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Distant Homes; or the Graham Family in New Zealand

Chapter XIX

page 134

Chapter XIX.

A Visit from the Natives—An Alarming Proposal—Canoe Song—Maori Presents.

For some time nothing was seen of the natives; but at last, one morning, they made their appearance. Tom, looking out just at daylight, saw three men sitting cross-legged before the drawing-room windows; they had sat there already several hours, and continued to do so in such a statue-like manner, that Tom could not make them out at all, though he watched them most diligently; at last, he went to his father's room, and told him. Captain Graham soon satisfied him, by explaining that this was a common practice with the natives when they came down to trade or deal with Europeans; and that sometimes they had been known to sit whole days and nights, without once being seen to move, or show any symptom of being tired. In the present instance, the natives sat in a row, cross-legged, and their heads bent down. Tom and Captain Graham, accompanied by Lucy, went out to speak to them; and the instant they appeared, up jumped the natives, and rushed to Captain Graham, rubbing noses most affectionately; but the strangest part was to come yet, and Lucy stared in amazement when she saw them all burst into tears, and, sobbing dreadfully, pull their cloaks or mats over their heads.

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What could it mean, she thought. Perhaps they are very poor and hungry, or have brought bad news to Papa. All her surmises were, however, wrong; the truth being, that it is the national custom to shed tears of joy at meeting an old friend; and some of the people are so clever in this accomplishment, or tangi, as they call it, that they can cry for an hour, tears pouring down their cheeks all the time, while their sobs are perfectly heart-rending. The three natives were old friends of Captain Graham's, having visited him at various times during his residence at the farm; and they had now come nearly twenty miles to call upon him and his family.

After the weeping welcome was over, they accompanied Captain Graham into the dining-room, and all being men of rank in their own tribe, were considered proper guests for the “Master,” as they called him, in imitation of the workmen.

They did not exactly weep over Mrs. Graham, but looked very much inclined to do so, and I daresay would, out of compliment to her husband, had he not begged them to be seated, and take some breakfast. Now, Bridget was very proud of her performances in cooking, especially in the baking way, and thought it quite impossible her master and mistress could breakfast without hot cakes and new bread. Upon this morning she had sent in rather a small supply, so Lucy ran to tell her to bring more, purposely omitting the arrival of their guests. Bridget was very busy with something else, and, not very patient in temper at any time when interrupted, she seized the basket which held the new bread, and bounced into the room. The first person she caught page 136 sight of was one of the natives. She had never got over her horror of them, and was quite resigned to be scalped some day and probably eaten; Tom having exercised his inventive genius in telling horrible stories of unfortunate people devoured by inhabitants of New Zealand, and assuring her the chief's head wife always claimed the nose as her tit-bit, and would assuredly eat Bridget's, it being so pretty. Having thus a wholesome dread of the aborigines, Bridget no sooner caught a glimpse of those at the table, than she gave vent to her feelings in a tremendous shriek, and, turning the bread-basket upside down upon her head, to save her scalp, all the steaming rolls tumbled out. The natives, who are fond of a scramble, jumped up, and seized as many as they could; while Tom, delighted by the fun, sprang upon a chair, and knocked the basket rather smartly upon the top. Bridget dropped upon her knees, and begged for mercy. Everybody, except Aps, laughed; the poor child thought something had happened to Biddy, and began to cry. This scene continued for a minute or two; then Captain Graham, unwilling to see Bridget acting such an absurd part, and knowing how apt the natives are to take offence, told her to be quiet—that the gentlemen were his friends. After some persuasion, Bridget got up, and disappeared, saying, as she went,—

“Purty gintlemen, indade; it's hard up ye'll be for company, to take the likes of them.”

When breakfast was over, the natives made Captain Graham understand they wished to trade with him, and that they had come, as forerunners, to announce the approach of a large party laden with the articles they had page 137 to sell. This was rather startling intelligence, and even Captain Graham looked grave, when his gnests informed him that they liked him so much, that they would tell their countrymen to stay there, and build houses. Lucy turned pale, and Tom began whistling his favourite song about the “King of the Cannibal Islands.”

In vain Captain Graham tried to persuade them that they were better further inland, and amongst their old haunts; they only answered that they loved the English, and wished to be like them; then one of them, taking up a book, asked Tom “to speak out of it,” and said they wished to know how to speak like books, and would give their children to the English woman to teach.

Finding they had made up their minds to come near, Captain Graham saw there was no use remonstrating, so let things take their course, trusting in God to preserve him, his wife, and children, from all harm; and a good deal comforted by the pleased expression of his wife's face, who immediately thought of all the good they might do the poor ignorant natives, and that it seemed almost the act of a wise Providence, that she and her daughters should have remained in Christchurch long enough to gain an idea of the best and most judicious method of teaching religion to the native children. The flush upon Lucy's cheek, and bright, eager look in her eyes, as she glanced from the strangers to her father, and seemed to hang eagerly upon each word they uttered, showed her mother that her feelings were not the only ones, but that they were the same as Lucy's.

“I am so glad,” exclaimed Lucy, as soon as the natives had gone out with her father, “so glad they are coming.

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We'll have a nice little school—won't you, Beatrice?” And Lucy was soon busy making out how she was best to educate the younger portion of the tribe; forgetting, in her haste, that very probably those who would be most anxious to learn, would be men and women as old as her father and mother. Her plans were broken into by Tom rushing in, to call them all down to the river, to witness the arrival of the great canoe, with the principal men and merchandise of the friendly tribe.

Just as they reached the bank, the canoe came round the corner of a long straight sweep of the river, and partly propelled by oars or paddles, and partly borne by the stream, ran quickly down. It was a pretty as well as novel sight. The canoe was more than thirty feet in length, very narrow in proportion, it being one large tree hollowed out. The fore end had a high rounded projection rising a good many feet into the air. Upon and round this were carved grotesque figures of men and animals, many of the latter, strange to say, beasts not known in New Zealand, and of which, if asked the name or meaning, the natives reply that they “lived in the land from whence their fathers came.” This simple fact might prove a useful suggestion as to the question of their origin.

The canoe was propelled by at least twenty oars or paddles, the strokes of which kept time to a loud chanting sort of song, sung by two men, one standing near the bows, the other near the stern, marking the time with short carved sticks, just as the leader of an orchestra does. At every second stroke the whole crew joined with their voices, in giving a wild and striking effect to what would otherwise have been rather a monotonous howl.

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Here is an example of a war canoe song, given in Mr. Shortland's account of New Zealand, and translated literally:—

Now pull.
Now press.
Now give the time.
Now dip it in.
Now hold on.
Now be firm.
Pull, pull away.
Upwards, upwards away.
So Waipa away.
Now pull.
The feathers of his canoe are
Not worth looking at.
The quick stroke,
The quick stroke.
Pull away.
Stick the paddle in.
Strike up a song.
A shove.
Stab it (the water).
Let it be deep.
A long pull.
Yes, yes.
A shove.
Now stick it in.
Shove along, hard work tho’ it be.
An old man is kicking out there.
Look alive.
Four kicking out there.
Go along.
Alone (on the river).
Make it your own.
A point of land.
Leave it behind.
Pull away.
Pull away.

It was a song like this, I suppose, the natives were page 140 singing, but Lucy was never able to get a correct copy, though she tried several times.

As soon as the canoe came opposite the bank where the settlers and the three pioneers stood, every paddle ceased, and they drifted slowly along to the landing-place, a priest standing up and shouting a charm; then, as soon as they touched land, the crew all scrambled out, and rushed to their friends, who hastened to meet them. Then followed a most wonderful scene to European eyes, the new comers hanging round the three natives who had come first, howling as if they were dreadfully unhappy or in bodily agony, and shedding floods of tears all the time; altogether making so much noise that Mrs. Graham was glad to put her hands over her ears, and wait until their welcome was over.

At last they seemed to have exhausted their tears, and I suppose feeling tired themselves, thought they would like something to eat, so down they went to the boat, and began unpacking the remainder of their provisions, which they ate up; then unpacked the things they intended to sell to Captain Graham. These were fowls, pigs, different native vegetables, mats, and bunches of flax.

The mats were very curious, and often very pretty. They are made of the flax, and are dyed different colours, and even ornamented with borders and figures. One mat will sometimes take five or even seven years to make, the preparation of the flax and weaving both being very difficult, as the New Zealanders do it all with sharpened shells and little pieces of wood. They value these mats very highly, and it is often impossible to tempt them to part with one. Captain Graham knew this, so did not page 141 mean to make an offer for them. Seeing this, the natives consulted, and after a good deal of discussion, the chief came forward and said—

“English brother,—The sun over our heads shines upon the Maori and the stranger. The kumara is born in April for both, and the rain falls and the soft wind blows, and does not turn away from the stranger. Therefore, let the stranger be friends with the Maori; let them live as brothers. The Maori will bring his wives and children, and dwell near the home of the stranger, that they may plant and eat together. Behold, brother, the Maori is generous. He gives these mats for your comfort, and asks onlv love in return.”

Captain Graham translated this to the children, who were delighted, and could not understand why their parents looked sorry about the natives coming to live near, or why their father and mother should consult so anxiously about it before they accepted the pretty mats. At last Lucy went up to her mother and whispered—

“Oh! Mamma, let them come. We'll have a school and teach the poor little children, and when George comes he'll preach to them in the school-room. And, perhaps, Beatrice says, there will be a church built. Oh! Mamma, do let the poor creatures come.”

Lucy's advice turned the scale in favour of the natives, and Captain Graham made a speech to them, telling them they were welcome. This delighted them greatly. I suppose if they had been Englishmen they would have given three cheers, but, being New Zealanders, they all began to weep for joy.