Tikera; or, Children of the Queen of Oceania
Chapter VIII We take French leave
Chapter VIII We take French leave
I freely admit that my pursuits during that Sunday can have done no good at all to my soul. But the more materialistic side of my ego was satisfied, for I spent hours enrapturing Jenny with my reckless promises. She seemed entirely happy in my presence and in my protestations of affection. Inwardly I was praying for Tuesday to come so that I could escape from her watchful eye and be free at last from the constant need to deceive her. My prayers may even have been sincere. I found the situation almost insupportable. I had no idea how far I could go without excessive risk on the steep, slippery path known in the colonies as ‘flirtation’, that is, courting a young lady with no serious intentions, while staying safely within the bounds of etiquette. According to English notions, a couple engaged in this pastime enjoys a number of privileges which at Home are allowed only to young members of the same family—and then only before they reach marriageable age. In a society where the women are guided by calculation in their love affairs, and the men by honour, this relationship seldom oversteps the bounds of propriety. Indeed, it serves as a way to become well acquainted before a young couple decide to take their affections seriously. In my case, however, it was doubtful whether my Maori lioness would deign to understand the word ‘flirtation’, and probable that she would take my sweeping statements about our eternal friendship as frank and fiery confessions of devotion. Had she learnt the truth before we parted. God knows what trouble she might have caused. I would sooner have put my head in a circus lion's jaws than have exposed myself to her fury.
At that time I did not fully understand her character. She seemed to me to be like a large feline, gentle and eager to be cuddled, but with claws hidden in her soft, furry paws which she was prepared to use when roused. In fact, she was only half-civilized, and full of noble but desperate impulses. She was just as ready to sacrifice herself for those who loved her as she was to revenge herself on those who harmed her. I feared her friendship as much as her vengeance. I also feared her questions, which were sometimes so naive that even page 83 I had to blush. I feared to see the flush of anger replacing the natural rosiness of her dusky complexion. Her colouring reminded me of Bengal lights reflected on metal, and a bronze statue coloured by such lights could not have looked more menacing than did this girl when her blood was up. Her feverish blushing did not spring from the shame roused by her lover's vows; it was not precipitated by the beating of her virginal heart when her hand was fondled and her lips were kissed. It was inspired by pride and by the hope that someone might surprise her in the embraces of a white lover. Her attitude was characteristic of her race but had been intensified by her eccentric father. Her life was ruled by a desire to have a white man as her husband or lover.
Despite this, she was, by the standards of her environment, a modest young person. Her imprudent behaviour towards me or any other stranger sprang from her simplicity. Her coarseness was not apparent in that coarse atmosphere. Should she have an imprudent love affair, or throw herself away in a moment of passion, she would remain unsullied in the eyes of society. She could not see why her grubby dress should be shocking to European eyes when it was accepted by her own people. Nevertheless, she would have crushed with one blow of her mighty arm any man so insolent as to make an indecent advance to her in plain enough language for her to understand.
Although I knew her to be modest, and admired her beauty—despite its colossal scale—I did not find much satisfaction in her attachment to me. Our relationship made no allowance for any vanity on my part. She simply wanted a pakeha for her lover, and I happened to be handy. If her pakeha lover should become her husband, she would love him with a dog-like devotion. If he should abandon her once he had tired of her, she would probably forgive him, and perhaps even forget her disappointment. Any seaman could have married her or seduced her; and she would have wreaked vengeance on a prince if, after giving her the trouble she was prepared to face for my sake, he had broken with her without a valid reason, or treated her coldly. As I looked at her large, passionate eyes, at her half-covered bosom, which swelled at the least kindness and threatened to overflow her bodice, at her statuesque dimensions, I thought to myself that any man would be sorry indeed who having exchanged vows of affection with her had dared to deny his solemn promises, or joked about her feelings once she had given in to his blandishments.
The following day we were left quite alone. When I reported for page 84 work I was told that on the teacher's instructions we had been exempted from all further duties until the chief should return. We would then be given more suitable tasks. Jenny told me that the teacher's wife and sister had obtained this exemption on account of ‘the little pakeha's delicate hands’. (My German friend was some six inches shorter than I.) So during yet another day Tikera tortured me by her importunity. My friend was no doubt entertaining the ladies of the teacher's household.
Early in the evening the chief returned in a bullock cart. A crowd assembled outside his hut where the council was to be held. I had intended to escape that evening but Tikera made me postpone my attempt to the next day, claiming that new obstacles had arisen, and that the inhabitants of several neighbouring villages would shortly gather in our kainga for a meeting. Even the minds of the local women would be preoccupied with this event, and nobody would think of searching for me before dawn.
I was not barred from the runanga which shortly took place in the chief's hut. The visitors sat round the fire in a large circle. The chief stood in the centre and addressed them in an hour-long speech freely accompanied by gestures. The teacher informed me that a minority of the villagers did not want to fight or to send messengers of war to the English. The chief wanted unanimous support for the war. He therefore began with a recitation of ancient chants so well-chosen that each passage seemed to apply to the present situation. Having praised the valour of the tribal ancestors and depicted their more spectacular deeds, he passed to more emphatic and rhythmical speech, quoting ancient prophecies and epics to tell the people what action they should take.
Christianity had not obliterated from Maori minds the memory of their magnificent, though cruel and savage, past, or their love for the poetry handed down by word of mouth through generations of bards and recited by the chiefly orators. These epics are the equivalent of Homer's soliloquies in pre-classical Greece. They are cleverly applied to present circumstances and have a great influence on the mob.
Pouka-te-Waneke was well able to sway the minds of his brothers. I saw from their faces and gestures that at first they did not understand the hidden meaning of his declamations. The listeners' heads dropped on their chests. With their lips pressed together and their brows furrowed, they closed their eyes and meditated deeply on the riddles pronounced by the chief. He offered them solutions in ensuing poems. His audience lifted their heads and glimpses of page 85 understanding brightened their faces. It seemed that even those most doubtful about the war could not resist their chief's inflammatory Incitement to rebellion.
When he sat down, other speakers took the floor. One of them frequently gestured towards the candles which lit the room. I guessed from his frequent repetition of the word ‘kingi’ that he spoke of King Wiremu, comparing him to a flame in need of shelter.
Suddenly the village witch doctor, who had so far remained silent and hidden, got up. He walked round the room snuffing out the candles one after another. We were swallowed in darkness. The assembly stirred impatiently and the speaker called upon him to light the candles again.
‘I have no glowing charcoal, no match … nothing at all,’ the tohunga replied.
‘Only a stupid man puts out a candle when he has no coal and no match,’ the chief rebuked him.
‘Why did you extinguish your candle, O stupid people?’ thundered a strong and awe-inspiring voice from the darkness. ‘You have no glowing coal, no match, and therefore you must endure in darkness.’
I did not understand this allegorical scene at the time, but it was explained to me after the meeting.
The first speaker had claimed that King Wiremu was a light round which all the Maoris should gather. His opponent extinguished the candles as a sign that the Maori light had been extinguished by renouncing the previous king in favour of the English monarch. When he was charged with stupidity, he retorted that the people had been stupid to do away with the old kingdom, for now they had neither strength nor will to rekindle the old flame. He held that the election of a new king outside the old tradition was as impossible as lighting a candle without a match.
This allegory made a deep impression on the Maoris. They thought the old man's action and words a sign of great wisdom. The episode swayed the majority to his side. No matter how eloquently the chief spoke to them they remained unmoved. Their ardour had been cooled by the old man's stratagem.
The late hour finally forced them to adjourn the meeting to the following day. Several hundred representatives from other villages were expected. It was agreed to discuss the question of war and peace with delegates from the whole tribe.
I walked home from the runanga with the teacher, who explained to me what had happened. He was very annoyed at the outcome page 86 of the council, and especially irritated by the extinguishing of the candles.
‘If that wretched old tohunga had not interfered,’ he said, ‘we would now be sending envoys to the king, telling him of our willingness to join under his flag.’
‘Isn't he the old man who cured my friend?’
‘The very same. The old heathen used to be a priest. Now he's no more than a quack. He's a walking skeleton, and has no right to be alive!’
‘His prejudices must surely make him hostile towards the Europeans. Why did he speak for peace?’
‘Because I am for war. At first, when I was for peace, he constantly exhorted us to challenge the red pakehas. When I changed my mind, after the Waikato peoples’ success, he changed his too. That will last until the new God overcomes the old.’
I pondered on this old rivalry between the leaders of the two parties. So long as the leader of the progressive element in the village was for peace, the head of the conservatives, who still clung to their heathen religion, called for war. When his rival changed his tune, the tohunga changed his.
‘I can't understand why you are for war when at first you didn't believe in it,’ I remarked to the teacher, secretly hoping that I might exert a moderating influence on him and so on the pro-war faction.
‘I know we shall win. Only a short time ago every kainga was at war with its neighbours. Not a single day went by without a fight over boundaries, women abducted by the warriors of other tribes, and so forth. The pakehas took advantage of this state of affairs and robbed us of our inheritance. A village would only take arms against them when their demands became unbearable, and then what happened? A neighbouring tribe would help the English against their own countrymen. Now that all the kaingas this side of Auckland are united under King Wiremu we shall join them. The Maoris will chase the white men from Te Ika-a-Maui. God will be on their side, because they are fighting for their land.’
‘The pakehas are better armed and more numerous.’
‘The Maoris do not deign to count their enemies. Our weapons will suffice, so long as we are united.’
It was difficult to prolong this argument. He, like his kinsmen, had an exaggerated belief in the efficacy of their undeniable valour against a superior force.
‘It's quite plain to me,’ I said, ‘that I can't dissuade you from page 87 what I call foolish obstinacy, and you call statecraft. But I would like to draw your attention to one thing. Why should you be an active instigator of this war? The pakehas will confiscate your property if they learn of your role. You are a teacher, educated by white missionaries to whom you owe all you have learnt. Do you want to break away from them and your religion?’
That's the heart of the matter. I love the crucified Christ and teach my brothers to love him. We shall serve only him once we have driven his white servants into the sea. Before long all the remaining tohungas and those who follow the old gods will pass on. The young generation will produce as many wise and learned men as the pakehas. Why should our priests be foreigners?
‘Choose your own.’
‘But we can't. Look at me. I went to school in Auckland and travelled to England. And what came of it? I was sent here as a lay-preacher. I have made many conversions. I christen the village children, teach my people to fear God and observe his holy days. A white missionary visits us once or twice a year to administer Holy Communion, and that's all. If we want to see the bishop, we have to go to the capital. And just see the rewards these people have! Why should we endure this slavery any longer? Why shouldn't our teachers be ordained? Are we worse than the pakehas? Don't we teach the same doctrine and live as honestly as they do?’
Quite unwittingly I had discovered the root cause of Maori discontent. The quarrel over land, the question of the independence and recognition of their king, concealed a bitter grudge felt by the lower clergy, the Maori lay-preachers, against the higher, the English missionaries. These were the men whom the English had educated as their envoys to the natives, whom they had flattered, and whose influence with their own people they had exploited to keep the Maoris in peaceful subjugation while gradually their lands were sequestered. It was these Christian mediators who had become the most rabid agitators. Once they had discovered that they had to do the work while the honours and riches went to the white clergy, they decided to break away from the white hierarchy and appoint their own priests and bishops. Thus they became ardent adherents of political independence in order to achieve their religious freedom. Once I had discovered this I was not at all surprised to learn later that the first victims of Maori revenge were the white missionaries.
I was now convinced that ambition for his own interests had a far greater influence on the teacher than patriotism. I changed the subject, unwilling to waste time on long and fruitless arguments. page 88 ‘What do you intend to do with me and my friend?’ I asked.
‘I mentioned you both to the chief. We shall keep you here. You know how to make gunpowder and cartridges, so we can make use of you. We want to cast a cannon from the mission bells. An English deserter in a neighbouring village knows how to do it. He will do the job, provided he has pakehas to help him. He can't understand our speech.
‘You don't care a rap for our freedom or happiness, even for our safety. I have already told you what will happen to us if the English catch us here. If we help you to cast a cannon, we shall surely be hanged.’
‘Your safety is none of our business. We'll keep you for so long as you are useful. Only the tohunga and a few of the elders voted to set you free. My own people want to keep you here.’
‘You influenced them! You are responsible for our slavery!’
The teacher did not deny this accusation. As if to excuse himself, he remarked: ‘Your friend's quite happy. He'll stay with us.’
‘My friend is a giddy young fellow, a real scamp. I certainly don't consent. You can keep me or you can cut me in pieces—but you can make your cannon yourselves.’
The Maori greeted my angry retort with a contemptuous silence. After a moment he began again. ‘Your companion is a clever fellow.’
‘You think that because you'd like a pakeha for your brother-in-law. You're busy inciting your kinsmen to wage this suicidal war and exterminate the white men, but you'd burst with pride if you could say you were related to a pakeha.’
‘We have always liked good pakehas. They teach us many trades, and work better than any woman. The little pakeha can look after my property on the bay.’
I almost laughed aloud at the thought of the teacher's disappointment should he intend to increase his wealth by the industry of my lazy, effeminate companion.
The teacher continued: ‘I know why you are in such a hurry. You would like to go to Maketu or Wanganui after that girl. Your friend is right in wanting to stay here, and you to go away. I'm sure you and that girl are planning to escape. A Maori is not so blind that he can't see what a pakeha and a Pokerakahu are up to. We'll guard you so well that even a Black Kumara won't be able to set you free.’
‘What do you mean by a Pokerakahu and a Black Kumara?’
‘Listen carefully, and decide who is the wiser, you or the little pakeha. He will be the friend and kinsman of the kainga priest, a page 89 chief's son whose ancestors led one of the thirteen heroic canoes to Te Ika-a-Maui. Our most ancient chants record the immemorial deeds of this family. They are like the rod of which we read in the Bible: they shall never wither. This family has led generations to victory. Under our leadership, the Maoris obtained these fertile fields from their worthless original holder. What manner of men were they? Our legends tell us that they were almost black-skinned, with short, curly hair, like the sheep which the pakeha brought to this land. They were a simple people, who did not till the soil but lived from one day to the next on fishes and the roots of fern trees. They died out, almost to the last man. Occasionally one comes across the decendants of their women and their Maori lords, and to this day we can recognize these part-Maoris by their fragile bodies, curly hair, and timid dispositions. We call them ‘Pokerakahu’ or ‘Black Kumara’. We utterly despise them, although we have granted them their freedom because our new religion forbids us to enslave men. You fraternize with these contemptible people,’ he hissed triumphantly, venting his spleen at my accusation that he hoped for his sister's union with a pakeha out of vanity. ‘You, a white man, despise your friend, who loves the daughter of twenty heroic generations. You are so proud that you will follow the daughter of a pakeha, a former convict whom we turned out of our village for his crimes. He has to take refuge in a mission—he does not dare to come any closer to our village while his daughter is visiting her relatives here. Her you do not disdain, though you disdain us.’
He clearly thought he had crushed me by his sermon, which was certainly a pretty long one even for a trained preacher. If the dark night had allowed him to see my face he would have observed joy written there rather than the dismay he expected. I was elated at having discovered a new piece of ethnographical information. He had solved my puzzlement as to why Tikera's mother looked so different from the other villagers. The blood of three races flowed in my fair friend's veins: that of the original inhabitants of this land, who had been exterminated by the Maoris; that of the first race of conquerors, who were now facing a like extermination; and that of the second conquering race. As often happens with the children of mixed marriages Nature had given her statuesque proportions and fine features. A year earlier in Australia I had noticed a similar phenomenon among the young people born in that virgin land. Stalwart young folk of both sexes, remarkable for their well-developed bodies and exceptional good looks, were springing from a much frailer European stock. This can be taken as evidence that page 90 Nature renews the beauty of those who enjoy the abundance of the New World.
The teacher's explanations of Tikera's origins did not make me neglect his warning that we would be strictly guarded. I concluded from his tone that he had a grievance against Tikera's father, even that he hated him, and that as the lover of his enemy's daughter I attracted his particular animosity. So I said: ‘You yourself say that I am a proud man. Do you really think that I have been blind to that family's inferior origin? If the knowledge had not already disgusted me, the news that Tikera's father was a criminal would certainly do so. What did he do?’
That's a long story. He lived with this tribe, sometimes here, more often nearer the sea. He was a blacksmith and taught us his trade. But he also worked as a sawyer, and as a sealer. All the first colonists, who were often runaways from Australia, did much the same. The chief of the day liked him and gave him a slave girl. That chief was my father, who, according to the pagan custom, had several wives. One of them was faithless, and fell in love with the pakeha. The chief discovered their crime, and punished the woman. He would have punished the pakeha too, but he had been warned in time, and had escaped. My father took his property in the village as utu, but it had less value than the insult demanded, so he wreaked his vengeance on the first white man to come this way.’
‘Do you mean that he killed an innocent man in revenge for the crime of another?’
‘Those were our laws. If a warrior from another tribe harmed one of our warriors, and his kainga did not want to hand him over to us, we would try to catch one of his kinsmen and kill him instead. Such incidents often started long wars. If a pakeha abused us and escaped unscathed, revenge was taken on any white man. All this, thank God, belongs to the past, although we still see to it that insults don't go unpunished. But the innocent have nothing to fear.’
‘Do you really think I would demean myself my marrying the daughter of a slave and a man like that?’
‘Pakehas like money. Her father is wealthy. He owns many sheep round Wanganui.’
‘If he were the Governor of the Island, I would still have nothing to do with him. Just keep your remarks to yourself, and take my word for it that though I want my freedom right enough, it's not so that I can run after his daughter.’page 91
‘All right, all right. But we still need you. You can find Tikera again later. You'll have to stay here if the chief listens to my advice.’
I was tempted to snatch up my knife and make an end to this monstrous parson. I was to be kept against my will to satisfy the desire for vengeance which his pagan father had bequeathed to this pseudo-Christian, who concealed his natural impulses behind his dog-collar, and had a Jesuit's aptitude for intrigue. He could not have given me a better demonstration of his vile, treacherous nature. It was stupid to suppose that twenty-five years of civilization had eradicated the vengeful and cruel customs which had been practised for well-nigh six centuries. The outrage suffered all those years ago by his father was indelibly imprinted on the son's mind. Its memory was eating his brain away, drilling through it and ceaselessly gnawing it, like Ugolino devouring the skull of his children's murderer. Feeling that any further talk with this vengeful monkey would turn into a real quarrel, I left him without another word and went off to bed.
Early next morning I was at the side of my fair friend. To be more precise I was beside her leg. My amazon, catching sight of me through the chinks in the fence, leapt from the pigsty and climbed over the gate by throwing one of her legs across the eight-foot high barrier. She sat astride the gate and bent down to give me her hand. In this unusual position, so characteristic of her naive simplicity, she began a conversation.
‘Did you enjoy the runanga yesterday?’ she asked.
‘It was more irritating than enjoyable. After the meeting I had to listen to a lot of unpleasant talk.’
I repeated what the teacher had told me about guarding us in future.
‘I know all about that,’ she said, leaping down from the fence. This jump made her lose her equilibrium for a minute. She had to grasp me for support. With her smiling face almost touching mine she whispered: ‘The tohunga's wife came to our home at dawn and told us the whole story. I have known for a long time how vindictive my father's enemies are. You will not be touched. Before the end of the day you will be free.’
‘They are watching us.’
‘Who? The people who go to church by day and pray to the old gods at night. The old tohunga still has many friends. Many people would like to see sacrifices to the old gods. These are the people who are supposed to guard you. They will help you get away, and they will help your friend too.’
‘He wants to stay.’page 92
‘But he can't.’ She showed with a gesture what the tohunga's followers would do to my companion if he insisted on staying. The heathens were quite ready to murder him, if only to spite the teacher of the new faith.
The gathering of the tribe for the general assembly interrupted all the work in the village during that memorable day. Since nobody called me outside, I had no excuse for leaving the house, where, without any formal declaration on my part, but no doubt because of my rather ambiguous behaviour, everybody treated me as a future member of the family. I was heartily ashamed of myself, and prayed for the time to come when I could bid farewell to these women who expressed their trust in me by a disarrangement of dress greater than a European wife would risk in front of her husband.
‘Autres temps, autres moeurs,’ I thought to myself. ‘At least there's not much need for calico here.’
More than five hundred warriors took part in the assembly. I noticed the influence of European civilization in their greetings. The older ones greeted one another by rubbing noses; the young shook hands, after our fashion. The meeting was well-attended and solemn. Some twenty local chiefs were present. It took place in the open. The women stood at a distance preparing a feast or watching the gesticulating warriors. The speakers took turns as in a well-ordered parliament. They cited heroic epics in support of peace or war. The faction against war consisted of old warriors who had learnt to respect the English in previous battles. The young men roared for war. While the enemies of the new religion advised moderation, the inexperienced younger generation, who had been given a progressive education in Christian schools, demanded an opportunity to prove that the new faith had not robbed them of their inherited valour. They evidently looked on war as a proper pastime for the bravest race in the world, and felt they would be utterly disgraced if they abandoned it. It was a clear example of prejudice prevailing over religious teaching.
The war party carried the day. The recitation of ancient war chants engendered a growing enthusiasm, which a chief, highly renowned for his eloquence and bravery, at length raised to the level of rage. All the warriors leapt to their feet at the end of his speech as though at a signal, and, throwing off their garments, formed two long facing lines. They paused momentarily while they disrobed completely. Amulets of greenstone, shaped rather like human beings, hung on the tattooed chests of the older men. The young men were entirely naked. The warriors sat on the ground in groups of five.page 93
Their weapons were handed to them by the adolescent boys who had watched the war ceremonial with visible delight. Then the armed and naked warriors rose to their feet again, their expressions intent and fearful. They had no rifles or other European weapons. The great majority had steel hatchets but I noticed a few famous green-stone meres, which had been passed on from father to son and used in tribal wars before the Europeans brought steel to New Zealand. Nowadays, though the stone club is still a fearful weapon in close combat, when the enemy is held by his hair and despatched with one blow, they are not used in actual fighting. They are held in deep reverence. Each rusty spot they bear has significance for the Maoris, and often illustrates a passage from a poem extolling some bloody ancestral victory. Now all the warriors rose at a sign from the chief. They marked time, like our recruits learning how to march. At a further signal every warrior leapt some two feet in the air, shaking his weapon and howling. When he touched the ground, he uttered a sound between a groan and a sigh, opened his mouth, inflated his nostrils, and stuck out his incredibly long tongue, grimacing horribly and rolling his eyes so that I could see their whites. His muscles trembled as though he were in the grip of some fever. These movements were repeated until the men were in a state of ecstasy, screaming and quivering together. I felt absolute revulsion. The twilight deepened, and the fearful figures of five hundred devils were silhouetted against it.
‘Come,’ said a well-known voice, and a large, warm hand squeezed mine.
We passed the women who were preparing a feast for the warriors. Fires burned in pits lined with flat stones. The women scraped away the ashes and uncovered the red-hot stones. They poured water on them from gourds. Steam swirled up as the boiling liquid hissed on the stones, and other women threw in whole sucking pigs. The whole thing, pit and all, was then sealed with well-mixed clay. I had seen this method of cooking at the house of Tikera's family. Half an hour under the clay is enough to bake an animal or a bird.
Other women were busy preparing a mixture of pigments and fish-oil.
‘When they have finished their haka,’ whispered the girl, ‘the men will smear their bodies with that. Then the chief will pronounce the declaration of war and choose envoys to go to the red pakehas and challenge them. In the old days they used to cover themselves with that stinking mess every day. Now they only do it as part of their war preparations.’page 94
We came to the house. I found all my possessions neatly rolled up. Tikera's sister handed me a sack of dry fish and a small gourd filled with brandy. Bidding the sister farewell I left the house with my pretty guide.
She still held my hand. Night had already fallen and without her help I would have stumbled on the stones in our path. We came to a stream.
‘We'll walk in the water,’ said my Amazon. ‘If you feel sorry for your boots, I'll carry you.’
This offer was quite serious. I do not doubt that with her size and physical strength she could have carried me a long distance.
‘You're joking—of course I'll walk,’ I replied. ‘My boots will dry eventually. But why are we going through the water?’
‘So that tomorrow's search party won't find any tracks—and so that they won't be able to prove my complicity. Ho, ho!’ she added, ‘how angry the teacher will be, and how he will tear his stiff white collar when he hears of your escape!’
‘How far will you come with me?’
‘As far as the road. We'll come to it at dawn. It will take you to the mission. But remember to stick to the footpaths on the left side. If you meet any Maoris, show them this letter from the tohunga.’ (Here she handed me a scrap of paper.) ‘It explains that you are a friend of the Maoris. But you must hurry before the warriors come from the runanga and find that you have escaped. Go quickly till you see the walls of the white men's town near the mission. I meant to find a horse for you but the chief didn't trust me and locked them all away.’
‘What will they do to you when you go back?’
‘They can't do anything. Perhaps the teacher would like to give me a thrashing, but he's afraid of my strength. I could strangle him with one hand.’
To demonstrate her prowess she pressed my fingers with a grip as powerful as that of a blacksmith's tongs.
‘What will the chief say?’ I asked.
‘The chief? He won't say anything at all. His son will calm him down. His son is pleased that you are going away. He's always coming to our house….’
Suddenly remembering that her naive admission that the chief's son was one of her admirers would ill become our relationship, she quickly changed the subject.
‘He won't see me for long. I'll go to Maketu tomorrow. Will you wait for me there?’page 95
‘Can I believe that promise?’
‘As if I swore it on the Bible,’ I muttered, turning my face away and hoping that the dark night would hide my shame. How I despised myself at that moment!
As we left the stream we passed a man curled up into a ball. ‘Who guards the guardian?’ I thought when, after a few words from Tikera, he calmly let us go.
We went hand in hand over hills, through thickets and meadows overgrown here and there by tea tree and clusters of fern. The tea tree reached to our waists, proof of the excellent soil. Near Auckland it grows no higher than eighteen inches.
At last we stopped in a place where I felt hard ground and wheelruts under my feet.
‘That's a line,’ said Tikera.
I knew that ‘lines’ were the guideways cut by European surveyors. I was back in white men's country. I sighed with relief.
‘Goodbye,’ I stammered. ‘And thanks.’
‘I'll stay here till dawn. I'm in no hurry on a night like this. ‘I'd much sooner go back at first light.’
‘You mean you'll stay here with me?’
‘Yes. I'll stay here with you.’
‘What will your family think about that? What would your father say if he knew that you had spent the whole night with me in the open? Is that a becoming way to behave?’
‘It's no business of my father or my family. What do you mean “becoming”? Why can't I stay with my future husband?’
‘Oh yes. I had forgotten your customs for a moment. Still, don't you think it's a bit wicked to stay with me?’
‘Wicked? Haven't you promised that we shall soon be together for ever?’
And so we spent the night together, hand in hand, sheltered by the tiny leaves of the tea tree, our nostrils filled with the fragrance of its flowers, our bodies cooled by the rustling of the wind among the fern. What I told her that night needs no repeating. It would be wrong to hold me responsible for my deceitful vows. I made them under duress. It was the only way I could win my freedom and my life from this more than life-sized woman, a pussy cat when she was stroked, and a tiger when she was aroused. She asked for flattery and I gave it.
I must admit that I never discovered her qualities better than that night. Perhaps she guessed instinctively what I found shocking page 96 in her behaviour. She controlled her passions and helped me to control mine. She even checked her language, which was usually very coarse. Indeed, she was very gentle all night long, and kept me amused by repeating the legends she had learnt from her mother, or Maori songs, or even by imitating—none too kindly—some of the more pompous orators. That night I perceived tenderness in her and an innate sense of humour. She was a true diamond, rough, but none-the less precious and worthy of proper care. Besides the debt I owed her, I could not help responding to her. I felt for her what at Home we so aptly call a ‘liking.’
My troublesome conscience made me think that even Orion and the four stars of the Southern Cross huddled to the west in order not to hear my false vows. The sky itself blushed for shame and turned an angry yellow when, with a final Judas kiss, I took leave of Tikera.
She walked away. I called after her ‘Adieu, Tikera!’ Before she finally plunged into the rustling fern trees, she once more turned her pretty brown face and blazing eyes towards me.
‘When you meet me at my father's, among the white people, don't call me Tikera,’ she shouted. ‘There, no one likes to be reminded of my Maori mother.’
With this last reminder of her vanity my dusky Juno vanished—as I thought, for ever.