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The Angel Isafrel: A Story of Prohibition in New Zealand

Chapter VII. — The Eve of the Referendum

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Chapter VII.
The Eve of the Referendum.

Eaid aside from all the whirl and din of the preparations for the conflict, on her couch at Northcote, Isafrel had been kept advised of the progress of the campaign. The doctor had warned her tenderly to avoid all excitement, and to keep her mind away as much as possible from thinking of the event that was stirring the minds of the colony. Smiling faintly, she said, yes, she would not be excited; but she could not keep her thoughts from what was the central object of her life, and the crisis in the lives of thousands of the men and women of the colony.

George had been unwearied in his care and attention to the invalid. He knew it was idle to think that any benefit would come to her from an attempt to avoid the one subject in which her soul was bound up, and that any withholding of information would only worry her with anxiety.

So, feeling confident now himself that every hour was adding to the chances of victory, he made no effort to conceal the buoyancy of his feelings, as he told her of one message after another that had been received from the workers in the South, telling of the completeness of their preparations and of the general determination and even enthusiasm, among the people.

From Dunedin, Christchurch, Invercargill, Wellington, Napier, Wanganui, and every centre from which the organization was working, there had come the uniform report of system, steadiness, and confidence; and he felt special satisfaction in telling her that the arrangements she had elaborated for her own fellow workers in Auckland had been generally adopted, and as generally recognised in their source, and that even the little children in many places had formed themselves voluntarily into “Angel Isafrel” bands, and were doing wonderful work in fanning the enthusiasm.

A tear stole down the cheek of the sick girl, and George stooped down and kissed it away, and as he patted her softly on the cheek, said, “It will be all right, darling; the news of victory will set you on your feet in a week; and I will take you away down South, and everybody will want to see and worship “the Angel Isafrel,” and I will be a proud and happy man when I feel that you are all my own; and I will be a great man myself, and page 65 everybody will point at me and say, ‘Do you see that handsome looking fellow there, he is the Angel Isafrel's husband—’”

“Stop, stop, George,” she said, as she laid her hand on his arm, and she raised her eyes to his face, the sunshine of love breaking through her tears: “that cannot be now. I hope you will be happy and proud to think of me, and perhaps I may be able to look down from heaven and see you sometimes, and be sent away on messages of love, and I may be near you sometimes, and it will make heaven happier to me if I know you remember and think of your own Isafrel.”

She raised her arm around his neck, and drew him down to her, and pressed his lips to hers; then, exhausted with speaking so much, she lay back with her eyes closed, her breath coming short and quick, showing one of those spasms which had been coming frequently during the past few days, but which she had always borne in silence, suppressing as much as she could for the sake of others every sign of the agony she was enduring.

After a little she recovered, and her breath came more freely, and George, who had bitterly blamed himself for having permitted the excitement, drew the couch over to the window and arranged the pillows, and spoke a few words of comfort and assurance of her recovery.

“Ah, no,” she said, “it is over with me now; I would like to live, I know: I would like to stay with you, George, and I would like to see the happiness that will break over New Zealand if this comes right. But this heart of mine is gone. I feel that my sands are nearly run out. But I only want to live over one day more. I have asked God to let me stay till to-morrow night. I want to hear the joy-bells ring, and to hear the people shout, and see the bonfires blaze, that will tell me that my poor, dear father is saved, and that thousands of other fathers, and mothers, and children are saved, and that dear, dear New Zealand is free. I am willing to die then.”

A messenger had come for George Houston, whose presence was urgently required at the Central Committee rooms to complete some matters relating to the monster meeting that was to be held in the city that night as the finale of the preparations for the great event of the morrow. When he went to the door he was told that the same boat had brought over twelve or fifteen young girls who had come over to serenade “the angel Isafrel,” but under positive orders that they were not to attempt to see her. They had already assembled down among the shrubs at the foot of the garden, and just as George had told Isafrel of the kindness intended for her the melody floated up to her window. She lay on the couch, her long, fair hair falling to the floor; and with her eyes closed and a soft smile of happiness lighting up her pale face she drank in the strains of the children's songs. After a variety of sweet and plaintive melodies the little serenade closed with the page 66 one which they knew to be dearest of all to their angel's heart, reminding her as it reminded themselves of her loved lost Josephine:—

Father, dear father, come home with me now!
The clock in the steeple strikes one;
You told us, dear father, that you would come home,
As soon as your day's work was done.
Our fire has gone out, our house is all dark,
And mother's been watching since tea,
With poor brother Benny so sick in her arms,
And no one to help her but me.
Come home! come home! come home!
Please father, dear father, come home!

Father, dear father, come home with me now!
The clock in the steeple strikes two;
The night has grown colder, and Benny is worse,
And he has been calling for you.
Indeed he is worse, mother says he will die,
Before that the morning shall dawn;
And this is the message she sent me to bring,
Come quickly or he will be gone.
Come home! come home! come home!
Please father, dear father, come home.

Father, dear father, come home with me now,
The clock in the steeple strikes three;
The house is so lonely, the hours are so long
For poor weeping mother and me.
For we are alone—poor Benny is dead,
And gone with the angels of light;
And these were the very last words that he said,
“I wish to kiss father—good night.”
Come home! come home! come home!
Please father, dear father, come home!

Hear the sweet voice of the child,
Which the night winds repeat as they roam;
Oh! who could resist the most plaintive of prayers,
Please father, dear father, come home!

The last of the songs had died away on the air, and to catch the return boat the children were moving from the shrubbery and filing out in the open on their way to the jetty. Isafrel, who had been sitting by the open window, caught sight of the little white-robed band of serenaders, their blue ribbons, the emblems of their order, floating in the wind. She waved her handkerchief through the open window to them, when they stopped, and instantly recognising their “Angel Isafrel,” a dozen little handkerchiefs were waving in reply. But a gush of feeling swept over the children as they turned away, for they realised the position that the spirit of their dearly loved friend was as if fluttering its wings to fly off to join the other angels far away, and that they would never see her face again.

On the steamer, while crossing the harbour, George had to answer the queries that were written in the little tearful eyes, page 67 and tell them about Isafrel—that though she was very happy and peaceful in her suffering, and had been greatly pleased and comforted by their kindness in coming over to sing for her, she was getting weaker from day to day, and could hardly stay very long with them. One, little thing, with tears in her voice, asked would she be able to live till she heard about the Referendum, and he said he hoped she would, and that it was the one dearest wish that was remaining with her now.

On reaching the central committee room, George Houston found that everything was in an advanced state of preparation. The great meeting was to be held at ten o'clock at night near the fire-bell in Upper Queen street. All the separate bodies and organizations were to have their own meetings at their usual places from eight o'clock, to finally fix the part that each body and every member of it would take in the proceedings of the morrow. Then from every part of the city, and from all the suburbs, and from the districts within reach of the city, the whole people were invited to meet, and addresses would be delivered for the last time by the principal and most eloquent leaders of the movement.

By concerted understanding the same course was to be taken in every city and every town in the colony, so that all indifference might be chased away, and the people might be brought to the rally for one supreme, and, it was to be hoped, final effort to free the country.

The most complete arrangements had been made, partly by the Government and partly by the people, that the returns from the remotest polling booths should be sent to the Premier's office—as by the Act prescribed—at the earliest possible moment. Most places were connected by telegraph, but in some cases carrier pigeons, and in others relays of horses and horsemen were arranged for; and it was believed that before midnight of this momentous Judgment Day it would be known at Wellington, and flashed back to every corner of the colony, what verdict the voice of the people had pronounced on an institution around which for the moment circled the equal and the profound anxiety of both parties, and of all classes and individuals in the State.

But the national optionists, or—as with grim pleasantry they were now pleased to call themselves, in deference to the humour of their opponents—“the fanatics,” had made other preparations, and fully assured that they were going to have the victory, they had made arrangements for celebrating it with becoming eclat.

It was a daring venture, and they were heartily laughed at by their opponents, and even by many of their supporters, who thought this was going rather too far, in counting their chickens before they were hatched. These preparations were a fund of infinite merriment, and the supporters of the traffic in many cases offered their assistance in carrying the timber and rolling page 68 the tar barrels that were to be burned in celebrating a victory that had not yet been won.

But some of the leaders who had encouraged the people in these ridiculous-looking preparations had wiser heads than they were given credit for, and the consciousness of certainty which they inspired was more potent than a hundred addresses in nerving the people to the fight.

Accordingly, on every hill and mountain round about Auckland, and far away in the country, preparations had been made for bonfires. Mount Eden was especially singled out as the signal station to the whole country, and the circuit of the ridge around the crater was almost covered with piles of timber mixed with barrels of tar, which willing helps had provided.

Of course the danger of a false alarm was anticipated, and care was taken also that in the event of defeat of “the fanatics' the enemy should not have the satisfaction of lighting up in honour of defeat. The most careful system of signalling therefore was arranged, which was only made known to a few in charge of the arrangements at the several points.

It had been fixed that the information as to the result of the Referendum should be telegraphed direct to the New Zealand Herald Office from Wellington, and, “the fanatics” had, by permission, arranged for an installation of electric light in the form of a huge crown erected over the flagstaff turret of the Herald buildings. That was to be the initial signal. Next, the guns in the Albert Park were to speak out the tidings; and by an entirely independent signal, carefully concealed, the guard of watchers on the top of Mount Eden was to be informed of the result of the polling.

These, of course, were only the incidental arrangements of the more forward enthusiasts, the graver portion of the leaders having concerned themselves more with protecting the sanctity of the polling booths from the countless ruses which they knew were in contemplation.

Money had been flowing like water and beer like cascades, and though violence was not likely to be resorted to, or could be easily enough overcome in the aroused temper of the people, everything that money and ingenuity could effect was expected to be freely used to turn the voting.

As the shades of night gathered over the city—the night that was expected to usher in the long-expected day,—the people were to be seen moving in the several directions where the meetings of the organizations were to be held. Teetotallers and moderate drinkers, temperance people and prohibitionists seemed to be drawn by the same feeling. The last general election had shown such a stupendous advance towards Prohibition by the local option page 69 vote that all classes had come to see that universal Prohibition could be much longer delayed, and many doubters and hesitaters, with whom nothing is so successful as success, had thrown in their lot with “the fanatics.”

At that election, without any complete consolidation or organization, and confused as it was by personal as well as political and party issues, the “No License” vote had swept away vast numbers of drinking bars and had shaken the ascendency of the trade to its foundations. Large districts had been cleared of the traffic, and the first real blow had been struck at the trade which seemed now tottering to its fall.

For the first time the women voters seemed to have realised their responsibility; and though in many cases, swayed by personal or party considerations, they had assisted in returning members unfavourable to temperance, they had shown their recognition of the claims of womanhood by voting largely for “No License.”

The result of that election had had the most powerful influence in showing the way to the present struggle for complete freedom, and had drawn the eyes of the whole world to the women of New Zealand. The moral effect of it on the women themselves was remarkable, and it seemed to have ennobled the women with the idea that they were really a power for good; while it won for them a respect from the men of the colony that seemed to show itself in a hallowing influence over the whole community.

The effect it had wrought was seen on the eve of the Referendum, not only in the general spirit that pervaded the community, but in the readiness with which all classes, drinkers as well as abstainers, dropped into the movement for setting the colony free from the scourge from which women far more than men had been shedding tears of blood.

The whole city seemed abroad as night settled down, and thousands were moving in all directions to their several places of rendezvous.

One of these was the meeting place of the great central organization of the women, which had been formed and consolidated by Isafrel, and which had become the spring in all the recent great movement of the women throughout the colony. Over a thousand were assembled, including the best and most influential women of the city. After transacting a variety of business, in fixing the positions and duties of the various committees and sub-committees, and individual workers for the coming contest, the president claimed their attention for a moment, as she had a communication to read to them, which would, she knew, be received with profound interest. A hush fell over the whole assembly, for everyone knew it was a letter from Isafrel.

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Holding the paper in her hand, the president essayed to read it to the meeting, and taking her spectacles off she wiped them with her handkerchief; but it was not in the glasses that the dimness was, and there were more eyes than hers that gave evidence of the deep emotion that pervaded the assemblage.

“I hold in my hand,” she said, “a letter from one whose name, young as she is in years, you all know; one who has been the Joan of Arc in the holy war in which we are engaged for the freedom of our country. The ‘Angel Isafrel,’ as we love to call her, is lying, as you know, at the door of death; and her sole remaining desire is that she may be spared to learn the tidings of the triumph of the cause. No one has laboured so wisely and so well as she has to bring about a successful result. It was she that with her gentle pleadings brought us all to sink our differences and come together as we are to-night—Catholic and Protestant, Jew and Gentile—to stand shoulder to shoulder in the common cause of womanhood and humanity. Prudent beyond her years, she laid the basis of those plans on which we have been working here, and which have so commended themselves by their wisdom that they have been accepted as the lines on which the women of New Zealand have been proceeding everywhere, with a unity and a purpose that give such promise of success as we could hardly ever have anticipated. Her gentle spirit has carried persuasion where others failed, and many who were the unflinching opponents of our cause have been made our fastest friends, and, as you know, are in the foremost ranks of our champions and defenders, through the sweet and gentle ministrations of our Angel Isafrel.

“This is her letter:—

“'Sisters and fellow-workers in the cause of love. I am sorry that I cannot be with you to-night, but my spirit will be there. It has pleased God to lay me aside while the hosts are being formed for battle, and I can only say, Thy will be done. I may not be able to stay to hear the conclusion of the conflict. I would like to stay for that little time and hear the joy-bells ring. But if I may not, I shall hear them from heaven, and I shall be rejoicing with you, though you may not see me. For I know that you shall triumph, for the womanhood of New Zealand has arisen in its strength, and I never thought and do not think that such a great and holy fervour would have been given to be dashed with disappointment. I seem to hear the whisperings that come from the far off land to those who are about to take their flight, and they tell me you will win; and perhaps I shall be near Him when He says, as I am sure He will say, to the women of New Zealand, ‘Well done, good and faithful servants.’ I am too weak to tell you more of what I would want you to do. But remember, as I often said, that if you win this fight to-morrow you are only at the beginning of the struggle. But the manhood, as well as the womanhood, of New Zealand will be on your side, and earth and page 71 heaven will be watching. I will be watching. Now good night. God be with you. From your loving sister, Isafrel.’”

The president sat down. The reading of the letter was followed by a profound silence, broken only from time to time by the evidence of emotion as the meeting realised the fact that the words heard were the last earthly message of “the Angel Isafrel.”

In a few words the president dismissed the meeting, and silently and sorrowfully the women filed out of the building, on their way to the great meeting that was already assembling in Upper Queen Street.