Mama and Sally interviewed Aronui together, pleased to find that she spoke far better English than the first encounter promised.
"The missionary ladies taught me," she explained. "How to speak your English. How to sew the English dresses. How to pour tea. Not much call for pouring tea on a whaler."
"How did you come to be on a whaler?" Sally asked.
Aronui's cheerful grin disappeared, her brows drawing together in a fierce scowl. "Trade," she said, shortly. "We wanted the whalers to stay, to come back the next year and the next. My father thought a marriage to one of the officers would make us whanau; family, you would say. And Harvey Clewston had sweet words and a fine body." She snorted, a fine mix of anger and contempt.
"Was that Mr Clewston with you at the docks?" Sally asked.
Aronui shook her head. "He sold me a long time past, lady. The whalers..." she bit at her lower lip as she thought about what to say. "They did not behave as family. In the end, the warriors drove them off. I told Harvey he was no longer my husband, and I was going home, but I should have just left without telling him. I woke up out of sea. In Port Jackson, he gave me to a man on another ship, and that man to another who planted my son in me."
Mama leaned forward and patted Aronui's hand, which was clenched in a fist. "I am so sorry you have been treated with such disrespect, my dear."
A spark of mischief lit Aronui's eyes, and the corner of her lips curled. "I have taught these husbands of mine respect. That is why they do not keep me." Her gaze drifted to the baby, asleep in a cradle Sally had ordered from the markets. "I do not fear for myself, but for my son. What will you do with me, ladies?"
The options swiftly came down to two; keeping her with Sally, or buying her passage on a ship to New Zealand. Aronui stated a firm preference for the first, and Sally — her opinion informed by her own experiences – agreed. "We can demand she be treated as an honoured guest, Mama," she explained, "but we won't be there to make it happen."
At first, Papa was not impressed with Sally's new maid, but found it difficult to explain exactly why without venturing into a subject he did not feel able to discuss with his daughter.
"He thinks a girl who services sailors will cause trouble among the men, and her behaviour will reflect badly on you," Mama explained. "I have explained Aronui's circumstances and asked him to give her a chance."
In the end, Papa bowed to the combined representations of wife and daughter. "I will speak to her first, though," he insisted. Sally was not allowed to attend their discussion, but Aronui reported to her new mistress as soon as she returned to Sally's cabin on the ship that would be their home for the next five weeks.
"The Rangitira says I must take no new lovers or husbands, or he will turn me out." The word was Māori for 'great chief', Aronui's term for Papa, with whom she was greatly impressed. She dropped a kiss on Kahu's head. "Just this one man for me, Lady Sally, and no more Pakeha men ever," 'pakeha' being the term in her own language for anyone not Māori. "They do not keep their word."
Papa declared that the girl had dignity and courage. Besides, Māori was close enough to the language spoken in the Victoria and Albert Islands, having Aronui in his household might be useful.
As they fell into a shipboard routine over the next week, more than one of the men on the ship would have liked to change her mind, but she gave them no encouragement. "Even if I wanted someone to scratch that itch," she told Sally with her usual casual cheer, "I would not wish to anger the Rangatira."
The missionary ladies had given Aronui a vast store of biblical stories to add to the tales of her own pantheon of gods, demigods and heroes, and a veneer of English manners she readopted as Sally's maid.
"I have not needed these English manners, these past years," she cheerfully told Sally. "Mind, Mrs Thompson never told me what to say to a duke! Wouldn't her eyes pop out on stalks to see me now!"
She twirled to express her satisfaction with the pretty dress in Indian calico; one of three they'd sewn to replace the wardrobe of near rags she'd brought with her.
They'd also sewn her a split skirt to practice in, after she'd begged to be allowed to join the knife lessons Papa insisted on. Maddox had told Papa about the incident with Trentham. "If you need to pull your knife, Sally," Papa had said, "don't talk about what you plan to do with it. Gut the man before he has a chance to overwhelm you."
One of the men on the ship had been trained in knife fighting by the legendary Hawley, and was assigned give lessons to both Sally and Aronui twice a week. In between, they practised together, vigorously enough that Aronui constantly wore bruises from the practice blades. The day she first left Sally with a bruise, she could not contain her elation, and insisted on telling everyone about it as she helped serve dinner.
Mama was amused by Aronui's frequent disregard for protocol, and Papa would never embarrass Mama and Sally by taking public exception. The various officers who ate with them took their lead from the duke and duchess. Mr Penchley was not as tolerant, muttering to Papa about savages who did not know their place.
He was not one of little Kahu's admirers, either. The baby was a sunny-natured little fellow, who was happy to be handed from person to person around the ship, only protesting when he needed to be fed. In the long weeks of the voyage, he changed rapidly from a carried baby who stayed in one place when put down to a rapidly moving infant who needed constant supervision to keep him from diving or climbing into trouble that was too big for him.
He learned to scuttle on his bottom across the duchess's sitting room, eager to reach the treats she kept by her chair, just for him. He took his first supported steps holding the hands of two of Sally's body guard. And his first steps on his own, accompanied with a shrill cry of, "Dooook" were made into the arms of Papa, who stooped to catch him when the Haverfords returned to the ship from an overnight stay on land in Singapore.
Sally continued to use her sextant and calculate their course, reporting each day on their progress and marking another dot on the line that inched across the map towards the Victoria and Albert Islands.
And then, one day, they were there.
YOU ARE READING
Never Kiss a ToadRomance
[A Victorian romance continuing family stories begun in the various Regency books of Jude Knight and Mariana Gabrielle.] David "Toad" Northope, heir to the Duke of Wellbridge and rogue in the mold of his infamous father, knows Lady Sarah "Sal" Grenf...