this rather undiplomatic question, which I had asked quite unthinkingly because of her statuesque size and well-developed body, she replied simply, ‘Twenty.’ A gentle sigh followed this admission.
I understood its significance. In the colonies one does not very often meet single women of that age, either Maori or pakeha. The natives often marry off their daughters too early. Her sister, who was only three years older, already had several children. Without any doubt Miss Jenny was reproaching the fate which left her without a husband at this advanced age.
‘Twenty years old and unmarried?’ I asked.
‘Father would like me to marry a pakeha, but the pakehas don't want girls like me.’ Here she sighed again. ‘And though Te Ti was after me for some years, I didn't want him. So in the end he went overseas. They say he did it out of sorrow.’
‘Who is Te Ti?’
‘He is a Maori chief's son.’
‘Is he a half-caste too?’
‘No, a pure Maori.’
‘Does he speak English?’
‘Yes, he went to school, and learnt everything the pakehas could teach him.’page 71
‘Why didn't you want him?’
‘Father didn't want me to. I was too young to know my own mind. Besides, he's just a Maori, as yellow as the button on a red coat. That's no man for me.’
She pouted a little, pleased to think that thanks to her father she belonged to the white race.
‘Poor Te Ti,’ I thought. ‘And poor girl. He obviously ran after you because your complexion is lighter than his, while you would dearly like to marry someone lighter than yourself. Te Ti is probably just as good-looking, well educated, and courageous as that young man who saved my life in Auckland. But you would reject him too in preference for a foul-mouthed seaman, a penniless soldier, or the most wretched European to cross your path, so long as he was willing to have you. A strange, strange ambition!’
We walked even more slowly. Eventually we stopped altogether. The sickle hung motionless while I listened to the story of Miss Jenny's ups and downs with her father. He had escaped from a penal settlement and had been in turn a fugitive amongst the Maoris, a seaman in the Pacific, and a gold prospector, before ending up as a farmer in Taranaki. From what she said I gathered that, though he was well-to-do, her father still belonged to the dregs of the colonial community
In gratitude for her confidence in me, I told her the story of my walk from Auckland, my plans for the future, and my misgivings. She was full of sympathy.
At last we took leave of one another. Jenny threw a handful of herbs on to the fire and, still fully dressed, lay down among the snoring members of her family. Spreading my blanket at the other side of the fire I too lay down to sleep.
Early in the morning I was woken by deafening squeals from the pigsty, echoed by screaming children. Sleep was no longer possible. I observed how the mother ejected her sleepy brood one by one from their blankets. She grabbed each child by the neck, and told them breakfast was ready. She performed this operation with rare elegance.
The old Maori woman came out from the house, a pipe in her mouth. ‘Hey, Tikera!’ she spluttered. I was told much later that this last word means ‘tea kettle’ in the Maori tongue, and has been borrowed from the English. It was Miss Jenny's Maori name. Many Maori words are English corruptions.
The younger daughter showed no sign of life.
‘Jenny! Jenny!’ shouted her sister poking her once or twice.page 72
Something stirred vaguely under the blanket.
‘Tikera! Tikera!’ repeated the old woman.
‘What's the hurry?’ mumbled a voice from beneath the bedclothes. There followed a loud yawn, and then a profound silence.
‘Get up and feed the pigs!’ commanded her sister.
A sudden fear that she was neglecting her duty shook the Maori girl and her blanket alike.
The blanket flew up in the air as if blown from the crater of an erupting volcano. Tikera sprang out fully accoutred, like Jove's famous daughter. She stood by the fire with her usual energy, her calico dress clearly showing its creases. She rubbed her eyes, lavishly shaded by long lashes, with her large fists. Her pretty if slightly discoloured teeth flashed like a ring of ivory pegs. Then she began to adjust her dress, apparently quite oblivious of my presence.
Since I was reluctant to observe these indiscreet gestures, which consisted of fastening some six buttons, I decided to go to the spring and clean myself up. Without soap I painfully removed the sticky layer of coal and saltpetre which had clung to my hands since the previous day. The spring formed a little pool filled with clear water, as bright as a piece of Venetian glass. Before I had finished, I saw in this watery looking-glass a reflection of Jenny standing beside my own familiar image, in all the glory of her thick, unruly curls, dusky face, fiery eyes, and dweet half-open lips, which showed such teeth as only coloured people have. Using her cupped hands as a ladle she scooped up a good half-gallon of water and generously splashed her face, carefully omitting to wash behind her ears or her swan-like neck. When she had done, she reminded me of a half-scrubbed copper vessel, shiny and dripping with water above, dry and rusty below.
I dried myself with the towel I had brought, and tidied my hair. She was plainly tickled to see me use a small comb and a pocket glass. She rested her large hands on her no less impressive hips and watched the whole performance with the greatest interest, while the water dribbled from her face on to her dress.
After a while she had had enough of that. She bent down with an alarming violence (I really thought her spine must break, or the bodice of her dress split apart) and squatting as if gathering mushrooms in an ample skirt wiped her face on the hem of her dress. Elated by her achievement she unbent just as rapidly and looked at me coquettishly. Her face was dry, certainly, but smudged with dirt and clay in intricate and haphazard patterns. Only her graceful nose was clean, and highly polished. It became the playground of page 73 a frolicsome sunbeam, which stole in through the green canopy of cabbage trees over her head.
She asked me for the comb and the glass, and sat down by the spring to rinse her bare feet. Solemnly she tried to put her curls in order. It was delightful to watch their black waves, which gleamed as brightly as the stream by which we sat.
‘If it were not for that dirt just above her soft mouth,’ I thought, ‘and her coarse behaviour, who knows … perhaps ….’
I was even growing accustomed to the dirt when a call of ‘Tikera! Tikera!’ again echoed from the cabbage trees and the rocks.
‘I've forgotten the pigs!’ she exclaimed, tossing down the comb and the glass. In an instant she had shaken back her lion's mane of curls and leapt to her feet. Calling me to follow her, she ran towards the pigsty. We followed the procedure of the previous night: cutting the maize, feeding the swine, walking hand-in-hand back to the house. Our intimacy caused no surprise and we were left alone to talk and eat—to our great mutual satisfaction, judging by the morsels she offered me from her own meal.
Once these domestic duties were concluded, we had to go to work. My German friend was there already. He was so obviously delighted with himself that I could hardly wait for the midday break to question him. When it came, I asked him, ‘How are things with you?’
‘Not so bad.’
‘Are the people all right?’
‘The preacher's sister is a pleasant person … quite approachable.’
‘No, a pure Maori. There are no half-castes here, are there?’
‘They might turn up … they might well turn up …’ I muttered to myself, thinking about the mixed family in my household. Then I added out loud: ‘Did you get to know her?’
‘I help her with the chores around the place. When she milks the cows, I hand her the buckets. We go to the cowshed together. You can't imagine how gay she is. She was teaching me to milk, but the cow recognized a strange hand and pushed me over, bucket and all. You should have heard the complaints. She was partly crying over me, but mostly over the bucket and the spilt milk.’
Everything became clear to me. I was not the only one helping round the house. As I meditated about the way the Maoris treated their prisoners, I could only admire them.
After a while the teacher turned up.
‘How do you like it here?’ he asked.page 74
‘As much as a prisoner can like his prison,’ I answered.
‘They tell me you work diligently.’
‘We want to pay for our food.’
‘Tomorrow is a ra-tapu’ (a sacred day, or Sunday) ‘so you will rest. The chief will return the day after tomorrow at the very latest, and he'll give you better work. I don't know whether he'll let you go. The news is bad. And we need men.’
‘What is your chief called?’
‘And the pa up the hill?’
‘Pukehinahina. The English call it the Gate Pa, the key fortress. They are right about that. It guards the entrance to the lands of the Tauranga tribe.’
That evening passed as had the previous one in Miss Jenny's company.
Since the moon was low in the sky, I needed a guide to the twisting stony path from the pigsty to the house. By some means we lost sight of the fire and emerged near the spring where we had washed together in the morning. The wind stirred in the cabbage trees and in the grasses about the pool. Their feathery tops reminded me of the rushes commonly found by ponds in Poland. Thanks to the wind there were no mosquitoes. We sat under the trees and embarked on a more weighty topic than hitherto—the possibility of my escape. I first played a little romantic comedy for the benefit of my partner, who confessed a certain sympathy towards me. We agreed to learn as much about one another as we could.
After this diplomatic overture I began to outline the plan I had prepared. My hand crept out through the darkness like a snake in the grass in the hope that Jenny would find it, as she duly did.
‘When do you go back to your father's place?’
‘They say the chief returns on Monday. A day or two after his return he'll send envoys to the bay. I'll go with them. Father will wait for me at the Maketu mission, and from there we'll go to our farm. Father can't come to the kainga. He lived here once, but he has fallen out with the chief and is afraid of his warriors.’
‘Then you'll probably go either on Tuesday or Wednesday?’
‘What shall I do here by myself? I'll be bored stiff! I might even die ….’
‘If you want to, you can come with me.’ She squeezed my fingers as lightly as she was able. I almost cried out from the pain of this delicate token of her tender feelings towards me.page 75
‘They won't let me go,’ I said, without letting it appear that her caress had been too much for me. ‘The teacher says that the chief needs people, so we have to stay.’
‘The runanga will be held on Monday. They always have a runanga when the chief comes back. All the men will take part. Nobody will be guarding you. You can run away then.’
‘It wouldn't work. I should wander about the whole night, and they'd follow my trail the next day and catch me easily.’
‘You won't get lost. I'll take you to the road. They won't catch you, because you'll have a horse.’
‘Where shall I get a horse from?’
‘I'll give you one of my brother-in-law's.’
‘But what about my friend?’
‘He's no concern of mine.’
‘But he is of mine. A pakeha doesn't abandon his friend. We have our customs too. Either I'll go with him, or not at all.’
‘So you care more for him than for your freedom … or for me?’
‘I like my freedom well enough, but I can't leave my friend.’
‘He'll be quite safe … and perhaps better off than you think.’
‘How do you know he'll be all right?’
‘Because I went to the teacher's house today and spoke to someone who will look after him. She doesn't want him to leave the kainga.’
‘Does he want to stay?’
‘Perhaps he does.’ She smiled, her teeth glinting in the moon light.
‘Well, I'll have to speak to him. I'll remind him that there may be business waiting for him in New Plymouth. If that doesn't make him come away with me, I'll leave him here. But I doubt if he'll allow a silly love affair to make him forget that!’
I bit my tongue, but it was too late. Jenny had already dropped my hand in protest against my light-hearted comment on something which means so much to these dusky daughters of Nature. This emotion is their only incentive towards higher thoughts, and allows them to rise above the sordid circumstances of their everyday lives. Anxious to regain her confidence, I again took hold of her hand, assuring her in my most tender tones, ‘He is wasting his time on a Maori girl. If he wanted to stay with an angel like you ….’
‘True,’ she remarked naively, ‘I had forgotten how yellow she is.’ And she showed that my compliment had won her forgiveness by snuggling up to me.
From then on I guarded my tongue better and was careful not to betray my play-acting. The comedy did not increase my self-respect. page 76 I tried to convince myself that the end justified the means, that my desire to regain my liberty exonerated my conduct. But I felt all the time that this European game, though it had its pleasant side and promised me my freedom, was too reminiscent of Krasicki's fable of the boys and the frogs.
These daughters of the tropical wilderness, children of a passionate and wilful race and of the outcasts of white society, do not understand this game at all. Fiery like their European fathers, imprudent like their native mothers, each of them dreams only of having a white-skinned lover. The caresses of so lofty a being represent the summit of their desires. Their one hope is to achieve such a union as their fathers described to them so often during their early years. A European lover represents to each the fulfilment of her passions, which are as powerful as the volcanoes of their land. Moreover, he is the key to the wonderful white world which half-castes cannot otherwise enter. When we are playing with them, we are indeed playing with fire.
One factor may slightly mitigate our behaviour. The white man's faithlessness hurts them but does not lower their reputation in the eyes of other women. The fact that they once won the favours of a white man glosses over the shame of their desertion. Instead of repudiating a newly betrayed mistress the other women envy her her past happiness. They show their envy in a strange fashion, by respecting her. The former mistress of a pakeha remains for ever the object of grudging reverence. But does this really excuse our constant treachery? Practically every settler takes advantage of these ill-starred and gullible girls, and quietens his conscience with the knowledge that though he has betrayed them, he has also raised them in the opinion of their own people.
At that time I did not know how easily these women console themselves after an unlucky love affair. My conscience bothered me. I could not find a valid excuse for my conduct. It was my turn to sigh.
‘What are you sighing for?’ Jenny was anxious to know. ‘Because you have to part with your friend? You know you have to leave him. And will you go with us to Wanganui, to our farm?’
‘Most willingly …’ I muttered, confirming my words by squeezing her hand.
‘Remember your promise. I have heard that the pakehas have poor memories.’
‘Who could break a promise given to you?’page 77
A prolonged silence followed, during which my hand convinced her far more than my words could ever have done.
In this manner, my escape was planned. Its execution was left to her.
Her feminine imagination swarmed with clever stratagems. If all of them failed, she assured me that she would stay to protect me from her kinsmen. I accompanied her back to the house.
It was a cold night, and her sister and the children had been forced indoors. It took me a long time to bid her goodnight under the shelter of the verandah. When she had left me I carried my bed to an empty room in the house. I spent half the night tossing and turning, speculating anxiously on the likely outcome of the adventure, and watching the innumerable rats which gambolled about me.
The next day was Sunday. When I had performed my usual task in the pigsty I went to see the teacher. I met my German friend on the path leading across his maize field. He was helping the Maori girl with the weeding. His Dulcinea made a good impression on me. What I could not understand was how the lovers communicated, since the girl knew no English. I had forgotten that love employs a universal language which everyone understands.
It was obvious that the poor girl worshipped her white companion. As for him, he treated the affair lightly … perhaps even more lightly than I treated mine.
I asked him to step aside with me, so that I could give him an account of my projected escape.
‘You can run away if you want to,’ he said indifferently, ‘I'll stay here for a while.’
Will you stay for the sake of a savage girl?' I exclaimed in astonishment.
‘What of it?’
‘Do you intend to marry her?’
He went as red as a beetroot. My serious voice and solemn face touched him on the raw.
‘You’ ‘re a fine one to talk!’ he shouted. ‘And you're younger than I am, tool What are your intentions towards Tikera? You have a nerve to ask me a question like that!’
‘It's perfectly true. My intentions are entirely selfish. I'm playing the part of a lovesick man in an attempt to regain my freedom.’
‘And what happens afterwards?’
‘I won't ever see her again.’
‘I didn't suspect you of such duplicity.’
‘You must allow that if I want to obtain my freedom, I must page 78 take advantage of the incredible attraction these women feel towards pakehas. But there are limits which we should respect.’
‘I don't understand how you can be so cold-blooded. God surely intended you to be an Englishman, or a monk. But before you were born, the Devil took you on to the Continent and turned you into a real rolling stone. My passionate nature and my background counsel me to enjoy life while I'm still young.’
‘Let's forget about dispositions, principles, and even different conceptions of honour. Doesn't common sense tell you that you're wasting your time and risking your head for a native girl no better than plenty of her kind? If the English catch you here, they'll hang you.’
‘No day is complete without a flirtation,’ replied my friend earnestly, as though his code of behaviour was worthy of serious debate and this was his duty. ‘I'll think about running away when I hear the sound of the English bugles approaching these palisades. The English have enough to do on the Waikato without stirring up new touble here. In the meantime ….’
‘You'll stay here romancing with a black wench,’ I finished. ‘Stay if you want to. I've done my duty as your friend. Now with a clear conscience, though your future still worries me, I say sauve qui peut!’
Later that day we went to church. I have already described it as a high, barnlike structure. The cracks between its boards were filled with moss, its were covered with fern leaves in pretty patterns, and it was roofed with shingles of hard rimu. I have seen many far less imposing buildings in European settlements.
The congregation was divided according to sex, the men on the left, the women on the right. Their attire was half English and half Maori. As well as colonial-style clothes they wore woven cloaks, often very fine, which fell in folds as soft as silk. These cloaks were worn in the style of Arab burnouses. I detected a few chiefs in the crowd dressed according to the traditional Maori fashion. They alone had tattooed faces. Among the younger men I noticed several stalwart warriors whose cheeks and foreheads were smeared with black paint or charcoal. This indicated that they belonged to the chiefly rank, a fairly sizeable class. They are hereditary nobles, with powerful rights, and chiefs and judges are elected from their number.
The service was celebrated in Maori according to the Anglican ritual. The teacher gave a sermon, and the congregation read from their Prayer Books or Maori Bibles. (All the young folk were able to read.) Nobody received Holy Communion, because there was page 79 no ordained priest, but many pious worshippers knelt before the altar and humbly pronounced E whakitia ana e ahau (conflteor—‘I confess’). The service was interspersed with the singing of what the teacher later told me were English hymns and psalms translated into Maori. A hundred voices blended together in a melody acceptable even to European ears. The chorus flowed out through the unglazed windows of the church over the countryside which had been heathen so short a while since. Its site had once witnessed cannibal orgies. The singing was tangible proof that the missionaries had not spared their efforts to train the natives. Although I am not very musical I could recognize the harmony.
One of the hymns sung on that Sunday had a particularly plaintive air. It was evident that both words and music touched a deep chord in the Maoris. They poured their hearts into the singing, filling the church with a melancholy chant which only occasionally held a more hopeful note. I heard this hymn again before I left the kainga. Tikera repeated it while bidding me farewell and translated it at my request. Here are the words.
Ka mahue Ihipa
Te kainga o te he
He kainga hou te rapua nei,
Coming from Egypt,
Where dark death stalks,
We look for a new, a better home,
Where we can rest again.
With true Maori tact and the sense of occasion which applies national poems or religious hymns to momentary circumstances, she sang this stanza to express her joy at leaving the region where war and death would soon surprise the inhabitants, and her hope that we were not parting for ever …. But I must keep to the proper sequence of events.
After the prayers, a child was christened according to the cold formality of the Anglican rite. Though the teacher was not aware of it the old women at the back of the church were singing chants used in the old days at the naming of children, under the direction page 80 of the tohunga. Even during the pagan period this ceremony had been connected with bathing the child in water. It used to be performed by a tohunga (that is, a priest and physician). After the teacher had sprinkled the child with water, the tohunga and the old women sang this chant—which has great poetical merit, as this translation shows.
Be strong, o manchild, in holding the mere.
In holding the spear;
Be strong in fight,
First in assault,
First in the breach;
Be strong in the struggle with your enemy,
In climbing the high mountains.
Be agile in building the war canoes,
In erecting the spacious dwellings.
A girl would probably be wished diligence in tilling the soil, and skill in weaving mats or making fishing nets.
After the service I dined in the teacher's house. When my friend and I set about mending our battered clothes our host reprimanded us, repeating the Third commandment verbatim. He told us that his people rested from Saturday to Monday morning, even while on a journey or waging a tribal war. Promising that we should have extra leisure for our mending on the following day, he took us to the pa which I had long wanted to examine.
The fortress rose on a hill surrounded on three sides by raupo swamps. Only the Maoris knew safe passages through these quagmires, which would be used as escape routes should the enemy take the trenches by storm.
The approach on the village side, the only one which could be travelled dry-shod, was no more than five hundred paces. On it bristled the triple ring of palisades which fortified the rampart. It in turn was built from the spoil from trenches nine feet wide and as many deep. The zig-zag trenches themselves would have done credit to Vauban, and formed a redoubtable stronghold.
The ground in front of the fortress and inside it was thick with what looked like molehills. Each square yard held a pit some three or four feet deep. These rifle pits were the strongest defence of the fortress. From them musket fire could be aimed in almost every direction. The teacher assured us that even after they had conquered the ramparts enemy soldiers would have to take each individual pit page 81 by assault—a prospect which the redcoats might not welcome. He showed us the underground store for ammunition and food. It had been hewn from the rock, and was as impregnable as any European stronghold. I had to admire the skill of these naturally gifted Maori engineers, and I praised it to the teacher, almost against my will.
‘If the chief lets you go,’ he replied proudly, ‘then go to the red pakehas and tell them that the Gate Pa is not afraid of them.’