A Touch of the Tar Brush by Louis Becke

Dr. Te Henare Rauparaha, the youngest member of the New Zealand House of Representatives, had made his mark, to a certain extent, upon the political life of the colony. Representing no party, and having no interests but those of the Maori race, he seldom rose to speak except on questions of native land-grants, or when similar matters affecting the Maori population were under discussion. Then his close, masterly reasoning and his natural eloquence gained him the most profound attention. Twice had he succeeded in inducing the House to throw out measures that would have perpetrated the grossest injustice upon certain Maori tribes; and ere long, without effort on his part, he became the tacit leader of a small but growing party that followed his arguments and resisted tooth and nail the tendency of certain Ministers to smooth the path of the land-grabber and company-promoter. Later on in the session his powers of debate, undeviating resolution, and determined opposition to Governmental measures that he regarded as injurious to the natives began to make Ministers uneasy; and although they cursed him in secret for a meddling fool and mad-brained enthusiast, they no longer attempted to ride rough-shod over him in the House, especially as the Labour members, who held the balance of power, entertained very friendly feelings towards the young man, and gave him considerable support. Therefore he was to be conciliated, and accordingly the curt nods of recognition, which were all that were once given him, were exchanged for friendly smiles and warm hand-grasps. But Rauparaha was not deceived. He knew that in a few evenings a certain Bill to absolutely dispossess the native holders of a vast area of land in the North Island would be read, and that its mover, who was a Government member, was merely the agent of a huge land-buying concern, which intended to re-sell the stolen property to the working people on magnanimous terms for village settlements; and although sorely afraid at heart that he would have to bear the brunt of the battle in opposing the Bill, the young doctor was hopeful that the Labour members would eventually come to his support when he exposed the secret motives that really had brought it into existence. But he did not know that the Labour members had already been "approached," and had given promises not to support him and not to vote against the measure; otherwise some concessions regarding railway contracts, which the Government were prepared to make to the great Labour party, would be "matters for future consideration" only. And, therefore, rather than offend the Government, the honest men agreed to let Rauparaha "fight it out himself against the Government," and "ratted" to a man. Every one of their number also expected to be appointed a Director of a Village Settlement, and were not disposed to fly in the face of a Providence that would give them each a permanent and comfortable billet, especially as their parliamentary career was doomed—not one of them had the faintest hope of re-election.

And so Dr. Rauparaha made the effort of his life, and the House listened to him in cold and stony silence. From the first he knew that he was doomed to failure, when he saw two or three of his once ardent admirers get up and sneak out of the Chamber; but, with a glance of contemptuous scorn at their retreating figures, he went on speaking. And then, at the close of an impassioned address, he held up in his right hand a copy of the Treaty of Waitangi.

"And this, honourable members, is the solemn bond and testimony of a great nation, the written promise of our Queen and her Ministers to these people that their lands and their right to live in their country should be kept inviolate! How has that promise been kept? Think of it, I pray you, and let your cheeks redden with shame, for the pages of this Treaty are blotted with the blackest treachery and stained a bloody red. And the Bill now before the House to rob and despoil some hundreds of native families of land that has been theirs before a white man ever placed his foot in the country is the most shameful and heartless act of all. I say 'act' because I recognise how futile is my single voice raised on behalf of my race to stay this bitter injustice. Rob us, then, but offer us no longer the ghastly mockery of parliamentary representation. Better for us all to die as our forefathers have done, rifle in hand, than perish of poverty and starvation on the soil that is our only inheritance."

"Rot!" called out a short, fat man wearing a huge diamond ring and an excessively dirty white waistcoat. This was the Minister for Dredges and Artesian Bores, a gentleman who hoped to receive a C.M.G. ship for his clamorous persistency in advocating the claim of the colony to "'ave a Royel dook as its next Governor."

"Shut up!" said an honourable member beside him. "Rauparaha doesn't talk rot. You do—always."

The Minister muttered that he "didn't approve of no one a-usin' of inflammetery langwidge in the 'Ouse," but made no further remark.

Rauparaha resumed his seat, the proposer of the Bill made his reply, and the House voted solidly for the measure.

That evening, as the young man sat in his chambers gazing moodily into the glowing embers of the fire, and thinking bitterly of the utter hopelessness of the cause that lay so near his heart, his door opened, and Captain Lionel Brewster, a member of the House and a favoured protégé of the Government, walked in and held out his hand.

"How are you, doctor?" and he showed his white teeth in a smile of set friendliness. "I hear you are leaving Wellington at the close of the session for the North Island. I really am sorry, you know—deuced sorry—that your splendid speech was so quietly taken this afternoon. As a matter of fact, both ——— and ——— have the most friendly feeling towards you, and, although your political opponents in this matter, value and esteem you highly."

"Thanks, Captain Brewster," answered Rau-paraha coldly. He knew that this polished gentleman had been sent to him merely to smooth him down. Other land-grants had yet to come before the House, and Dr. Rauparaha, although he stood alone, was not an enemy to be despised or treated with nonchalance. One reason was his great wealth, the second his influence with a section of the Press that attacked the Government native policy with an unsparing pen. But, as a matter of fact, his visitor had a second and more personal motive.

However, he asked Brewster to be seated; and that gentleman, twirling his carefully-trimmed moustache, smiled genially, and said he should be delighted to stay and chat a while.

"By the way, though, doctor," he said cordially, "my people—my aunt and cousin, you know—have heard so much of you that I have promised to take you down to our place for a few days if I can induce you to come. They were both in the gallery yesterday, and took the deepest interest in your speech. Now, my dear fellow, the House doesn't meet again till Tuesday. Come down with me to-morrow."

"Thanks," and the doctor's olive features flushed a deep red; "I will come. I think I have fired my last shot in Parliament, and intend to resign, and so do not care much whether I ever enter the House again. And I shall have much pleasure in meeting your aunt and cousin again; I was introduced to them some weeks ago."

"So they told me," and Brewster smiled sweetly again. "Then you won't come as a stranger. Now I must be off. I shall call for you after lunch tomorrow."

As Lionel Brewster threw himself back in his cab and smoked his cigar he cursed vigorously. "Damn the cursed half-breed of a fellow! He's clever enough, and all that; but what the devil Helen can see in him to make me invite him down to Te Ariri I don't know. Curse her infernal twaddle about the rights of humanity and such fustian. Once you are my wife, my sweet, romantic cousin, I'll knock all that idiotic bosh on the head. It's bad enough to sit in the House and listen to this fellow frothing, without having to bring a quarter-bred savage into one's own family. However, he's really not a man to be ashamed of, so far as appearances go.... And I must humour her. Five thousand a year must be humoured."

"Well, Helen, and what do you think of your savage?" said Mrs. Torringley to her niece, late the following evening, as she came to the door of Helen's room before she said good-night.

The girl was lying on a couch at the further end of the room, looking through the opened window out into the shadows of the night. The pale, clear-cut face flushed. "I like him very much, auntie. And I have been thinking."

"Thinking of what, dear?"

"Wondering if my father ever thought, when he was leading his men against the Maoris, of the cruel, dreadful wrong he was helping to perpetrate."

"'Cruel'! 'dreadful'! My dear child, what nonsense you talk! They were bloodthirsty savages."

"Savages! True. But savages fighting for all that was dear to them—for their lands, their lives, their liberties as a people. Oh, auntie, when I read of the awful deeds of bloodshed that are even now being done in Africa by English soldiers, it makes me sicken. Oh, if I were only a man, I would go out into the world and——"

"My dear child," said the older lady, with a smile, "you must not read so much of—of Tolstoy and other horrible writers like him. What would Lionel say if he thought you were going to be a Woman with a Mission? Good-night, dear, and don't worry about the Maoris. Many of them are real Christians nowadays, and nearly all the women can sew quite nicely."

Outside on the broad gravelled walk the young doctor talked to himself as he paced quickly to and fro. "Folly, folly, folly. What interest can she have in me, except that I have native blood in my veins, and that her father fought our people in the Waikato thirty years ago?"

Brewster had gone back to town for a day or two; but as he bade his aunt and cousin goodbye, he warmly seconded their request to the doctor to remain at Te Ariri till he returned, although inwardly he swore at them both for a pair of "blithering idiots." And as he drove away to the station he congratulated himself on the fact that while his fiancée had a "touch of the tar-brush," as he expressed it, in her descent, her English bringing-up and society training under her worldly-minded but rather brainless aunt had led her to accept him as her future husband without difficulty.

For the next two days Dr. Rauparaha had much writing to do, and passed his mornings and afternoons in the quiet library. Sometimes, as he wrote, a shadow would flit across the wide, sunlit veranda, and Helen Torringley would flit by, nodding pleasantly to him through the windows. Only two or three times had he met her alone since he came to Te Ariri, and walked with her through the grounds, listening with a strange pleasure to her low, tender voice, and gazing into the deep, dark eyes, that shone with softest lustre from out the pale, olive face, set in a wealth of wavy jet-black hair. For Helen Torringley was, like himself, of mixed blood. Her mother, who had died in her infancy, was a South American quadroon, born in Lima, and all the burning, quick passions and hot temperament of her race were revealed in her daughter's every graceful gesture and inflexion of her clear voice.

It was late in the afternoon, and Dr. Rauparaha, pushing his papers wearily away from him, rose from his seat. His work was finished. To-morrow he would bid these new friends goodbye—this proud English lady and her beautiful, sweet-voiced niece—the girl whose dark eyes and red lips had come into his day-dreams and visions of the night. And just then she came to the library door, carrying in her hand a portfolio.

"Are you very busy, Dr. Rauparaha?" she said, as she entered and stood before him.

"Busy! No, Miss Torringley. Are these the sketches you told me Colonel Torringley made when he was in New Zealand?" and as he extended his hand for the book, the hot blood surged to his sallow forehead.

"Yes, they were all drawn by my father. I found them about a year since in the bottom of one of his trunks. He died ten years ago."

Slowly the young man turned them over one by one. Many of them were drawings of outposts, heads of native chiefs, &c. At last he came to one, somewhat larger than the others. It depicted the assault and capture of a Maori pah, standing on a hill that rose gradually from the margin of a reedy swamp. The troops had driven out the defenders, who were shown escaping across the swamp through the reeds, the women and children in the centre, the men surrounding them on all sides to protect them from the hail of bullets that swept down upon them from the heights above the captured fortress.

A shadow fell across the face of Dr. Rauparaha, and his hand tightened upon and almost crumpled the paper in his grasp; then he smiled, but with a red gleam in his dark eyes.

"'The assault on Maungatabu by the 18th Royal Irish,'" he read.

"The brave Irish," he said, with a mocking smile, raising his head and looking intently into the pale face of the girl; "the brave Irish! So ardent for liberty themselves, such loud-mouthed clamourers to the world for justice to their country—yet how they sell themselves for a paltry wage to butcher women and children"—then he stopped suddenly.

"Pardon me, I forgot myself. I did not remember that your father was an officer of that regiment."

She gave him her hand, and her eyes filled. "No, do not ask my pardon. I think it was horrible, horrible. How can such dreadful things be? I have heard my father say that that very victory filled him with shame.... He led the storming party, and when the pah was carried, and he saw the natives escaping—the men surrounding the women and children—he ordered the 'Cease firing' to be sounded, but——" and her voice faltered.

"But——" and the lurid gleam in Rauparaha's eyes made her face flush and then pale again.

"The men went mad, and took no notice of him and the other two officers who were both wounded—the rest were killed in the assault. They had lost heavily, and were maddened with rage when they saw the Maoris escaping, and continued firing at them till they crossed the swamp, and hid in the long fern scrub on the other side."

"And even then a shell was fired into them as they lay there in the fern, resting their exhausted bodies ere they crept through it to gain the hills beyond," added the young man slowly.

"Yes," she murmured, "I have heard my father speak of it. But it was not by his orders—he was a soldier, but not a cruel man. See, this next sketch shows the bursting of the shell."

He took it from her hand and looked. At the foot of it was written, "The Last Shot at Maungatabu."

His hand trembled for a moment; then he placed the drawing back in the portfolio, and with averted face she rose from the table and walked to the window.

For a moment or two she stood there irresolutely, and then with the colour mantling her brow she came over to him.

"I must ask your pardon now. I forgot that—that—that——"

"That I have Maori blood in my veins. Yes, I have, my father was a Pakeha Maori,{*} my mother a woman of one of the Waikato tribes. She died when I was very young." Then, in a curiously strained voice, he said: "Miss Torringley, may I ask a favour of you? Will you give me that sketch?"

     * A white man who had adopted Maori life and customs.

She moved quickly to the table, and untied the portfolio again.

"Which, Dr. Rauparaha? The last——"

"Yes," he interrupted, with sudden fierceness, "the Last Shot at Maungatabu."

She took it out and came over to him. "Take it, if you wish it; take them all, if you care for them. No one but myself ever looks at them.... And now, after what you have told me, I shall never want to look at them again."

"Thank you," he said, in softer tones, as he took the picture from her. "I only wish for this one. It will help to keep my memory green—when I return to my mother's people."

"Ah," she said, in a pained voice, "don't say that. I wish I had never asked you to look at it. I have read the papers, and know how the Maori people must feel, and I am sorry, oh! so sorry, that I have unthinkingly aroused what must surely be painful memories to you."

"Do not think of it, Miss Torringley. Such things always will be. So long as we live, breathe, and have our being, so long will the strong oppress and slay the weak; so long will the accursed earth-hunger of a great Christian nation be synonymous for bloodshed, murder, and treachery; so long will she hold out with one hand to the children of Ham the figure of Christ crucified, and preach of the benefits of civilisation; while with the other she sweeps them away with the Maxim gun; so long will such things as the 'Last Shot at Maungatabu'—the murder of women and children, always be."

With bated breath she listened to the end, and then murmured—

"It is terrible to think of, an unjust warfare. Were any women and children killed at Maungatabu?"

"Yes," he almost shouted back, "many were shot as they crossed the swamp. And when they gained the fern two more were killed by that last shell—a woman and child—my mother and my sister!"

He turned away again to the window, but not so quickly but that he could see she was crying softly to herself, as she bent her face over the table.

Three days after, Mrs. Torringley showed her nephew a note that she had found on her niece's dressing-table:—

     "Do not blame me. I cannot help it. I love him, and am going
     away with him to another country. Perhaps it is my mother's
     blood. Wipe me out of your memory for ever."