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Chapter XIII. — Fairy Rings

page 164

Chapter XIII.
Fairy Rings

The place where the fairy rings first broke into the newspapers as a subject for criticism and debate was Christchurch. Puck o' Pook's Hill, evidently infected with this see-the-Antipodes bug, must have stowed away on one of the handsome grey steamers that draw in at New Zealand wharves, proud in the consciousness that they know all about the other side of the world and can instruct our ignorant insular seagulls. Puck, seeing English trees lone and bright-leaved and stately in the Christchurch parks which were planted by incurably English pioneers, must have left a souvenir… . . from which seed sprang “fairy rings.”

There is a plague of them in the Christchurch Botanical Gardens…… white circles of tiny toadstools flung down in the exact design necessary for the fairies' formal dances.

Behind is the sea-blue shimmer of a million lupins, brief-lived as the dragonflies, for they are not officially recognised as flowers at all. Soon Gardener Time, that brown calloused-palmed old man, will dig the blue petals into the soil, and go away hopefully muttering about the prospects of his roses.

But in the meantime, here is a garden of blue undaunted lupins, honey-brimmed: and all over the smooth green turves, the little hillocks under old sleepy pine trees, circle and twist the fairy rings. In a very ancient and neglected-looking lotus pool, its few pale flowers glimmering up, half-vacant, half-sinister, like the faces of the water nymphs who stole away a brown handsome lad from among Argo's page 165 crew, an old stork stands on one greenish-bronze leg. It looks incredibly wicked—just the sort of bird that would, by nights, flap away over the trees, depositing human bundles down chimneys whose owners would rather have almost any other kind of presentation.

A tiny white fountain bubbles up in a jet of laughter. And the trees whisper, there's a soft dim shuffle of poplar leaves on the pavement, the first of the brave fallen: but the little golden lime-blossoms still smell richly sweet.

The portals and stone doorways of the Museum, which is at one end of the Gardens, are enchanted too. It's not a very good Museum; inside you'll find things dusty and dreary and far too orderly. But someone many years ago had the impudence to carve, among the stone oak-leaves of this entrance, tiny hidden faces, human and goblin and animal. Here there's a stone squirrel concentrating on his acorn. Here a fox looks slyly over his shoulder, listening to the far-off sound of the hunting horn.… There are tiny running animals, the things that part the grasses and twigs of the old-world forests: and tiny grimacing faces, such as you see sometimes half-dreaming, in the folds of a heavy curtain through which the sunlight streams.

The old municipal rooms and offices are just as bad.…… You traverse incredible flagged passages, in corridors where the light falls from old bronze lanterns. You might quite well be going by a secret way to keep some important political appointment with the lord of a medieval castle. Nor is the hall into which you finally emerge disappointing. High-galleried, it is painted in bright, bold colourings, azure, or, gules: carved wooden hands thrust up from the walls.…

Once in Christchurch I went gargoyle-hunting. Now this is a perilous sport, in its way as dangerous as the quest of the tiger, for it follows that you have page 166 to wander about crowded thoroughfares with your neck craned at an angle of 45 degrees, and it's odd if some smug bishop or some horrid little errand boy doesn't catch you amidships with the wheeling Christchurch nightmare, the bicycle. But the upshot of the matter was that on structures ranging from palatial insurance buildings to little old schools, I found thirty-seven assorted species of gargoyle, and brought back the tally in triumph to the Christchurch Sun office.

It was also in Christchurch that I saw the “Golden Hind”: just as when Drake set sail for the Spanish Main.…

There is, it would seem, a Royal Society for Nautical Research. Christchurch has a Fellow of it, a bronzed seafarer deft with his hands and with paint-brushes and little carving implements. And out of the pictures of far-away years, he built the Golden Hind from stem to stern, from rigging to high gilded cabin, just as an English sailor once fancied his sweetheart ship.

I have seen, moreover, green lawns sloping down quietly through the folds of dusk to the Avon, which is a most ridiculous little stream and has no right whatever to call itself a river… . except that the shadowed trees and the wild duck with their pointed wings make a fuss of it. The green lawns, which are the hidden part of gardens in plutocratic regions where you may not build a house unless prepared to spend at least £4,000 on it, have no truck with the Colonial curse of fences or palings. Over their low fluted balustrades of stone lean the peering, laughing faces of geraniums, and the still water just beaneath is full of orange and cinnamon and dusky red reflections.… .

It is not any great wonder that Puck thought it worth while to sprinkle fairy rings in Christchurch. Yet I have seen other places in New Zealand where, if the little white toadstools have not yet carried out their plans for invasion, magic enough goes on.

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There is a grubby old steamer which hoots piercingly in the coldest hours of Wanganui morning. Wanganui has frosts that pierce like steel splinters into the marrow, and getting up at 5 a.m. is an ordeal as fierce as the knight's vigil. But you must… . and if you have brought rugs a-plenty, then it isn't so bad to sit curled up on the little river steamer's deck, listening to the soft slurred speech of old Maori women who wear black shawls over their heads and smoke clay pipes: by way of variety you may give ear to the wild screams of Maori pigs, who are swathed, very much alive, in nets, and flung unceremoniously into the hinder parts of the boat.

Maoris make an art of dolce far niente. Nobody else, not in all the world, can sit and dream like an aged Maori woman whose pipe is full. In the larger cities, traffic and other abominations somewhat disturb the practise of leisure. This is a crime. But in Wanganui, Maoris, sometimes with fat twinkling-eyed phlegmatic babies tucked into their shawls, sit everywhere and for ever. If they should like you very much they may give you a present, as much as a piece of greenstone: you are then expected to make them a long sequence of gifts, each far more valuable than your own souvenir.

They are very nice, though, and have the most charming manners.

Upstream, where the broad silvery-grey, toi-toi-plumed sweep of the river narrows into inlets edged with russet-leaved, prick-eared English trees, you come upon slender unpainted canoes, hollowed out from the single log in the days before the white men came. The years of slipping through river waters have polished them until they shine like straw, and they are the perfect shape of seed-pods. Some of them are hundreds of years old, and have run red with blood in ancient times.… . A long one, an erstwhile war canoe, fitted up with a racketty engine, spluttered desperately and broke down as we passed. page 168 The laughing Maoris, boys and girls, returning from a dance at one of the miniature river ports, accepted a steamer trip and “sang for their supper.” Most of their old songs are Europeanised, like their musical instruments…… . nevermore will you hear the little toneless whistle of the thigh-bone flute, through which Mokoia's musician sang love-tunes to Hinemoa, the delight of his friend Tutanekai's eyes…… but sweetly enough the clear untrained voices lift over the waters.

A half-caste girl of thirteen, her bronze hair tied with a blue ribbon, rides her pony down to the water's edge.… Lissome, bold with the taut perfect grace of an unspoiled thing. For how long? The eyes of every white man on the boat watch the swing of her body.

A pure-blooded Maori woman (there are few enough left), proudly exhibits her three-months-old twins. They are Plunket babies, and their absurdly plump little brown cheeks nestle on snowy starched white pillows.

The poplar trees are gold-casqued, straight and tall, knights in burning armour. The river waters are shallower. Ahead is Jerusalem, in its golden cloud of trees.…

A few years ago died in Wellington the Reverend Mother Mary Aubert, a French lady of distinguished birth. Before the little river steamer started on its run—helping to build up the mana of the Hatrick family—Mother Mary and her nuns came up the Wanganui by native canoe, and settled in the wilderness. The nuns rode down the trackless steeps and gullies of bush, using sure-footed little native ponies—and still wearing the cumbersome habit of their order. Airy mountains and rushy glens never daunted Mother Mary of Jerusalem, whose great cherry-orchard, high up on the hilltops, spreads white snow of blossoms and crimson cherries in their season here in the thick-wooded wilderness. Mother page 169 Mary sought out the tohunga's secrets of native herbs, and made remedies for human ills in her own hill-top stillroom. It is a place of peace and dreams, her little chapel, and the dark-robed nuns who now carry on the work of teaching and healing have sweet faces and quiet.… Do they make any impression, here where the Maori folk, squatting under the trees, are Europeanised in clothes but speak no language but their own? Perhaps there's a certain amount of compromise. I met one little nun who quite definitely believed in the “kehu”—an agile sort of Maori banshee, who is seen perching on the gateposts immediately before a death. On the other hand, among the creamy waterfalls of the little steep garden's rambling roses, there is the bowed white-coiffed head of a statue of the Virgin Mother. This was presented by a most devout old chieftain, who, not content with his gift, comes over once a year to see that the statue shines up resplendent with a new coat of whitewash.

Pipiriki, where the great rowan trees are loaded with scarlet berries, is named after the Epicurean decease of a chieftain. Pipis, on his death-bed, he desired, pipis (a small shellfish similar to the English cockle) he must have: his gourmandising evidently had an impressive effect on the minds of the chief mourners.

Everywhere in the Maori world there is the haunting touch of memory—echo half-heard, shadow swiftly withdrawn from the white man's pathway. See the tiny rock island in mid-Wanganui, its lone-liness only emphasised by its rusty tufts of trees. Go past this safely enough in your steamer. But if you travel by canoe, you must lay a green bough here, for Taniwha, monstrous legend of the river, is still to be placated. And in the forest depths, beyond the slopes where the red deer show themselves on the skyline, still roam the woman and man maeroro, the huge ogres of Maori legend.

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Gone are the days when the stone rang true
For the hollowing out of the slim canoe…
Aue, my Father the Mountain… . aue, my
Mother the Stream… .
Taniwha sleeps, and green boughs wither
Laid no more by the Offering Stone.
Never the gods of our race draw hither—
Good or evil, their day has gone
Down on the path of the setting sun.

Is it all lost, in European clothing, European music, European disease? I think not. The Maori is very nearly an unexplored territory. He has a quaint and naive way of interpreting white men's ideas, such as appeal to him, after his own fashion… . . witness the bloody devilment of the Hau-Hau creed, directly and simply developed from the Christian mystery of the Body and Blood of Christ. Witness, too, in the deeps of the King Country, the homage paid by sky-god Rangi to pakeha fashions. Rangi, greatest of gods, adorns a comparatively new Maori meeting-house… . . one whose idols were chipped out by the carvers in the days when whaling vessels and their occupants were a pleasing novelty. There must have been a dandy among the ship's company. For behold Rangi, naked as any god might condescendingly come into the world, but adorned with a high starched collar and a bow tie.

Captain Cook heard the song of the tuis in New Zealand groves, and found it sweet enough. But this did not stop the old gourmet from dishing the poor songster up in pies, which he declared to be “mighty sweet eating.”

Through the green sunlit shimmer of New Zealand bush, the great trees rearing their proud heads quaintly coiffed with huge nest-like creeper parasites, flop the heavy startled wood-pigeons, too fat and lazy to volplane in correct bird fashion. They have gorged on purple berries. Once on a day, this would have meant sudden death for them, for the page 171 Maoris knew their favourite haunts, and here, under some purple challenging tree, would be built the cunning little totara trough. An overfed pigeon is a thirsty bird…… easy prey for the limed trough and its clever little nooses of creeper or flax, Jack Ketch to many an unfortunate glutton of the bird world.

Once, far up in the Waipoua Kauri Forest, there was a place which bore the name the Vale of the Birds. And this was sacred, for the pagan mind is not one to miss beauty, and the splendid confidence of all the wings that yearly bore down on the thick-berried trees seemed a marvellous thing. It became a tohunga matter, and on a certain day of the year, there were rites and ceremonies in welcoming the berry-eaters. Then, with all due courtesy, a sufficiency of the birds to feast the tribe was ensnared.

But this happens no more, for a European used his shotgun in the Vale of the Birds.

And Hotu is dead too, who was in some sort the hereditary guardian of the kauri trees, and carried the little tomahawk with which, it is told, his fore-father struck down a pakeha who insulted the tree sacred to Tane Mahuta, god of the wildwoods.

Tane's tree still stands—superb, living, defiant, the emblem of a magnificent race. To see it you come by little muddy tracks, and the leafless trunks of the kauris around you are like the masts of ships that have journeyed farther than Argo.

You can eat the tawhara in the woods around. This is the fleshy cream flower of a great green palm —sweet as honey and water-melon in one.

And all along the desolate roads that lead to this end of the ordinary world, little peach-coloured clouds of dawn have come down to earth. This is the pink manuka. The little brown and white flower-cups of the pungent-smelling trees are piquant enough, but the pink is soft and lucent—a page 172 gentle thing not often seen among Maoriland's strange vividness of crimson and white blossoms.

All this is the unknown territory where a journalist drifts, on holidays, on strictly business missions.… Turn a corner from your city street, and you stumble into the old stone-carven world of white men's magic, into the demilunar world of brown magic, potent still. Sometimes they join forces and march triumphantly through your little cardboard cities of materialism.

Opononi dreams in the sun. Clear, pale honey-colour, its sands are swept up in drifts and dunes by the sparkling blue outlet of the Hokianga. All night long, in a little blue-painted sleeping porch that thrust out like a shaggy eyebrow over the quiet edge of the sea, I heard the little waves talk of moon-tracks, of the ancient and completely fabulous marine monsters belonging to its pre-pakeha days, of sunburnt white girls who played mermaid in these parts now.

I was awakened by a dusky and delicious lady of rare vintage—part African negress, part Maori. She looked like the coal-black Mammy of Virginian films, and made such coffee as nobody could ever have expected on sea or land.

Half-asleep in the sun, luxurious warmth of baking yellow sand creeping through a tired body, I saw the stone wall and the queer old pieces of ordnance that proclaimed the dignities of one antique wooden house.

An “old identity” of many adventures had settled there, and a fame not entirely unconnected with his remarkable cellar had spread concerning his hospitality.

Until Lord Ranfurly's day, every Governor paid state visits, by sailing-ship, to this old house. Old Jack received their vice-royalties in style. His crazy collection of cannon—all different sizes—was brought over from Australia. He trained Maori lads as his page 173 gunners, and never a Governor and his lady came up the Hokianga without a staggering royal salute— not always achieved without misadventure.

Just over the hill, one descends by steep roads to the fields where the Maoris still live in flax huts or, at the very best, in tiny wooden shanties without chimneys. The need for ventilation has never yet become apparent to the Maori mind, and probably never will. Besides, how can conger eel be dried and fish smoked without the goodly puffings of the chimney?

Hector Macquarrie, well-known New Zealand writer and traveller, started delightfully-named little Pandora, the topmost town in New Zealand, and the nearest to Spirits Bay, Te Reinga of Maori legend. Here come the souls of the dead, to plunge off the cliff into the great green booming of the everlasting waves.…

I hate to say it, but the predominant feature of the little Macquarrie huts hopefully erected near Spirits Bay is bugs: and such bugs. The ordinary Maori bug is infamous enough for his odour, but the Spirits Bay bugs are of a size, a speed, a feminine curiosity, quite unparalelled in my poor experience. Most people end up curled under blankets, sleeping à la belle ètoile. And an excellent way of spending a night, too.

But the magic has never really died, has it? And the newspaper man who regretfully feels that nothing new intends to happen under the sun or the electric light, that for ever and for ever the same politicians will continue to bleat the same inanities, that always women's clubs will talk like women's clubs and expect somebody to pay attention to them, must break away and head for the hinterlands. If need be, he must, as did one long-suffering Wellington scribe who had written the same column daily for upwards of fifteen years, throw the inkstand at his editor. But whether this turns out to be page 174 necessary or not, he must, in commonest justice to his work and his profession's credit, go “over the hills and far away.” And soon he will hear the triumphant bush and its grey-green lights of sorcery whisper what gallant Rewi shouted on the day of his tribe's indomitable death: “Friends, we will fight against you for ever… . for ever… . “

That is what all the beauty and the magic and tradition of the hinterlands whisper always, against the little steel-tracked conquerors.

When the scribe in due course returns to his desk, his difficulty will be not in producing new achievements, but merely in persuading somebody to pay for them.