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Ko Méri, or, A Cycle of Cathay: A Story of New Zealand Life

Chapter XV. A Visit to the Maori Church

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Chapter XV. A Visit to the Maori Church.

Sunday morning rose clear and beautiful, the north wind of the day before having changed to the fresh, cool air of the south. It was a day when the loveliness and gladness of this sunny south land were seen at their very best.

Mrs. Morgan had ordered dinner (they dined in the middle of the day on Sunday, as did Mrs. Dayton's family) half-an-hour earlier, so that they would not need to hurry coming home.

They started at half-past one, Mary on the driver's seat with Captain Deering, and Mr. and Mrs. Morgan occupying the body of the buggy, Mr. Morgan leaving them at the head of the Parnell rise, the others following the same road taken by the riding party nearly a week before. Instead of turning off the main road at the “Royal Oak,” they kept right on through Onehunga, the port of the Manukau Harbour, and a picturesque little place, half suburb, half town.

At the beginning of the bridge Mary asked Captain Deering to stop.

“Auntie, I think it will be much pleasanter to walk over, as we have plently of time, and Captain Deering can have a better view of the country from page 188 the bridge than from a carriage. Church does not begin until three.”

“Just as you like,” answered Mrs. Morgan with her usual acquiescence, and getting out at once with the Captain's help, took her place as driver. It had been settled that Mrs. Morgan should spend the afternoon with an old friend who lived in the town, and was rather out of the way for frequent visiting.

“What time shall I come for you? Church comes out at four o'clock, does it not? Just give us nice time to be home before tea,” said Mrs. Morgan.

“Let it be twenty minutes after four, auntie, if you do not mind, because I want to take Captain Deering to the Maori cottages; perhaps Polly will be there to-day.”

“Very well, but no later than that, Mary; it will make us so late home.”

She drove off, and Mary and Captain Deering turned in the opposite direction.

The Mangare Bridge connects Onehunga with the opposite shore, is about three-quarters of a mile long, and is filled in for about a quarter of a mile on either side, the middle being formed of immense beams of wood, capable of resisting the force of the current, which at that point is very strong.

Mary and Captain Deering walked for some distance along the bridge, until they reached a point where the railing was low, and the fresh—strong on this coast—breeze could blow upon them, bearing a delightful salty feeling extremely pleasant and bracing. The wind, strong as it was, brought no colour to the half-caste's brown cheeks, but it gave added brilliance to the dark eyes, and as she leaned against the railing in a graceful, unstudied pose, with her long white veil streaming behind her, she looked to the eye of this stranger more than ever in keeping with the land that gave her birth.

He also noted that the aspect of this coast was distinctly different to that he left behind, though page 189 only seven miles distant. The opulence and softness of tint, the peaceful waters and gentle breezes of the one were here exchanged for a ruggedness of outline, bold, rolling bluffs swelling into the deep blue shadows of the Titirangi Ranges, a boisterous, bracing wind that drove the Orpheus to her doom so many years ago, a deeper tint and greater swell to the waters.

From the bridge this part of the Manukau seems like a lake, the tongue of land to which they were approaching curving to a fine point that apparently touches the precipitous bush-covered cliffs on the other side.

In front of them lay the district which the Maoris called Mangare, the hill that rose about a quarter of a mile from the shore sheltering that part from the force of the prevailing south-westerly winds. This particular mountain owes, no doubt, its peculiar formation to the volcanic forces of bygone days. It consists of three hills joined together, one only being visible from the bridge, with an open space towards the east, and a crater of immense depth. To Captain Deering the sight of this district was like the meeting of friends in a distant land, so forcibly did it remind him of patches of scenery he had seen in “the land of the green valley and the rushing river,” though perhaps the sun was more brilliant, the air more pure, and the sky bluer and more unclouded. The richness of colouring and the luxuriance of vegetation, so distinctive of all the scenery he had yet seen, were here absent; a gentle austerity took their place that was nevertheless grateful to an artistic eye. The mountain and great stretches of land, in those parts called the “Run,” belonging to the Government, and used by small farmers for a small sum for feeding their cattle, were quite bare of trees, and covered with a turf of the richest grass and of the deepest green that would do no discredit to the Emerald Isle.

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The shore is bare and broken, with here and there a rocky formation interspersed with sandy or shelly curves, the grassy slopes having the appearance of being swept by the fierce winds of September and October.

The houses, too, at this time partook of the general soberness that seemed distinctive of the place, with but few exceptions lacking the freshness and whiteness noticeable in other parts of the country, and surrounded, not with the glossy-leaved native trees, but with dull, sad pine and gum trees, while only one garden to be seen from the bridge presented a brilliant display of flowers.

On a gentle rise rose the grey walls of the little Maori Church, which was now hidden from their view by a clump of pines, and whose bell sounded sweetly in the silence of the Sabbath Day.

“So this is Mangare?” said the Captain at last. “It reminds me of a ‘home’ scene more than anything I have yet seen in Auckland.”

“Yes. I am glad you are pleased with it. That is the church on the rise. It is built, like so many of the churches about this Province, on Bishop Selwyn's plan, with a sloping roof and latticed windows, and every stone was put in by the Maoris themselves,” answered Mary, proudly.

As they drew nearer, he noticed a creeper climbing up the walls, and peeping in at the windows.

“Is that ivy?” he asked, eagerly.

“It is a kind of ivy that grows quickly, not the genuine English ivy, which is very slow growing indeed.”

“I thought it could not be. I think ivy is as typical of the English character as the oak—tenacious, slow, unchanging,” said the Captain, half-absently.

“Is it not a picturesque little church?” she cried

“It is all grey—the stone of the walls and the slated roof—and when the ivy grows high, it will be like an old ruin.”

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The bell had now ceased, so they walked into the church, which is small, containing about half-a-dozen seats on each side of the aisle. They sat in a pew at the back, as the service was just beginning, and from where they could see the whole body of this temple raised to God's service by barbarian hands. Captain Deering's eyes wandered curiously around on this scene, the like of which he had never seen before, and which would have delighted the soul of a Calvin or a Knox. The walls, built of huge stones dug from the mountain in the vicinity roughly hewn and cemented together, had a grim rugged effect in the face of the brilliant sunshine that streamed in at the door and half way up the church. The seats were of wood, merely planed, the reading desk of the same, the only attempt at decoration being an embroidered scarf laid over the Bible that rested on a common deal table.

The harmonium was in keeping with its surroundings, and was so small it could have been lifted by a child, but to-day there was no organist; as Mary naively whispered she was a teacher, and this being holiday time, was probably away on a visit.

The preacher now attracted the attention of Captain Deering. He was not a regular minister, but a farmer living some miles distant, who performed the offices for three Sundays in the month, the incumbent, whose parish was very extensive, taking the service on the fourth. He was a tall, broad-shouldered man, giving the impression of great physical strength, and with a face of great power and determination. His voice was resonant, musical, and singularly impressive, and this stranger acknowledged to himself that his reading of the beautiful Church of England Service was particularly effective. And it struck him as pitiful that this man's evident talents and high aspirations should be buried in this spot, and for the benefit of the twenty or thirty people who formed his congregation—children, page 192 farmers, and such like—with no pecuniary benefit to himself whatever. He admired Mr. Everard's unselfishness and self-abnegation, but what were his difficulties—rich, university-bred, popular—compared with this man's, comparatively speaking poor, and with but an ordinary education, which he had improved by diligent reading; and yet both men possessed aspirations on the same plane.

There was no singing of any kind, the chants and psalms being read verse about by minister and congregation. Truly it was the simplest of simple services! but one that lived long in the memory of the stranger from the dignity of the preacher, that rose above all the pageantries which envelop the spirit of the law and merely appeal to the senses.

He chose for his text a verse from the Book of Isaiah: “O, that thou hadst hearkened to my commandments! then had thy peace been as a river and thy righteousness as the waves of the sea.”

As the earnest, vibrating voice sounded through the church, now becoming shadowy, especially in the chancel, as the sun slowly retreated, Captain Deering felt himself moved with honest admiration at the able manner in which he handled the text. He had heard dozens of clergymen, not endowed with anything like the qualities of this farmer, living as he did in an out-of-the-way district, preach to great audiences, composed of city-bred people. Either this man was preparing himself for greater things, or else his powers were to a great extent wasted. How mighty is the force of a cherished hope in the heart of man! It conquers all difficulties within or without, and the sickness of the deferred consummation of that wish nearest the heart, confident of the ultimate result of integrity and patience.

Captain Deering glanced at Mary, whose eyes were dreamily gazing out of the latticed window to the fair landscape under the rays of the declining sun, and whose rich beauty and dainty dress for the first page 193 time seemed to him incongruous. Here, if nowhere else, Mary Balmain was in it, but not of it; her place was taken by the man standing in the chancel—the ruggedness and simplicity of the church were embodied in him.

At the conclusion of the service, the congregation. slowly filed out; while Mary, followed by Captain Deering, moved forward to greet the preacher and his wife. There was a sweetness and gentleness in the half-caste's manner towards them and about the introduction she gave to Captain Deering that pleased this soldier, accustomed to refined and elegant society.

“We are always pleased to see you, Miss Balmain. I suppose the service seemed very simple to you,” said the preacher, turning to the stranger. There was the same dignity and ease about his manner that had struck the Captain in the man's aspect when conducting the service in the chancel (there was no pulpit).

“It was simple,” said the Captain, warmly, “but I don't think that a drawback. The service pleased me very much indeed. Do you never have a larger congregation?”

“Rarely—sometimes when we have a Communion Service conducted by the incumbent, the church may be better filled; but the number you saw to-day is the average,” he answered, with a trace of disappointment in his voice.

“It is a pity. Is there any reason for such a state of things?”

“The district about here,” he said, “is thinly settled, so that many members come great distances; but I think the real reason is that people are indifferent to this church, as they can so easily cross the bridge to Onehunga places of worship.”

“Ah! Have you been preaching here long? I should think your earnestness might make a difference,” cried Captain Deering, warmly.

The man smiled sadly.

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“I have attended this church in this way for five years; but simply as a lay-preacher. I am not an ordained minister of the Gospel.”

Five years, summer and winter, through the wet and dreariness of the spring months and through the summer's heat; and all without remuneration of any kind! Men of that kind are not found every day of the year; but apparently the diocese of Auckland seemed to value his services very little.

“Mr. Morgan did not come with you to-day, Miss Balmain—is he well?” asked the preacher.

“Quite well, thank you. He had to speak at the Young Men's Rooms to-day.” And they moved slowly to the door of the church, where they parted, Mary leading her companion down a green lane that sloped to a small arm of the harbour.

“We came round by the road,” she explained.

“Let us go back by the shore; I want to show you some of the Maoris that I know.”

At a small cottage which had never seen a coat of paint, Mary paused. It was placed at the angle of the stone wall of a large field, the water came within a few feet of the doorstep, the chimney was of wood, and all around lay oyster shells and the bones of fish. There were no signs of life about the house, but at Mary's gentle knock the door opened, and in the entrance stood the tallest woman Captain Deering had ever seen. Her frame was very large, as were also her hands and feet, the former with hard work, and the latter from constantly going about without boots. To-day, however, she appeared in holiday attire, quite neat and respectable, but evidently of a fashion in vogue years before—a dress of yellow lustre trimmed with black velvet, a large poke hat, and boots, always a source of pride to a real Maori. Her features were extremely fine, and her hair was jet black, though now slightly streaked with grey, and inclined to curl, unlike Mary's, which was perfectly straight, The woman's eyes had once been page 195 fine, but now they showed that age was coming upon her, by constantly filling with water. Otherwise this Maori showed no signs of her sixty and odd years; her back was perfectly straight, her walk was firm and dignified, and her face showed few wrinkles.

When she discovered the identity of her visitor she darted forward, and seizing Mary's two hands, poured forth an utterly unintelligible jargon of broken English, reiterating over and over again her delight at the half-caste's visit, the while tears streaming down her face. Mary, with gentle kindness, patted the brown hand hard with work, and soothed her with kind words.

“How are you getting along, Polly?” she said at last. “I have not seen you for a very long time—not for months.”

“Very well, very well, Miss Mary,” the Maori answered, with a glance at the Captain.

“What are you doing? Have you plenty of work to do? This is the best season of the year for you, you know, Polly.”

“Yes, yes! I mind Miss Howard's baby—girl's no good—Miss Howard. she like me—Lucy, she going to get married.”

“Who is Lucy?” asked Mary.

“She Miss Howard's nurse girl. But he no good—too poor.” Captain Deering smiled at the Maori's worldly knowledge. “Marry high, high—carriage to ride in,” gesticulating with her arms in a way that slightly alarmed the Captain. After a pause, and with a change of voice almost startling to one unaccustomed to native ways, she turned to Mary, “You know him?” indicating the soldier.

“Yes, this is Captain Deering, Polly. He is a soldier, and has come many thousand miles to see New Zealand. He belongs to England,” said Mary.

“To England?” she repeated, vaguely.

When the Maoris do not understand your remarks, they repeat them in a strange mechanical page 196 manner peculiar to themselves; and certainly, to Polly, England conveyed no more meaning than Bombay or Paris.

“You were not at church to-day, Polly?” said Mary, with reproach in her voice, although she was perfectly aware that visits to church with Polly were very few and far between. Indeed, none of the Maoris, numbering about twenty, though varying according to the season of the year, ever attended service of any kind. Sunday with them represented a day on which they could lie and bask in the sun, a day on which there was no necessity to work.

“No, Jimmy Jackson rings the bell—no go—he very bad man—very bad,” cried Polly, emphasizing her remarks with all kinds of facial changes. This said Jimmy Jackson was a half-caste, and had incurred the enmity of all true Maoris by delivering up to justice a native guilty of a most unprovoked and deliberate murder.

“Polly, you must come and see us soon,” said Mary; “you say you will come, but you never do. You know you are always welcome.”

“Too far—Auckland too far,” answered Polly, who almost invariably walked on her very rare visits to the city on the Waitamata. Her travelling for the most part consisted of fishing trips up and down the Manukau, and walks to Onehunga on errands for her patrons.

“Where are the others—are they gone down the river?” asked Mary, directing her attention to another cottage further round the curve, and evidently built at a later date than the other.

“Yes, they all went this morning,” answered the native.

“I must be going now, Polly. Tenaqua” (goodbye).

“Tenaqua,” she answered, and the same performance went on as at the beginning of the meeting but the Captain noticed that a two page 197 shilling piece lay in the palm of Polly's hand, and that an intelligent look passed between them.

Mary might be remiss in her efforts at charitable work amongst the white poor of the city of Auckland, but, certainly, there was no lack of tact and thoughtfulness where her own people were concerned. It was not charity itself that she deprecated, but she discriminated as to who should be the recipients of her care.

They walked slowly round the curve, followed by the sad eyes of the Maori, the waves gently murmuring as they broke upon the soft, sandy beach. At the turning, Mary paused, and waved her hand as a last good-bye, when Polly entered the hut, and the door closed behind her.

Mary turned her eyes on her companion with traces of tears, a very rare occurrence with her, and said–

“Polly is one of the truest, noblest women I know—one that can be trusted in everything, and at all times. But she knows absolutely nothing of the gospel,” emphasizing the last word bitterly. “Missionary work has done nothing for her, has not taught her to be honourable and independent; it is her own natural instinct, the characteristics of her own race.

“She seems very fond of you, and I should imagine is very affectionate,” weakly commented Captain Deering, who, of course, had seen in Polly merely a tall, muscular type of Maori. But Mary meant that her favourite should receive what she considered her meed of praise.

“Ah, yes! You do not know how good she is. She is the only Maori about here who does not own any land, and therefore she is poor, and has to depend upon her sister for a home. Very often I know she is hungry; but she is too honest to take what she does not earn, and too proud to beg. You see her feelings are on a higher plane than many page 198 white people, who have had the benefit of civilization and Christianity all their lives.”

“That may be all true, Miss Balmain, but you have taken one solitary instance of a Maori of high character and compare her with persons of poor spirit and motives of the white race. Besides, you gave Polly money, did you not?” said the Captain, quietly.

“She will take from me because I am connected with them in a sort of way; but the money was not for bread, it was for tobacco. When she is hungry she smokes to lull the craving for food, not but what she smokes at all times.”

To Mary this fact came as a matter of course, but to Captain Deering it sounded peculiar.

“There is a lady here—you know her husband—who often goes out in the evening, leaving her children in Polly's charge, and feels more satisfied than when they are in the care of a white girl. There is another lady here who is always pleased to see her; but she goes very seldom for fear of intruding. Both these ladies would trust her with any amount of money; but all the same, Polly knows nothing of Bible lessons of any kind; they are beyond her grasp. If anything could be made by missionaries out of the Maori race, surely such noble natures as Polly's should be benefited. When I see Polly so poor and miserable, and missionaries in Auckland living in finer houses than Uncle Morgan, it makes me dislike the very name of mission.”

“I did not see any Maoris at the church,” said the Captain.

“No; I tell you that now the white man is sweeping the Maori from the land, no more interest is taken in his spiritual welfare. There are from ten to twenty living at Mangare, according to the season of the year; but not one ever enters the church door, though it really belongs to them.”

“It is a pity,” exclaimed Captain Deering.

And then Mary's mood changed with that quick page 199 revulsion of feeling particularly characteristic of her.

“know I have bored you with these things. A little is all very well, but I have kept on harping at the subject. I shall never mention the question to you again,” and she did not.

He was not sorry; for it irritated him somewhat that she should so identify herself with, this savage race. Politeness, however, forced him to differ with her.

“Indeed, I am interested—it is so new to me.”

By this time they were half over the bridge again, and still no signs of Mrs. Morgan.

Before them rose the town of Onehunga, its villas and cottages embowered in trees and its trimly laid out gardens one blaze of colour. It gradually swelled until it culminated in a hill, familiarly known as One Tree Hill, which completely hid from view the harbour on the other side; to the left rose the “Pah,” once the impregnable position of a Maori fortification, now the site of an elegant residence modelled after the fashion of an English country house; the whole reminding Captain Deering of “home” scenes in the midland counties.

Mrs. Morgan turned so quickly on to the bridge that she was upon them almost before they saw her.

“We shall have to hurry,” she cried;” time passed before I was a ware of it. Mr. Morgan will think we are lost.”

“He will blame you then, auntie,” laughed Mary, as she got in, followed by Captain Deering, who started for home at once by turning the carriage round in the direction in which Mrs. Morgan had come.

Captain Deering had seen the Maoris, and had heard Mary's very strong opinions; but it affected his course not one atom. Young men in love are not so easily turned.

Alas for Mr. Morgan!