[Editor: Published in Over the Sliprails, by Henry Lawson (1900).]
A daughter of Maoriland
A sketch of poor-class Maoris
The new native-school teacher, who was “green,” “soft,” and poetical, and had a literary ambition, called her “August,” and fondly hoped to build a romance on her character. She was down in the school registers as Sarah Moses, Maori, 16 years and three months. She looked twenty; but this was nothing, insomuch as the mother of the youngest child in the school — a dear little half-caste lady of two or three summers — had not herself the vaguest idea of the child’s age, nor anybody else’s, nor of ages in the abstract. The church register was lost some six years before, when “Granny,” who was a hundred, if a day, was supposed to be about twenty-five. The teacher had to guess the ages of all the new pupils.
August was apparently the oldest in the school — a big, ungainly, awkward girl, with a heavy negro type of Maori countenance, and about as much animation, mentally or physically, as a cow. She was given to brooding; in fact, she brooded all the time. She brooded all day over her school work, but did it fairly well. How the previous teachers had taught her all she knew was a mystery to the new one. There had been a tragedy in August’s family when she was a child, and the affair seemed to have cast a gloom over the lives of the entire family, for the lowering brooding cloud was on all their faces. August would take to the bush when things went wrong at home, and climb a tree and brood till she was found and coaxed home. Things, according to pa gossip, had gone wrong with her from the date of the tragedy, when she, a bright little girl, was taken — a homeless orphan — to live with a sister, and, afterwards, with an aunt-by-marriage. They treated her, ’twas said, with a brutality which must have been greatly exaggerated by pa-gossip, seeing that unkindness of this description is, according to all the best authorities, altogether foreign to Maori nature.
Pa-gossip — which is less reliable than the ordinary washerwoman kind, because of a deeper and more vicious ignorance — had it that one time when August was punished by a teacher (or beaten by her sister or aunt-by-marriage) she “took to the bush” for three days, at the expiration of which time she was found on the ground in an exhausted condition. She was evidently a true Maori or savage, and this was one of the reasons why the teacher with the literary ambition took an interest in her. She had a print of a portrait of a man in soldier’s uniform, taken from a copy of the Illustrated London News, pasted over the fireplace in the whare where she lived, and neatly bordered by vandyked strips of silvered tea-paper. She had pasted it in the place of honour, or as near as she could get to it. The place of honour was sacred to framed representations of the Nativity and Catholic subjects, half-modelled, half-pictured. The print was a portrait of the last Czar of Russia, of all the men in the world; and August was reported to have said that she loved that man. His father had been murdered, so had her mother. This was one of the reasons why the teacher with the literary ambition thought he could get a romance out of her.
After the first week she hung round the new schoolmistress, dog-like — with “dog-like affection,” thought the teacher. She came down often during the holidays, and hung about the verandah and back door for an hour or so; then, by-and-bye, she’d be gone. Her brooding seemed less aggressive on such occasions. The teacher reckoned that she had something on her mind, and wanted to open her heart to “the wife,” but was too ignorant or too shy, poor girl; and he reckoned, from his theory of Maori character, that it might take her weeks, or months, to come to the point. One day, after a great deal of encouragement, she explained that she felt “so awfully lonely, Mrs. Lorrens.” All the other girls were away, and she wished it was school-time.
She was happy and cheerful again, in her brooding way, in the playground. There was something sadly ludicrous about her great, ungainly figure slopping round above the children at play. The schoolmistress took her into the parlour, gave her tea and cake, and was kind to her; and she took it all with broody cheerfulness.
One Sunday morning she came down to the cottage and sat on the edge of the verandah, looking as wretchedly miserable as a girl could. She was in rags — at least, she had a rag of a dress on — and was barefooted and bareheaded. She said that her aunt had turned her out, and she was going to walk down the coast to Whale Bay to her grandmother — a long day’s ride. The teacher was troubled, because he was undecided what to do. He had to be careful to avoid any unpleasantness arising out of Maori cliquism. As the teacher he couldn’t let her go in the state she was in; from the depths of his greenness he trusted her, from the depths of his softness he pitied her; his poetic nature was fiercely indignant on account of the poor girl’s wrongs, and the wife spoke for her. Then he thought of his unwritten romance, and regarded August in the light of copy, and that settled it. While he talked the matter over with his wife, August “hid in the dark of her hair,” awaiting her doom. The teacher put his hat on, walked up to the pa, and saw her aunt. She denied that she had turned August out, but the teacher believed the girl. He explained his position, in words simplified for Maori comprehension, and the aunt and relations said they understood, and that he was “perfectly right, Mr. Lorrens.” They were very respectful. The teacher said that if August would not return home, he was willing to let her stay at the cottage until such time as her uncle, who was absent, returned, and he (the teacher) could talk the matter over with him. The relations thought that that was the very best thing that could be done, and thanked him. The aunt, two sisters, and as many of the others, including the children, as were within sight or hail at the time — most of them could not by any possible means have had the slightest connection with the business in hand — accompanied the teacher to the cottage. August took to the flax directly she caught sight of her relations, and was with difficulty induced to return. There was a lot of talk in Maori, during which the girl and her aunt shuffled and swung round at the back of each other, and each talked over her shoulder, and laughed foolishly and awkwardly once or twice; but in the end the girl was sullenly determined not to return home, so it was decided that she should stay. The schoolmistress made tea.
August brightened from the first day. She was a different girl altogether. “I never saw such a change in a girl,” said the young schoolmistress, and one or two others. “I always thought she was a good girl if taken the right way; all she wanted was a change and kind treatment.” But the stolid old Maori chairman of the school committee only shrugged his shoulders and said (when the schoolmistress, woman-like, pressed him for an opinion to agree with her own), “You can look at it two ways, Mrs. Lorrens.” Which, by the way, was about the only expression of opinion that the teacher was ever able to get out of him on any subject.
August worked and behaved well. She was wonderfully quick in picking up English ways and housework. True, she was awkward and not over cleanly in some things, but her mistress had patience with her. Who wouldn’t have? She “couldn’t do enough” for her benefactress; she hung on her words and sat at her footstool of evenings in a way that gladdened the teacher’s sentimental nature; she couldn’t bear to see him help his wife with a hat-pin or button — August must do it. She insisted on doing her mistress’ hair every night. In short, she tried in every way to show her gratitude. The teacher and his wife smiled brightly at each other behind her back, and thought how cheerful the house was since she came, and wondered what they’d do without her. It was a settled thing that they should take her back to the city with them, and have a faithful and grateful retainer all their lives and a sort of Aunt Chloe for their children, when they had any. The teacher got yards of copy out of her for his “Maori Sketches and Characters,” worked joyously at his romance, and felt great already, and was happy. She had a bed made up temporarily (until the teacher could get a spring mattress for her from town) on the floor in the dining-room, and when she’d made her bed she’d squat on it in front of the fire and sing Maori songs in a soft voice. She’d sing the teacher and his wife, in the next room, to sleep. Then she’d get up and have a feed, but they never heard her.
Her manners at the table (for she was treated “like one of themselves” in the broadest sense of the term) were surprisingly good, considering that the adults of her people were decidedly cow-like in white society, and scoffed sea-eggs, shell-fish, and mutton-birds at home with a gallop which was not edifying. Her appetite, it was true, was painful at times to the poetic side of the teacher’s nature; but he supposed that she’d been half-starved at home, poor girl, and would get over it. Anyway, the copy he’d get out of her would repay him for this and other expenses a hundredfold. Moreover, begging and borrowing had ceased with her advent, and the teacher set this down to her influence.
The first jar came when she was sent on horseback to the town for groceries, and didn’t get back till late the next day. She explained that some of her relations got hold of her and made her stay, and wanted her to go into public-houses with them, but she wouldn’t. She said that she wanted to come home. But why didn’t she? The teacher let it pass, and hoped she’d gain strength of character by-and-bye. He had waited up late the night before with her supper on the hob; and he and his wife had been anxious for fear something had happened to the poor girl who was under their care. He had walked to the treacherous river-ford several times during the evening, and waited there for her. So perhaps he was tired, and that was why he didn’t write next night.
The sugar-bag, the onion-basket, the potato-bag and the tea-chest began to “go down” alarmingly, and an occasional pound of candles, a pigeon, a mutton-bird (plucked and ready for Sunday’s cooking), and other little trifles went, also. August couldn’t understand it, and the teacher believed her, for falsehood and deceit are foreign to the simple natures of the modern Maoris. There were no cats; but no score of ordinary cats could have given colour to the cat theory, had it been raised in this case. The breath of August advertised onions more than once, but no human stomach could have accounted for the quantity. She surely could not have eaten the other things raw — and she had no opportunities for private cooking, as far as the teacher and his wife could see. The other Maoris were out of the question; they were all strictly honest.
Thefts and annoyances of the above description were credited to the “swaggies” who infested the roads, and had a very bad name down that way; so the teacher loaded his gun, and told August to rouse him at once, if she heard a sound in the night. She said she would; but a heavy-weight “swaggie” could have come in and sat on her and had a smoke without waking her.
She couldn’t be trusted to go a message. She’d take from three to six hours, and come back with an excuse that sounded genuine from its very simplicity. Another sister of hers lay ill in an isolated hut, alone and uncared for, except by the teacher’s wife, and occasionally by a poor pa outcast who had negro blood in her veins, and a love for a white loafer. God help her! All of which sounds strange, considering that Maoris are very kind to each other. The schoolmistress sent August one night to stay with the sick Maori woman and help her as she could, and gave her strict instructions to come to the cottage first thing in the morning, and tell her how the sick woman was. August turned up at lunch-time next day. The teacher gave her her first lecture, and said plainly that he wasn’t to be taken for a fool; then he stepped aside to get cool, and, when he returned, the girl was sobbing as if her heart would break, and the wife comforting her. She had been up all night, poor girl, and was thoroughly worn out. Somehow the teacher didn’t feel uncomfortable about it. He went down to the whare. August had not touched a dishcloth or broom. She had slept, as she always did, like a pig, all night, while her sister lay and tossed in agony; in the morning she ate everything there was to eat in the house (which, it seemed, was the Maori way of showing sympathy in sickness and trouble), after which she brooded by the fire till the children, running out of school, announced the teacher’s lunch hour.
August braced up again for a little while. The master thought of the trouble they had with Ayacanora in “Westward Ho,” and was comforted, and tackled his romance again. Then the schoolmistress fell sick and things went wrong. The groceries went down faster than ever, and the house got very dirty, and began to have a native smell about it. August grew fat, and lazy, and dirty, and less reliable on washing-days, or when there was anything special to do in the house. “The savage blood is strong,” thought the teacher, “and she is beginning to long for her own people and free unconventional life.” One morning — on a washing-day, too, as it happened — she called out, before the teacher and his wife were up, that the Maoris who supplied them with milk were away, and she had promised to go up and milk the cow and bring the milk down. The teacher gave her permission. One of the scholars usually brought the milk early. Lunch time came and no August, no milk — strangest of all, only half the school children. The teacher put on his hat, and went up to the pa once more. He found August squatted in the midst of a circle of relations. She was entertaining them with one of a series of idealistic sketches of the teacher’s domestic life, in which she showed a very vivid imagination, and exhibited an unaccountable savage sort of pessimism. Her intervals of absence had been occupied in this way from the first. The astounding slanders she had circulated concerning the teacher’s private life came back, bit by bit, to his ears for a year afterwards, and her character sketches of previous teachers, and her own relations — for she spared nobody — would have earned a white woman a long and well-merited term of imprisonment for criminal libel. She had cunningly, by straightforward and unscrupulous lying, prejudiced the principal mother and boss woman of the pa against the teacher and his wife; as a natural result of which the old lady, who, like the rest, was very ignorant and ungrateful, “turned nasty” and kept the children from school. The teacher lost his temper, so the children were rounded up and hurried down to school immediately; with them came August and her aunt, with alleged explanations and excuses, and a shell-fish. The aunt and sisters said they’d have nothing to do with August. They didn’t want her and wouldn’t have her. The teacher said that, under those circumstances, she’d better go and drown herself; so she went home with them.
The whole business had been a plot by her nearest relations. They got rid of the trouble and expense of keeping her, and the bother of borrowing in person, whenever in need of trifles in the grocery line. Borrowing recommenced with her dismissal; but the teacher put a full stop to it, as far as he was concerned. Then August, egged on by her aunt, sent a blackguardly letter to the teacher’s wife; the sick sister, by the way, who had been nursed and supplied with food by her all along, was in it, and said she was glad August sent the letter, and it served the schoolmistress right. The teacher went up to the pa once more; an hour later, August in person, accompanied, as usual, by a relation or two, delivered at the cottage an abject apology in writing, the composition of which would have discouraged the most enthusiastic advocate of higher education for the lower classes.
Then various petty annoyances were tried. The teacher is firmly convinced that certain animal-like sounds round the house at night were due to August’s trying to find out whether his wife was as likely to be haunted as the Maoris were. He didn’t dream of such a thing at the time, for he did not believe that one of them had the pluck to venture out after dark. But savage superstition must give way to savage hate. The girl’s last “try-on” was to come down to the school fence, and ostentatiously sharpen a table-knife on the wires, while she scowled murderously in the direction of the schoolmistress, who was hanging out her washing. August looked, in her dark, bushy, Maori hair, a thoroughly wild savage. Her father had murdered her mother under particularly brutal circumstances, and the daughter took after her father.
The teacher called her and said: “Now, look here, my lady, the best thing you can do is to drop that nonsense at once” (she had dropped the knife in the ferns behind her), “for we’re the wrong sort of people to try it on with. Now you get out of this and tell your aunt — she’s sneaking there in the flax — what I tell you, and that she’d better clear out of this quick, or I’ll have a policeman out and take the whole gang into town in an hour. Now be off, and shut that gate behind you, carefully, and fasten it.” She did, and went.
The worst of it was that the August romance copy was useless. Her lies were even less reliable and picturesque than the common Jones Alley hag lie. Then the teacher thought of the soft fool he’d been, and that made him wild. He looked like a fool, and was one to a great extent, but it wasn’t good policy to take him for one.
Strange to say, he and others had reason to believe that August respected him, and liked him rather than otherwise; but she hated his wife, who had been kind to her, as only a savage can hate. The younger pupils told the teacher, cheerfully and confidently, that August said she’d cut Mrs. Lorrens’ throat the first chance she got. Next week the aunt sent down to ask if the teacher could sell her a bar of soap, and sent the same old shilling; he was tired of seeing it stuck out in front of him, so he took it, put it in his pocket, and sent the soap. This must have discouraged them, for the borrowing industry petered out. He saw the aunt later on, and she told him, cheerfully, that August was going to live with a half-caste in a certain house in town.
Poor August! For she was only a tool after all. Her “romance” was briefly as follows:— She went, per off-hand Maori arrangement, as ‘housekeeper’ in the hut of a labourer at a neighbouring saw-mill. She stayed three months, for a wonder; at the expiration of which time she put on her hat and explained that she was tired of stopping there, and was going home. He said, ‘All right, Sarah, wait a while and I’ll take you home.’ At the door of her aunt’s house he said, ‘Well, good-bye, Sarah,’ and she said, in her brooding way, ‘Good-bye, Jim.’ And that was all.
As the last apparent result of August’s mischief-making, her brother or someone one evening rode up to the cottage, drunk and inclined to bluster. He was accompanied by a friend, also drunk, who came to see the fun, and was ready to use his influence on the winning side. The teacher went inside, brought out his gun, and slipped two cartridges in. “I’ve had enough of this,” he said. “Now then, be off, you insolent blackguards, or I’ll shoot you like rabbits. Go!” and he snapped his jaw and the breech of his gun together. As they rode off, the old local hawk happened to soar close over a dead lamb in the fern at the corner of the garden, and the teacher, who had been “laying” for him a long time, let fly both barrels at him, without thinking. When he turned, there was only a cloud of dust down the track.
* * * * * *
The teacher taught that school for three years thereafter, without a hitch. But he went no more on Universal Brotherhood lines. And, for years after he had gone, his name was spoken of with great respect by the Maoris.
Henry Lawson, Over the Sliprails, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1900, pages 81-93
Aunt Chloe = a “mammy” character (a black woman who works as a nanny and/or a housekeeper, especially for a white family) depicted in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe, which was first published in 1852
flax = any plant of the genus Linum, particularly Linum usitatissimum; or, the textile fiber produced from the flax plant
hob = metal shelf at the side, or rear, of a fireplace, on which something may be placed so as to keep it warm (commonly used to heat up pans) (may also refer to a cooktop, the flat top of a stove or cooker)
jar = an emotional jolt; a sudden disturbing or unpleasant effect upon someone; a shock to one’s emotional state, as may be caused by a jarring occurrence
pa = a Maori village
pa gossip = village gossip (a “pa” is a Maori village) (also rendered as “pa-gossip”, with a hyphen)
score = twenty (sometimes used in conjunction with a cardinal number, e.g. “threescore”, “fourscore”) (may also refer to an undefined large number)
swaggie = swagman (also spelt “swaggy”)
vandyke = a decorative edging consisting of large V-shaped points (may also refer to: a wide collar of lace or linen with its edges shaped into large points; a short beard trimmed to a point, the name being derived from the style depicted in portraits painted by the Flemish artist Anton Van Dyck, 1599-1641)
Westward Ho = Westward Ho! is a novel by Charles Kingsley, which was first published in 1855
whare = a simple or roughly-built dwelling place, particularly at a beach or in the bush, often a temporary abode (from the Maori “whare” meaning hut, house, or dwelling place)
[Editor: Changed “she had a rag of dress on” to “she had a rag of a dress on”.]
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