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The Angel Isafrel: A Story of Prohibition in New Zealand

Chapter IX. — The Referendum

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Chapter IX.
The Referendum.

The great day so long anticipated, on which the people of New Zealand were to determine once for all, by national option, the fate or fortunes of the liquor traffic in the colony, had at last come. A dull heavy canopy of clouds covered the usually blue sky from horizon to horizon, and no breath of air was stirring, as if Nature was standing in suspense awaiting the solution of the crisis that was pregnant with good or ill to the country.

The hour fixed by statute for opening the polls was eight o'clock, but long before that hour in Auckland the public was astir, and horses and vehicles were bearing the officers, and clerks, and scrutineers to the various booths, as well as the agents and supporters of the two sides to the various committee rooms and rendezvous from which the operations were to be conducted. It had been proclaimed, as by Act prescribed, a public holiday, and the conduct of the polls was subject to the conditions laid down for ordinary parliamentary elections. Among these it was made illegal for any cabs to be hired, and all the public houses were closed for the day; but it was soon evident how these provisions were evaded, for the city and suburbs were swarming with cabs flying in all directions with the distinctive badges of the liquor interest, and it was found that none of them had been hired, but that all were rendering their services gratuitously—the sequel showing that after the period had elapsed during which action could be taken under the Corrupt Practices Acts, their gratuitous service was settled for in the customary way. This had not come as a surprise to the “fanatics,” but they had solemnly determined that neither by evasion of the law, nor by its direct violation, would they sully the cause in which they were engaged However, the indignation which the ruse excited was so great that private vehicles of every description were sent in from all directions to an extent beyond what was required, and no inconvenience was experienced.

The evasion of the liquor law was, however, the source of more disorder, for though truly enough the bars were strictly closed, there were booths and stands everywhere over the city, page 82 and suburbs, and districts, at which free beer and grog were available for all comers. These were ostensibly connected with nobody and no party, and no questions were asked as to how the drinkers meant to vote, and in pure good nature the lieges were welcome to come and help themselves ad libitum. The disgusting scenes resulting from this procedure throughout the day presented such a picture of the results of drink as to harden and embitter the determination of the people, and many a vater that had been indifferent or wavering before voted solid for Prohibition.

The women appeared to have made up their minds to vote early in order to avoid the crush and the disorder that might be likely to arise later on, and the crowds of women voters that surrounded the booths from the earliest hour and up to mid-day seemed as if they meant to have the whole business to themselves.

At one time in the forenoon five or six carriages drove up to one of the booths, filled with women for whom the other women stepped aside and allowed them to pass to the polling booth. They were a contingent of the demi-monde, and it was found that at the other booths similar incidents occurred, and that every one of the class in the city was polled during the day, while the badges on the cabs in which they came left no doubt as to the side on which their vote was organised. As similar scenes had taken place at political elections previously, no surprise was felt.

But there was one incident, frequently repeated during the day, which was puzzling at first, but which afterwards was found not very difficult of solution. A number of young girls drove up in a cab and voted, and then returning to the cab were driven off in the direction of another booth. This was noticed so frequently that at last steps were taken to trace their proceedings, when it was found that each relay of these girls was driven to all the booths in succession, and then out to the suburbs, and even some of the nearer country booths, and apparently voted at them all. The modus operandi had been this: A girl had been registered in one name as engaged in “domestic duties,” resident in one street, and in another name with the same designation of business in another street, and so in a fourth, and fifth, and sixth streets, and so on, the designation and the place of residence being so vague that nobody knew the girls or could challenge their identity, as they gave the correct number and name to the returning officer, and received their balloting papers in due order. At last a watch was set, and a cab-load of girls was followed up, and on their presenting their numbers and names at a second booth they were given in charge and lodged in gaol, where under the terror of the situation they confessed all, giving the names of those who had engaged them, and detailing the whole arrangement. This coming to the ears of the manipulators of the infamous transaction page 83 the practice was promptly stopped, but it was subsequently found that exactly the same procedure had been taken in all the cities and principal towns of the colony, as by one preconcerted arrangement.

During the day, interchanges of telegrams had been taking place between the leaders of the reformers all over the colony as to the progress of events, and it was found that shortly after midday almost every woman voter in the colony must have polled, showing the intensity of interest felt, while the men voters had been rolling up largely, promising altogether to show the largest poll that had ever been taken in the colony. This solid polling of the women, coupled with other indications, had produced the liveliest confidence in the leaders of the “fanatics,” and before the day was half over it was thought that the field was practically won.

George Houston had been in the centre of the conduct of the business all day, though his heart was heavy with thoughts of Isafrel. She was in careful, tender hands; but though the doctor, who felt it his duty to go over and see her several times in the day, had implored her to keep quiet and not let her mind get excited with thinking about the poll, he might as well have asked her to cease breathing. She told him at last that it was the grandest, if it was the last day of her life, and he was horrified at her expressing a desire to go and poll her vote. He could not conceal from himself the fact that the strain on her vitality, and the unnatural strength and vivacity which she experienced, must lead to absolute collapse, and he was relieved when he saw George, who had arrived by the midday boat for a rapid visit, hoping that he could do something to allay the excitement. But when he heard her plead with George to have her carried to the Northcote polling booth, he saw the hopelessness of thinking that her mind might be diverted from the event that was proceeding. And pitifully did she plead with George to take her to the poll. She had only qualified by age and been enrolled a few weeks before, and she wanted that her first vote and her last should be given to help her sisters to drive the tragedy of life from her dear country. She did not mind if she died in the attempt; she would gladly give her life for her native land, and she could not bear to be lying there idle, while the other women of New Zealand were battling for the freedom of their country, and to save their children, and brothers, and fathers from the curse. She threw her arms around his neck and pressed her lips to his, and she implored him by his love for her to let her vote.

George assured her it would be only throwing her vote and her life away; that her vote would be utterly lost; that they would have thousands of votes they would not want, that they would have an overwhelming majority from all they could learn from every part of the colony; and that if she would only rest page 84 quietly she would see that the work she had done in the cause would be crowned with triumph.

She yielded to his persuasion and said she would wait the will of God, and George told her rapidly some of the principal events of the day—how the women had mustered at the poll and were still canvassing the voters; how the clergymen and ministers of every denomination were moving about among the booths; how all the Sunday schools, teachers and children, were as busy as bees; how the little singing bands were surrounding the polling places and marching through the streets, singing and distributing fly sheets; and how several of the little companies of girls in their white dresses and blue sashes had bannerets with the legend “The Angel Isafrel.”

This little incident melted the feelings of the excited girl, and she found relief in tears. The nervous tension had expended itself, and after a little she dropped off into a soft and quiet sleep. George hastened away, and catching the steamer returned to the city.

It was now three o'clock, and he found the leaders in the central committee room in considerable anxiety and perturbation. News had come from the Southern cities that the enemy were rolling up in the afternoon in formidable numbers, and the same thing had been taking place in Auckland, showing that whatever was the object of this form of strategy it had been preconcerted. Two hours still remained for polling in the cities, the country polling places being open till seven, but every voter of the “fanatics” appeared to have polled, and the enemy were coming in like a flood. Drink had now got in the ascendant in the streets and about the booths in Auckland, and it was deemed prudent to withdraw all the children and women, and make them return to their homes. A meeting of magistrates, however, had been hurriedly got together, and the police were ordered to take possession of every free drinking place and stop the distribution of free drink in the interests of public safety; and all the drunken and riotous people having been run in, the streets resumed their normal condition. The polls closed sharply at five, and the officers, and clerks, and scrutineers were busy compiling the returns and sending them off by telegraph to Wellington.

George Houston hurried to the first boat, leaving immediately after the closing of the poll. On reaching the cottage at North-cote, he found a dreadful change in Isafrel. The reaction from the excitement of the day had left her so prostrate that she could barely speak in a whisper. She greeted her lover with a faint smile of recognition, and after a few moments, in which she hardly seemed to breathe, whispered, “How is it?”

“Oh! it will be all right, darling, but you must keep very quiet. The returns will not be known till well on in the night, probably about midnight.”

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“I am very weak, George,” she whispered; and then, after a pause, “but I want to hear before I go.”

“Yes, dearest Isafrel,” he said, as he stroked back the hair from her brow, “the day's excitement has been too much for you; but now try to rest, dear, and you will be all right shortly.”

She was silent for a few minutes, and then asked, “Was it good in the afternoon? Good as the morning?”

“Well, yes,” he hesitated; “it was very good.”

She opened her eyes and looked at him keenly. “Tell me all, George; was it good as the morning?”

“Well, not quite so good, darling;” they began to roll in their drunken men, and we had polled all our votes in the earlier part of the day.”

There was a few minutes' silence, during which her breathing was as soft as an infant's.

“What did you hear from the South, George?”

“Well, I'm sorry it was something of the same there,” he said, hesitatingly; “but then we polled well in the morning.”

“Poor New Zealand,” she said, and two tears stole softly from under the long drooping lashes, and rested on her cheeks. In a little while she sank into a calm deep sleep, and everything was hushed in the cottage, so as to give her the undisturbed rest which she seemed to so much need. George and her mother took their places alternately by her side, while her little brothers and sisters hushed their every movement, and there was nothing to be heard but the rippling of the waves on the strand at the foot of the garden, and the soft sigh of the wind in the leaves of the puriris.

It was shortly before midnight when the weary invalid awoke, and looked around her. Seeing George by her, she asked the time, and he told her it was nearly twelve.

“Isn't that about the time they hear from Wellington?” she whispered. “Take me to the window, George.”

He wheeled over her couch to the open window, and they fixed her pillows and her wraps. For about a quarter of an hour Isafrel looked out on the dark water, and the distant lights on the other side of the harbour. Not a breath of air moved to disturb the stillness of the midnight hour, and unconsciously the senses of all the watchers were quickened.

“Listen!” she said, and she raised her head from the couch. “Listen! They shout! they shout! the people shout!”

She raised herself up. “Do you not hear it! They shout! they shout!”

George and Mrs. Chalmers went to the window, but they could hear nothing.

“They shout! they shout!” said Isafrel excitedly; “do you not hear them?”

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Just then the booming of the cannon in the Albert Park broke through the stillness, and George rushed out to the verandah with the glasses, and there in all its glory was to be seen the glittering crown of electric lights over the turret of the Herald Office, blazing in the sky.

“Victory! Victory! Victory!” cried Isafrel, in a faint voice, as she fell back on the couch, while the steady booming of the guns, blended with the pealing of the bells of the churches, rolled over the water.”

“And there is Mount Eden in a blaze,” exclaimed George, as he turned the glasses towards the mountain.

“George!” said Isafrel, in a feeble voice, “take me out to see Mount Eden; then I shall be sure.”

They lifted the couch out to the verandah, and the sick girl's gaze was rivetted on the mountain, so associated with her sweetest dreams of love, and now with the victory of her life.

The whole summit appeared in a blaze. Around the circuit of the lip of the crater was one continuous wall of fire.

Isafrel gazed long and earnestly on the scene, but her strength was gone, and she lay back exhausted on the couch. George bent down his face to hers; her eyes were closed, her lips moved, and he heard, “Now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation.”