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Distant Homes; or the Graham Family in New Zealand

Chapter VII

page 42

Chapter VII.

Account of Tom's Overland Journey—Arrive at a Pah—First Impressions of the Natives—Native Swing.

When Captain Graham and Tom settled to go overland to Christchurch, they had very little idea of the real nature of the journey, and the difficulties that would beset them. Taking the advice of some acquaintances in Nelson, a couple of guides and two horses were hired, with a boy to bring back the horses when they reached the mountains, across which the path was impracticable, except on foot. Their provisions consisted of a bag of ship biscuit, a couple of pounds of tea, and a small ham. They each carried a railway rug or blanket, strapped like a knapsack on the back, a gun, powder and shot, and a brace of pistols. Tom had never been armed before, and could scarcely avoid dancing with joy as he stuck his pistols in a belt made on purpose, and lifted up his gun, but catching Lucy's eye watching him, he subdued his feelings and tried to look perfectly unconcerned; even when kissing her and saying good-bye, he did not say anything more than:—

“Good-bye, Loo. We are all armed, you see; I pity the niggers if they attack us.”

“Don't whistle until you are out of the wood, Tom,” replied Lucy, tears starting into her eyes, partly because page 43 he was going away, partly because she was not going with him. “Take care, and don't shoot yourself, dear. You know guns are dreadfully dangerous. I hope it's not loaded.”

“You little goose,” exclaimed Tom, kissing her again. “What good would it be if it was not?”

“Oh, to frighten them.”

Tom laughed, and at the same moment his father's voice was heard calling him, so he rushed off with Lucy to their mother.

Their journey, during the early part of the first day, lay through a cultivated district, along lanes, upon each side of which lay fields of corn, etc., and looking exactly like home. Occasionally they met a wagon, driven by the farmer, and generally stopped to talk a little, everyone recognizing them as new-comers, and being anxious to know where they were going to settle, or, sometimes, if they came from any part of England they knew. It seemed just as if everybody knew everybody, and took a warm interest in all concerning each other. They lunched at one house, dined at another, and Tom soon saw that all the boys of his own age were held in as much consideration as even he aspired to, and took their share of the daily labour and duty, as well as the grown-up men. At first he had felt a little inclined to look down upon boys, but soon found his mistake, and was glad enough to listen to what they told him of the shooting, etc.

Towards nightfall, they approached a station kept by a man owning a large sheep-run. Here they found a welcome, bed, and supper, leaving at daylight. All that day, the road, or rather bridle-path, lay through swampy ground, page 44 with here and there a rising ground. At last they reached a hill, and, looking back, found they had been rising imperceptibly, and had gained a considerable height, from which they gazed down upon a pretty valley, through which wound a silvery stream, the banks of which were here and there closed in by forest trees and ferns. On the opposite side, blue smoke, rising in columns, denoted human habitations, and proved, on enquiry, to be a native village or Pah, where the guides proposed to get shelter for the night, having so timed their arrival that they would just arrive at the hour of evening meal, a plan very generally adopted by guides, who never provide themselves with food, but trust to falling in with a Pah at the right moment.

The Pah they were approaching was one of the few left in this part of the country, and but a poor specimen of those Tom afterwards saw in the North Island, as the natives were very poor, and had adopted many European habits, which, though rendering them in reality more comfortable, sadly lessened the picturesqueness of their Pah; still it was new to Tom, and deserves a description.

The banks of the stream sloped up to the foot of a steep mound, two sides of which were precipitous; the two others were closed in by a high palisade, or post-railing of stakes, interlaced with branches, tied together with the flax fibre and different creepers. Ascending to this, without seeing a sign of an inhabitant, they found an entrance, and, preceded by the guides, pushed in through the narrow opening; but here they were as much at a loss as ever: a post-wall, exactly like that they had just passed was before them, leaving just room to push round, between it and the outer. This they did, until, after four or five yards, page 45 they found another door, but, inside another screen; and now they had to turn back to look for the next door. Then came a long passage; here they heard voices, and suddenly a perfect Babel of dogs', men's, and fowls’ voices, shrieking and chattering together. It was evident their approach had been heard; so they hurried on, anxious to get into the open space and explain their object.

Suddenly a wide opening burst upon them, and the interior of the Pah was displayed before Tom's delighted gaze, but accompanied by the assault of a pack of ugly, yelping curs, and the tongues of as many women, who were trying to kick and beat the dogs quiet and question the intruders at one and the same time, while the pigs and ducks lent their aid to swell the chorus, and it was several minutes before any one could hear the other speak; at last, by dint of sticks, kicks, and scolding, the women quieted the angry curs, who ran back into the holes and corners they had come from.

The natives were tall, fine-looking people, many of them tattooed, some of them dressed in European clothes, others with the old native dress: namely, a red or white blanket, tied or skewered together at the neck, their hair fastened in a knot at the top of their heads, and ornamented with a bunch of feathers, or variegated grass. Most of the women had cotton wrappers or petticoats. The children were all naked, and scampered about, turning heels over head, just as the little street-boys in London are so fond of doing, to frighten old ladies or young Mammas into giving them money.

As soon as the guides had explained that Captain Graham wished to stay at the Pah all night, the chief page 46 came forward and saluted him, by rubbing noses, telling him he was welcome, and should be his guest. He next led the way to his lodge.

This was a low hut, built entirely of poles and branches, interlaced in the same manner as the fence I described before, though, in the present case, the branches were much closer together. There was neither a window nor chimney, the only light or ventilation being by the doorway. In the middle, a few cinders lay smouldering on the floor, and as soon as the chief entered with his guests, one of his wives threw an armful of twigs upon the embers; these flamed up and completely filled the place with such a dense smoke that Tom could see nothing for several minutes. Meantime, the chief sat down cross-legged upon a rush mat, inviting Captain Graham to do the same, ordering his wives to prepare some food; and, as Tom could not breathe in the smoky atmosphere of the hut, he made this an excuse to see the way the black ladies performed their cooking operations.

The first thing he saw was a hole in which a fire was already burning. This was the ordinary preparation for their evening meal. Then half-a-dozen children chased some hens into a corner, killed and plucked them in an incredibly short space of time, while their Mammas were washing the body of a nice fat little pig, which had been partly prepared beforehand; this they covered and bound round with green leaves, and after raking the burning logs and cinders out of the hole we spoke of, laid it in, put the chickens on the top, and filled it up to the brim with potatoes, fish, and green leaves, pouring over all a little water, lastly a thick covering of leaves, and, over this, earth page 47 and sods. The heated earth and steam from the water cooked the food in a very short time; then the sods and earth were scraped off, and the potatoes, chicken, fish, and pig, lifted out and laid upon wicker baskets on mats, which were instantly taken into the verandah of the chief's hut, and presented, smoking hot and beautifully cooked, to him and his guests. There were no such things as knives or forks, but nobody appeared to miss them, and set to work with their fingers, with great good will. Tom looked hard at his father, to see what he would do, and seeing him turn up his coat sleeves and take a wing of a chicken in his fingers, he began to think he felt hungry enough to try it too, so, accordingly, he squatted down and accepted the offered dinner, acknowledging, afterwards, that he never tasted anything so good in his life.

I dare say, if Tom had not had such a long ride and fast, he would have been a little more fastidious; but, be that as it may, he, made a capital dinner, and only wished Lucy had been there to see how well he ate with his fingers, remembering, in the middle of it all, the old home nursery saying, that “fingers were made before knives and forks.” He was certainly surprised, however, at the way the pile of meat, flesh, and fowl disappeared, and how the natives ate and ate, without speaking a single word, seemingly much too busy to waste time upon talking. After the last remnants of the feast had vanished, a large earthen jar of water, flavoured with some sort of herb, of a strongly acid taste, was carried round. Then they all began to talk at once, making so much noise that it was impossible to hear what any one in particular said; indeed, nobody seemed to; care whether any one listened, and were quite content page 48 to hear their own voices, when they could do so, above the clamour of tongues.

After a great deal of talking, pipes were brought in, and, as every one smoked, there was soon a complete silence, only broken by an occasional grunt of satisfaction from some one or other of the party, who, having made an uncommonly good dinner, felt highly content with himself and everyone else.

Tom had never been allowed to smoke, and soon began to feel rather sick, from the smell of the tobacco; so, after asking one of the guides to come out with him, he sallied forth, to see what was going on outside.

The Pah contained about fifty huts, all built in the same way, differing only in the ugly and disgusting idols placed as ornaments of the supporting poles; some of these resembled a man with a distorted and hideous face, his eyes protruding and wide open, his tongue hanging out, or his hands and legs bent in an unnatural and deformed manner. Others were partly shaped like a beast or bird, partly like a human being.

The inside of the huts were all alike full of smoke, dried fish, and dirty rush mats. The natives were all out, and amusing themselves in different ways, some dancing, some gambling, with sticks like ninepins, and getting loudly excited over their games; others smoking, and others again swinging, by means of ropes tied at the top of a high pole. Each native who is going to swing catches hold of the end of the rope; at a given signal, they all make a rush and jump round, and once set going, it is no easy matter to stop again, the impetus keeping them flying round, scarcely even touching the ground now and then with their toes, page 49 and all this is accompanied by loud shouts and laughter, both from the performers and spectators.

Tom thought he would like to try the fun, but soon found himself whirled off the ground and thrown down, giddy and stunned, while all the natives laughed loudly at his misfortune, a proceeding he thought very rude and unkind, entirely forgetting how often he had laughed at his schoolfellows for similar disasters. Indeed, this very swing of the natives of New Zealand was exactly like one they had at the school Tom was at, although none of the boys ever made it go so quick.