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The Angel Isafrel: A Story of Prohibition in New Zealand

Chapter I. — Under The Pohutukawas

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Chapter I.
Under The Pohutukawas.

“'Tis the tragedy of life.”

She was twining a spray of pohutukawa blossoms with ferns and ti-tree sprigs into a garland on the hat that was lying in her lap. Through the dark green foliage of a clump of Christmas trees, moving in a gentle breeze coming up from the sea, the sunlight was glinting on her fair hair, which fell in tangled clusters over her shoulders. Her sunny face and soft blue eyes, as she bent over her task, gave no evidence that she had ever looked very much on the tragic side of life during the twenty summers that had passed over her head; but there was an air of quiet happiness and of conscious possession on her face, as she glanced from time to time from her Christmas blooms to the young man reclining at her feet, that seemed a contradiction to the melancholy moody thought to which she had given utterance. He was in yachting costume, and with his hat tilted back, and smoking a cigar, he was looking down on the Rangitoto Channel, with its fleet of yachts and rowing boats dancing merrily on the waves that had been raised by a light breeze blowing up the channel. They had themselves had a stiff pull round the North Head and down the channel, in face of the wind, and having drawn up their skiff on the sands they had clambered up the cliff to where a cluster of pohutukawa trees, ablaze in their glorious covering of crimson blossoms, overshadowed a patch of waving grass and ferns on which they had chosen to rest for luncheon.

It was a general holiday, and all Auckland seemed abroad, to judge from the sails in sight and the number of picnic parties that hung like clusters of flies on the slopes of Fort Cautley and the sides and top of Mount Victoria, and dotted the sands of Cheltenham Beach. A ferry steamer, gay with bunting, and crowded from stem to stern with passengers, was passing on its page 8 way to Lake Takapuna, the soft strains of music coming, mellowed by distance, floating up on the summer air to where they were resting.

The hush of silence seemed to have fallen on them from the remark about the “tragedy of life,” till flinging a spray of blossoms at him she said, “What are you dreaming about, George? About me, I suppose?

“No, dear, I am mostly thinking about you, but I was not then. I was thinking of what you said about life being a tragedy.”

“But I did not say that life is a tragedy. Life is for the most part a very pleasant thing, as you know, George, and so do I. But there is deep tragedy in life; it is only when people make it so.”

“But I don't see why one should be looking always for the tragic side of life. There is plenty of sunshine for the taking of it, and the shadows come and pass, and there is the sunshine over all.”

“Yes, George, God's world is very beautiful, and He meant it to be full of gladness and of love, but evil has got in somewhere, and it plays terrible havoc sometimes. See that great patch of shadow creeping up the side of Rangitoto—”

“Oh, bother your shadows, Isafel; you are always talking about shadows, and when I begin to speak to you about what will chase shadows away for ever, and make our lives one long day of sunshine, you get that far-away look in your eyes, as if you were looking for another shadow. Now, listen to a little paragraph that I have written for the paper, and tell me what you think of it: ‘On Tuesday morning last, there was a very pretty wedding at St. Mark's, Remuera, when Mr. George Augustus Houston, our respected fellow citizen, so long and favourably known in connection with insurance in this city, led Miss Angel Isafrel, the lovely daughter of Mr. William Henry Chalmers, banker, to the hymeneal altar. The bride looked charming in a robe of—”

“Stop, stop, George,” said the laughing girl, snatching the paper from his hand and putting it in her bosom. “Don't be foolish. Time enough with the paragraph. It will all come in good time, I daresay, but don't put that paragraph in just yet a while. But see that yacht down there. Is there anything wrong with it? I have been watching it for some time, wondering what they mean to do; that one on this side the Salt Works. I thought at first they were making for the landing there, but they keep going about as if they could not manage her.”

George put the glasses to his eyes and watched the yacht for a few minutes. “I'm blest if I know what they're doing; they don't seem to know themselves, or how to handle her, and she's shipping water every plunge she makes. There are five or page 9 six girls in her, and they do seem scared a bit, and three or four fellows, and, if I know anything, I think the one at the tiller does not know what he's doing. If they don't mind there'll be a spill.”

Isafrel took the glasses. “How she does dip, with the sail in the water every time. My goodness, how dangerous that is—Oh!”

“By Jove, she's over,” shouted George, and both of them sprang to their feet. “Give me the glasses, Isa—I declare they're drowning. Come to the boat!”

They tumbled and scrambled through the ferns down over the side of the cliff, and rushed along the strand to where the skiff was hauled up on the sands, and pushed her into the sea.

“Into the boat, Isa,” said George, as the skiff touched the water, and in an instant they were both at the oars, pulling in the direction of where the yacht had gone down. At this distance they could not see any signs of the people, and the boat had evidently foundered. Several of the other yachts had rounded to, and their bows were pointed to the scene of the disaster, and a number of row boats were pulling in the same direction.

Isafrel and George bent to the oars, and, with a long, swift steady pull, they bounded over the waves. No word was spoken, but now and then George looked round to see the direction they were going. It was a race for life, and on every boat and yacht making for the scene right willing hearts and hands were pressing onward to the rescue. George and Isafrel were first, picking up a man who had been battling bravely with the waves in the effort to make the shore. George bade him hold on by the gunwale, while they pushed forward to where the boat had gone down. A young girl clinging to some floating lumber was next picked up, and lifted by George into the boat. The other boats and yachts were now on the spot, and another man and two girls floating on the water face down, but apparently lifeless, were gathered in. About two rods from George's boat, another girl was tossed to the surface, her pale face turned upward for an instant to the sky, and then she went under.

Isafrel was standing at the bows of the skiff, and putting her foot on the gunwale, she sprang into the water in the direction of the drowning girl. With a few vigorous strokes she reached the place in time to catch the floating hair of the girl, which she seized, and taking the hair between her teeth, she struck out against the waves in the direction of the boat. George had been prompt in bringing up the boat, and in a few moments, with his help, Isafrel had scrambled in, still holding on to the hair of the girl, whose body, limp and seemingly lifeless, they quickly drew into the boat. Two girls and two men were still missing, as they were told by the survivors, and quite a page 10 flotilla of boats and yachts now surrounding the scene, every search that could be made was made, but to no effect.

Instant efforts were made on the boats to restore the unconscious, and the three boats containing them at once made for the shore, leaving the other boats to continue the search.

Isafrel, who was well acquainted with the methods of the Humane Society for restoring the drowned, applied herself scientifically and devotedly to the task, on the unconscious body of the young girl she had herself drawn from the water, and when the boats reached the beach off Lake Takapuna, the bodies were lifted out on the shore for better treatment under the appliances that were now brought from every direction to assist in the work by willing helpers, who had seen the accident from the shore and had been anxiously watching the efforts of the rescuers.

It was only when the body of the poor young girl which had been taken into George's boat was laid out on the strand, that Isafrel had carefully looked at her face. When she did so she started back with a short scream, and threw her arms around George's neck and burst into tears. “It's Josephine! it's Josephine!” she sobbed out as if her heart would break. George disengaged himself from her arms and went over to look at the girl. It was indeed Josephine Webster, Isafrel's dearest friend, schoolmate, companion, confidante, bound to her by all the tender ties of girlhood's affections.

But the tears were soon dried from Isafrel's eyes, and with the calm of fixed determination on her face, but with anguish in her heart, she redoubled her efforts to bring back the unconscious girl to life.

There were plenty of helpers in that work, both in the case of Josephine and of the other two girls and the young man who had been picked up unconscious in the water; but Isafrel would suffer no hands but her own to touch Josephine, and for two hours she chafed and rubbed and followed out all the prescribed methods with precision and persistence.

George had been hearing from the man he had rescued how the affair had occurred. “It was all Moulton's fault,” said the man. “He would have his own way, and as none of the rest of us knew much about the working of a boat we had to let him have it. The girls were greatly frightened, but they were still and silent at the last. They had pleaded with Moulton long and hard to put in shore, and the men had joined in the entreaty, but Moulton had got sulky and angry, and thought that we meant to say that he did not know how to manage a boat, and drove on. We had shipped lots of water, but the girls were sitting as quiet as mice, and that young girl there was sitting with her hand in her sweetheart's, and he was trying to keep her page 11 sprits up, and we were all waiting for the worst, when something went wrong with the sail, and over she went.”

“Was Moulton all right?” said George.

“Well, he wasn't quite as he ought to be,” said the man. “That's the truth of it. He was the only one aboard that was a bit on, and he was so confoundedly cross and bull-headed—but, poor fellow, it's over with him now, and there's no use in saying anything about it.”

The quick ear of Isafrel had caught the words, and she cast a look of unutterable sadness at George, and murmured, “‘Tis the tragedy of life.”

But every effort was in vain. A medical man had come down by special steamer from the city, but only to tell them that in each of the four cases life was extinct. The bodies were borne to the hotel, and steps were taken to convey the sad news to the relatives of the lost.

Isafrel at once offered to go and break the news to the family of Josephine. George urged that he should go instead, as the trial would be too much for her, worn out as she was. But “No,” she said, “the harder it is the more it is my duty to do it. Mrs. Webster is a good woman, and she will bow to the stroke with resignation. But, oh! it will be terrible to the old man. She was their only child, and they idolised her, and he has not the consolations that her mother has.”

Having obtained some dry clothing from some kindly neighbours, and with a heart bleeding at every pore, Isafrel set off in a buggy provided from the hotel, to break the news to the Websters, while George remained to make arrangements for taking home the body.

On arriving at the house she was welcomed by Mrs. Webster, and on going in Isafrel, after a few moments' silence, in which she was keenly scrutinised by the mother's anxious eyes, said in a calm and pathetic voice, “Mrs. Webster, we should be prepared always to bow with resignation to whatever may be—”

“Oh, where is Josey, Isafrel?” she cried, starting up and wringing her hands, “tell me, tell me at once has anything happened to her?”

Isafrel was silent for a moment; then seating herself beside the afflicted lady, and taking her hand in hers, she quietly narrated the circumstances.

“Oh, my child, my child,” exclaimed the heart-broken mother, as she hid her face in her hands on the table. She remained so for some minutes, when, raising her face, and lifting up both her hands towards heaven, she said in a voice of deep tenderness, “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Then turning to Isafrel she asked, without a tremor in her page 12 voice, where was the body? and Isafrel told her that Mr. Houston was bringing it home, and would be here in an hour or two.

There was the question of breaking the tidings to Mr. Webster. Isafrel offered to do it, but Mrs. Webster said that she would do it herself. “Oh, it will kill her father,” she said. “I would not like any one to see his agony when he hears it. Oh, Isafrel, we only lived for Josey.”

Worn out in mind and body Isafrel was driven home, and when, a couple of hours after, George drove up to Webster's with an ambulance wagon obtained from the city, and conveying the body of Josephine, he was received at the door by the bereaved woman. She spoke no words, but a few pieces of black ribbon in her cap showed that she had been making some little preparation for the sorrowful home-coming.

The body was tenderly carried into the girl's room and laid on the bed, which had been wreathed in white roses, and when George and the others had retired, the mother softly closed the door of the room and shut herself in with her dead child.

At the inquest the following day on the body of the man, the whole of the circumstances were brought out. Moulton, who had been in charge of the tiller and sail, and who was the only one on board that knew how to handle a boat, had been under the influence of drink, and fightable when any one ventured to interfere with him. He was not usually given to drink, but in coming down to the boat in the morning, Moulton had gone into the hotel and bought some bottles of whisky, intending to have a good time. The other men during the day had taken a little, but nothing to affect them; the girls of course none at all. They had lunched in a little inlet of Rangitoto, and after starting were met by a fresh breeze, and all of them except Moulton wished to return or run in to shelter, as they saw that Moulton was hardly safe in the circumstances to be trusted. The rest was known; so the jury after deliberation wanted to bring in a verdict of “Died by the visitation of God,” but the coroner told them that he did not see how they could throw any reflection on God for what had happened, and so they brought in a verdict of “Accidental drowning,” and added a rider that there was “Nobody to blame.”

The body of Josephine's sweetheart was never found. They had been engaged to be married, and it had been pleasantly arranged among them all that it was to be at the same time and place with the wedding of George and Isafrel, whenever they all could make up their minds to bring this great event to pass.

The other two girls, whose bodies had been recovered, were comparatively recent arrivals, and had no relations in the colony. They had been teachers in two of the district schools, and good girls, and George having found the addresses of their mothers in England, arranged to write and acquaint the mothers with the page 13 melancholy intelligence; which he did, and told them that, in sympathy for them as strangers in a strange land, their bodies had been taken to Mr. Webster's, from which the three funerals had proceeded together to the cemetery, and that the two English girls were laid in their last sleep, side by side with Josephine.