A Story came from Hauraki, our big Maori steersman, as we paddled our canoe along the winding Mokau River, on the first day of a long cruise up that bush waterway. On our right-hand side of the river, five or six miles from the Heads, where the Mokau delivers its waters to the Tasman Sea, we passed a rocky bluff, called Patokatoka, the “Rock Fort.” Its face and summit were hung with outjutting trees and tall plumed fern trees. In the face of the bluff there was a shallow cave, and close to the cave there grew an ancient knotty and mossy rata tree. That cave, long ago, was the lurking place of one Paepipi, a cannibal of cannibals. Under the bank, almost hidden from view, floated his light canoe, tied by a flax-line to the rata tree. Here Paepipi lived a lonely life, because of his taste for human flesh. Before he canoed up-river to this spot, this man-eating member of Ngati-Maniapoto lived near the Heads, not far from where the bridge is now, and there he had an unpleasant habit of knocking stray Maori travellers on the head. It sometimes happened that these strangers were people of importance, and then Paepipi the hungry was in trouble.
Now, Paepipi was a deceptive fellow to the eye. He did not look the merciless cannibal. He carried always a smiling face—he was forever on the grin. Strangers thought him a jovial, benevolent man.
One day Paepipi was out gathering shellfish on the sandbank a little way below his home, when a stranger hailed him from the opposite side of the river, the south bank: “Haria mai he waka” (“Bring me a canoe”).
“Wait until I have finished gathering my shellfish,” shouted Paepipi. He called to his wife: “Prepare the oven for our meal. I am bringing a stranger with me.” Then he leisurely paddled his canoe to the opposite bank, where the lone traveller stood waiting, took him aboard and ferried him across.
The newcomer was on a journey northward from the Taranaki country. Paepipi hospitably took him to his home and the wife spread a mat in front of the house, where he might rest until the meal was ready. He entertained the stranger with joke and tale while the woman heated the haangi, and the stranger thought to himself: “Why, what a merry fellow this is! He is surely the kindest, most open-hearted man I have ever met!” And all the time the oven was heating.
“Is the haangi ready yet?” Paepipi presently asked his wife.
“In a very little while,” she replied, “it will be ready to cook our meal.”page 81
The stranger looked gratified; he was hungry. He awaited the meal with pleasant anticipations.
“Wait but a little while,” said Paepipi, “the cooking-stones must by this time be hot.” And with his ever-smiling face, he rose to his feet, passed behind his guest, and with one swift movement snatched his short-handled tomahawk from the belt where it was thrust at the small of his back, concealed by a thick fold of his mat. The next instant the blade slashed through the poor stranger’s skull.
The oven was just ready to receive the “man-meat.”
Paepipi dined well that day—and for some days afterwards. His wife had the shellfish.
* * *
My pakeha companion in the canoe, after listening to this story, opined that Paepipi was a treble-dyed, treacherous villain.
“Oh, no!” said Hauraki. “He was a clever fellow. That was a very good joke on the stranger.”
Even the silent and dour Tuki, our bow paddler, chuckled. It was a practical joke he could appreciate.
“Oh, I see,” said I. “He was a stranger, and Paepipi took him in.” “That was the way of it,” said Hauraki.