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Legends of the Maori

Wairaka of the Cave

page 171

Wairaka of the Cave.

I have often thought, when reading efforts of fiction dealing with the Maori, ancient and modern, that there is really no need to go to the trouble of inventing tales about the native people when there is already lying to hand for the gathering such a wealth of the true romance, the real thing, in the unwritten annals of the race. But I suppose the explanation lies in the fact that it is after all less trouble to give the imagination play than to search out the truth about things. Research involves pains, yet there is the satisfaction of knowing that it was something that really happened, that it reflects the manners and thoughts of an ancient people.

That ancient people’s ways were not tame civilisation’s ways and their ideas of humour were the antipodes of those of the conventional pakeha. But the one thing eternally the same is the way of a man with a maid.

* * *

In a great cirque of that perpendicular cliff of dark-grey rock, the ancient dolerite, that fences in the seaside town of Whakatane on the south and leaves it only a narrow belt of flat between precipice and tideway, there is a curious cave. Its entrance seems like a ruined doorway to some ancient underground temple; a temple this, however, much battered and diminished in size during the last few decades. Earthquakes in the year 1886 either brought down a portion of the rocky roof or shattered the sides, for since then the place would hardly make a habitable shelter, although in the olden days it accommodated fifty or sixty people. For five or six hundred years back its story goes, not mere shadowy myth, but well attested tribal tradition, handed down for generations in the Ngati-Awa tribe of Whakatane. We hear of it first when the Mataatua canoe made the shores of the Bay of Plenty with her tapa-clad immigrants from the islands of the Eastern Pacific, and when her captain, Toroa, his wife, Muriwai, and their daughter, Wairaka, and their crew for many nights made this convenient cave just above the beach their communal sleeping place. To-day its name commemorates the far-travelled chieftainess of Hawaiki, who landed here clad in the scanty dress of the tropics; for the Ngati-Awa folk will tell you that it is Te Ana-a-Muriwai (The Cave of Muriwai).

Wairaka, the daughter of the chiefly pair (according to the Ngati-Awa version; the old people of the Urewera have a somewhat different story), was the tribal beauty; and a masterful young person withal. Tall and lissome, and fully developed of figure, even in her young girlhood, she page 172 is the heroine of song and legend and proverb to-day as a woman unexcelled in swimming and in paddling the canoe, as well as in the vigorous posturedances of the Maori-Polynesian. Like the splendid Muriwai she was as dauntless a sailor as the best of the men, and could wield a steering blade as skilfully as that grim old viking Toroa himself.

Many a man in that crew of South Sea Argonauts desired Wairaka as his wife, but the queenly girl of Mataatua was not easily pleased. Many a youth among the people who gathered in the big, dimly-lit cave and talked themselves to slumber on their couches of fern and Hawaikian tapa sighed for a share of Wairaka’s sleeping mat. The brown maid of those old days was permitted to indulge her own sweet fancy in the matter of lovers; no conventions hindered the youthful affairs of the heart, to whatever lengths they were carried; only with marriage did society and a husband step in with interdictions and club-law punishments. And Wairaka, if still heart-free, was also by no means loth to love and be loved with the full-tide passion of the tropics-bred race.

As the presence of the far-voyaged Mataatua people became known among the older race—for there were native tribes on these Bay of Plenty coasts, populous tribes and strong, long before the canoe made the New Zealand coast—visitors thronged the Whakatane beach, and the beautiful Wairaka’s fame went throughout the land. Many an aboriginal chief and warrior came to greet Toroa and his family, and press noses with Wairaka; and intermarriage began between newcomer and the original people. But the haughty Wairaka saw nothing worthy of her fancy in the uncouth, shaggy-haired men of the bush, who danced about their camp-fires on the beach, and made interminable speeches to Toroa in a dialect harsh-sounding, ripped out with the fierce impetuosity of the savage.

* * *

The night-fire burned low in the Ana-a-Muriwai. Dim shapes of mat-swathed sleepers near the central hearth were lit awhile by the flickering embers; in the recesses of the cave there was darkness profound, though scarcely silence, for the snores of the slumberers rose and fell in a volume that blended with the alternate murmur and muffled thunder of the surf on the bar, which glistened white in the pale moonlight far out in front of the cavern entrance.

Up the centre of the deep cave was a narrow fern-strewn passage, in the middle of which the nightly fire burned; on either side, divided from each other by low barriers, were the couches of the families. In the customary place of honour, near the right-hand side of the entrance, was the bed of Toroa and his wife. Near by reposed Wairaka, the one wakeful page 173 one in this troglodyte dwelling, this dimly moonlit summer night, a night of strange imaginings and longings, vague whisperings of unknown things.

Throwing back the tapa coverings, the girl sat up and gazed out upon the tideway, steeped in the dreamy beauty of the small moonlight, with the thinnest wafts of sea-mist drifting over the face of the waters like fairy gauze. And out of the dim dreamland came a figure, silently darkening the cave entrance.

A low voice breathed in the amazed girl’s ears; a face was stooped to hers in the greeting of the hongi.

“It is I, O Wairaka,” the whisper came. “You know me not, yet I am your lover, your husband. I am the one led to you by the gods. You are love-ripe, marriage-ripe; refuse me not.”

The mystified Wairaka answered not, but waited, and the voice came again: “Presently you shall know who I am, but not to-night, nor the next night; but be content, we are for each other; it was for me, though you knew it not, that you have tarried alone, refusing all men. For the present seek not to know my name, nor my tribe—let this be sufficient”—and the mysterious visitor took Wairaka’s right hand in his and passed it over his face from brow to chin.

To the girl’s touch the man’s untattooed face seemed as finely smooth as her own.

The stranger sank down by Wairaka’s side, her hand in his; both now silent; the bold lover unrepulsed. They spoke in whispers; Wairaka’s brain awhirl with the long-repressed passion of her race, so strangely and swiftly touched to life by the low voice and hand of this stranger from the moonlit outer spaces. Whither he came, or who he was, she cared not; for the moment he was Love and she was a free woman, warm and waiting.

When the first morning light came, and drowsy ones yawned and sat up and rubbed their eyes, Wairaka awoke, and, remembering, stretched out her hand for her strange lover. He had disappeared.

The next night, at midnight, the lover came again; and again before daylight he had gone. For several nights this was repeated nor did Wairaka once catch a glimpse of her mysterious tane’s face

* * *

Feminine curiosity could not long remain unsatisfied, and the wondering Wairaka, though complaisant enough when the night-roving lover was by her side, and ready to promise that she would be patient until he was ready to reveal his identity, resolved at last to break the spell and penetrate the mystery. Like a wise girl she took her mother into her confidence.

page 174

Muriwai listened with amazement to her daughter’s story. It was natural, of course, that Wairaka should have a lover—a whai-ai-po, as the Maori phrase is, literally a “follower-to-sleep-with-by-night”—but that this lover should so assiduously conceal his identity seemed to Muriwai a matter rightly provoking suspicion. Presently the shrewd mother devised a plan which should not fail of discovering who and what manner of fellow this midnight lover was.

That day Muriwai and Wairaka and their slave-women busied themselves in fashioning a large curtain, formed by fastening together many tapa mats, a covering sufficient to veil the mouth of the cave. After dark this curtain was so arranged on manuka poles stretched across the top of the cave entrance and at the sides, that it could be drawn across readily, completely darkening the space within.

The midnight visitor stole in like a ghost, unseen, as he imagined, by all but Wairaka.

Long before the first dim light of morning crept over the silent sea and shore, the cunning Muriwai, rising noiselessly from her couch, drew the tapa curtain across the mouth of the cave. Wairaka and her lover slept in each other’s arms.

The sun came up over the mountains, but the cave was still in darkness intense.

Some of the sleepers awoke, but, imagining that it was not yet near day, turned over again to their peaceful snorings. The forenoon was half spent when, very quietly, Muriwai crept up to the rocky doorway. In a moment she had drawn back the curtains, and the cave was flooded with sunlight, arousing every sleeper.

The amazed lover sprang to his feet. Now, at last, he stood revealed to the light of day. Wairaka for the first time beheld his face. The girl’s eyes widened in horror as she looked upon her lover’s face. It was the face of a demon, was her first thought. The features over which her loving fingers had often passed, as she endeavoured to form a mental picture of the mysterious stranger, were terribly scarred, as by fire. In truth, they were smooth, but it was the repellant smoothness and softness that follow frightful burns.

Wairaka covered her face with her hands. The people crowded in to listen to Muriwai’s vociferous narrative. The stranger stood silent, a tall and grim fellow, defiant of mien, a stalwart warrior to the eye.

At last he spoke. His name, he told the cave-dwellers, was Mai-toa-nui; he came from a village of the forest people, far inland. His face, which he admitted was hideous at first sight, had been injured by burns in his childhood. He had seen the lovely Wairaka and he determined to win her page 175 for his wife, and knowing that she would not listen to him if she but beheld him in the light of day, he determined to resort to strategy. He had won her; and in spite of his ill-favoured countenance he knew that she would not scorn him now.

“My face may be ugly,” he said, “but my heart is clean. I love only Wairaka; and if there be any man among you who disputes my right to her, why, let him stand out before me and I shall fight him!”

The fierce bushman’s downright speech and his bold bearing captured the Mataatua people. They admired the courage; even more they applauded his daring stratagem; for with the Maori, as with other races, all’s fair in love and war.

“Ah,” cried Muriwai, as she came toward the stranger whom she had unmasked, “you are right well-named, Mai-of-Great-Courage. And as for your scarred face, why, let me be the first to greet you”—and the mother of Wairaka advanced her patrician nose for the salutation of the hongi.

And Wairaka? She quickly braced herself for the ordeal of a long look at Mai-toa-nui; and now it seemed to her that he was not quite so ugly as she had imagined at her first glance. Truly, there might be worse lovers than this audacious warrior. At the least, he was a man of skill and address; his masterful wooing atoned for the beauty which he lacked. So Wairaka, too, pressed her face to her lover’s in token of forgiveness for his midnight deception.

* * *

And as for the rest—why, there are many people of the coast to-day who will declare with pride that they are lineal descendants of the beautiful Wairaka of the Cave and the bold lover, Mai-of-Great-Courage.

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