Chapter VIII. Koro as a welcome Guest
In 1871 the mission-house and boarding-school at St. Stephen's were destroyed by fire, and were never rebuilt, owing to the want of money. Temporary arrangements were made at the time for the housing of our pupils, but ultimately the boarding-school was given up, and a Government day-school substituted for it.
No accommodation for my family being available in the neighbourhood, we had, after several moves, to fix our residence in Christ-church, where I was often visited by Koro, after he returned to Kaiapoi and resumed his duties there as a lay-reader.
His memorable journey to the West Coast had cured his dislike to mount a horse, and, though he seldom went out of a walking pace, he did not object to ride.
His usual practice when coming to see me was to start from home at three o'clock in the morning, but he went along so slowly that it took him six or seven hours to ride the seventeen miles between St. Stephen's and [73/74] Christchurch. On reaching my house he would put his pony into our back-yard, and then come to my study--which was detached from the dwelling-house--and, after we had exchanged greetings, he would sit silently watching me for some minutes, to ascertain whether I was busy or not. If ho saw I was, he would say: "I have come to have a long talk with you about many matters, but I shall wait till the evening, when you will have more leisure; in the meantime write on, but keep your ears open and listen to anything I may say while you are writing."
His visits were always welcomed by my children, who were sure of plenty of fun with the good-tempered old man, who thoroughly enjoyed a joke, and delighted to amuse them. It was Koro's special privilege to be allowed to stop over-night whenever he came to see us. Whatever season of the year it might be, a fire was lighted in my study for his benefit and a "shakedown" spread in front of it, where he could recline at his ease, Maori fashion.
My eldest boy undertook to wait upon him, and his attentions were always gratefully acknowledged.
"Oh, Pran-ker," he would exclaim, "you perry koot poy. You maker tee pire por oro mar-nee; koot poy, Pran-ker!"
His hands were too shaky to allow of his using a knife and fork, and his food had to be served in a bowl. He was so proud of his [74/75] anglicised taste for pepper that he always asked for it, whatever food was being given to him, and, if the boys played tricks with the pepper-pot when helping him, and gave him an over-supply, he always took the joke in good part, and would purposely provoke their laughter by the grimaces he made.
He delighted to get young people round him at night, when in response to their united request, "Sing us a war-song, Koro," he would raise his cracked old voice in loud and defiant tones till he got sufficiently excited to show his juvenile audience how the Maori warriors defied their enemies, and then he would turn back his eyelids, protrude his tongue, press his arms against his chest, and move his hands about with the greatest rapidity, twisting his body about all the time, as if it were boneless.
Koro's departure was always watched by a small crowd of amused spectators, whose attention was arrested by seeing such an odd-looking pony and odd-looking man issuing from our gate.
The pony attracted notice on account of its fatness and unkempt appearance, neither the mane, tail, nor hoofs having ever been trimmed or attended to since the animal was foaled; and its owner on account of his very unconventional mode of dressing himself. To the onlooker he seemed to be possessed with a mania for tying knots, for every garment he wore was tied somewhere with string, and, [75/76] before attempting to mount the pony, he seemed bent on tying as many knots as he possibly could in his girths and stirrup-leathers and bridle.
In his clumsy efforts to get into the saddle, he often turned it completely round, and rarely succeeded in mounting without help.
On one occasion my boys, who came in just as he was starting, offered to assist him by placing a chair for him to mount from; but the pony no sooner felt his weight suddenly plumped upon its back than it spread out all its four legs, curved its back inwards, and so disturbed poor Koro's balance that he fell over, all of a heap, on to the ground. But his young friends soon righted his position, and got him safely seated in the saddle, and so spared him the humiliation of publicly displaying his bad horsemanship.
When the Maoris first settled near St. Stephen's, they were content to live in any sort of shelter they could put up, and their village was just a collection of raupo huts and rough wooden shanties; but, about the year 1876, it became the fashion amongst them to improve their dwellings, both inside and out, and to make them more like those of their English neighbours. Koro, like the rest, wished to build a new house, and sought my advice in the matter. He was then living in a raupo hut, about twelve feet square and eight feet high, which was very warm and cosy, and a much more suitable dwelling, I [76/77] thought, for an old-fashioned Maori than the draughty wooden building he wanted to exchange for it. But nothing I said in disparagement of his scheme could dissuade him from trying to carry it out.
When we came to discuss the "ways and means" of effecting it, the small amount of money which he possessed seemed to make it impossible. He had only £40 in hand, and could add nothing to that amount from his only source of income, which was derived from the rental of a small piece of land that brought him in about ten shillings a week. But nothing could deter him from making the attempt to gain his object, and he proceeded to interview all the builders in the Christ-church district, hoping to induce one of them to put up a dwelling-house for £40; but, as he insisted that it should contain what he called a "parlour-room," as well as a bedroom with a fireplace; in it, and that the building should be matchlined throughout, and varnished and painted, he could never come to terms with any of them, and had to content himself at last with such a house as he could get put up by a journeyman carpenter for the money. But he never took kindly to his new abode, which he always spoke of in contemptuous terms as "that white man's dog-kennel."
An amusing incident occurred in connection with the last payment made to the carpenter, who had agreed to allow £6 to remain unpaid for six weeks, by which time it would be [77/78] known whether the house was rain-proof or not. At the expiration of that period Koro, being satisfied upon the point, went to pay the money to the carpenter, who lived five miles away. But, on reaching his house, he was told that he had got a job up the country and would not return for some time. Koro took the money back, and, to ensure its safety, buried it in his garden. When the carpenter appeared three months afterwards to claim the money, Koro refused to pay him until he had received three months' interest.
He said: "If my store account is not paid when it becomes due, I have to pay interest, as long as it remains unpaid. Why may I not charge interest for money I had waiting in my keeping for a person who does not come to fetch it when it is due? Who is to pay me for my trouble in taking care of your six pounds for three months?"
How long the dispute would have lasted it is hard to say, had not the suggestion been accepted that, instead of paying interest, the carpenter should there and then do without charge some little job that was wanted in the house.
Shortly after his new house was completed Koro met with an accident which destroyed his left eye. He was chopping wood for his fire, when a large splinter struck the eyeball and caused him such intense pain that he was obliged to seek medical aid at the Christ-church hospital, where he remained under [78/79] treatment for many weeks. When he came out, he was free from pain, but his eye was sightless and covered with a white film, which rather spoilt his expression.
Whether owing to the shock caused by the injury to his eye, or to advancing age, Koro from this time forward began to decline in health, and was often seriously ill; but his interest in the spiritual welfare of his countrymen never flagged; he was ready up to the very last day of his life to "spend and be spent" in their service.