The Adventures of Kimble Bent
Chapter I — The Deserter
On the banks of the Tangahoé—The runaway soldier—A Maori scout—Off to the rebel camp.
On the banks of one of the many swift rivers that roll down to the Tasman Sea through the Taranaki Plains a young man in the blue undress uniform of a private soldier sat smoking his pipe. He was dripping with water, and a little pool had collected where he crouched in the fern, a few feet from the bank of the stream. He had plainly just emerged from the river. His clothes were torn, and he was capless. He was a man of about the middle size, spare of build, with sharp dark eyes and a bronzed complexion that told of past life under a tropic sun.
Less than an hour previously he had left his comrades' camp, the tented lines of Her Majesty's 57th Regiment, on the ferny flats of Manawapou. Left unofficially, and without his arms, strolling down page 2 towards the Tangahoé River as if for a bathe. A “shut-eye” sentry was on duty that morning; and the deserter's tent-mates, too, were sympathetically blind to his departure. The Tangahoé was the border-line between the country covered by the British rifles and the unconquerable bush of the Maori rebels. Towards this rubicon he made his way through the thick, high fern, which soon concealed him from view. He attempted to ford the rapid, muddy river, but it was up to his waist, and almost swept him off his feet. Struggling ashore again, he took to the fern and travelled slowly and with great toil through it, keeping parallel with the course of the Tangahoé, and heading down stream. He forced his way through the thick fern “like a wild pig,” to use his own simile. In this way he travelled something over a mile down the river, and then once more attempted to ford across, but it was too deep and swift. He crawled back up the bank again, and quite exhausted, with scratched hands and face and gaping half-buttonless clothes, he sat down to recover his breath and strength. His heart was thumping fearfully with his frantic exertions in the closely matted, entangling fern, and it was some minutes before he could command his trembling fingers to fill and light his pipe.
After the soldier had sat and smoked a while he rose, and making his way to a slight elevation on the banks where he could see over the top of the page 3 coarse rarauhe fern, in some places ten feet high, he looked around him. Directly across the river the bush began, the seemingly impenetrable forest solemn and dark, pregnant with danger and mystery Turning in the other direction, and facing the northwest, he could just discern in the distance the tops of a number of bell-tents—the camp he had left behind him. And as he looked his last on the tents of his comrades and his tyrants, he heard the sweet notes of a bugle sounding a call. The mid-winter air was very clear and still. It was the midday mess call—“Come-to-the-cookhouse-door.”
“No more cookhouse-door now, that's a moral,” said the soldier aloud. “Pork and potatoes for you, me boy—or else a crack on the head with a tomahawk.”
Beyond the tents, another tent-shaped object took the soldier's eye. It was a lofty snowy mountain, glittering in the midday sun. It was far away in the nor'-west, so far that its base was hidden by the intervening bush, and only the white symmetrical upper part of the vast cone, a wedge of white culminating in as perfect an apex as any bell-tent, was visible to the eye from this part of the great plains. It was the peak of Taranaki mountain, which the white man calls Mount Egmont.
Satisfying himself that there was no one in sight and that he was not followed, the soldier page 4 squatted down again and smoked his pipe meditatively.
Suddenly he started up and listened intently. He heard something, and any noise meant danger. The sound was the trotting of a horse.
Scrambling through the fern a little space back from the bank, he found that a narrow track wound through the tangle of tall brown bracken. Peering out from his shelter place he saw—first, the glitter of the muzzle of a long rifle above the fern; then, next moment round a turn in the path came a mounted man, a Maori. He was a tall, black-bearded fellow, wearing a European shirt and trousers, but bare as to feet. Each stirrup-iron was thrust between the big toe and the next one, as was the universal Maori mode when riding bare-footed. In his right hand he held an Enfield rifle, of the pattern used by the white troops in those days; the butt rested on his thigh, cavalryman fashion. Round his shoulders hung a leather cartouche-box; there was another buckled round his waist, from which there hung also a revolver in its case. A Hauhau scout, evidently, venturing rather daringly close to the British camp.
The white man hesitated only a moment. Then he boldly stepped out on to the track, directly in front of the startled Maori, who pulled his shaggy pony up sharp, and instantly presented his gun at the white man.page 5
Seeing the next moment, however, that the white man was unarmed and alone, the Maori brought his rifle-butt down on his leg again, and stared with wonder at the forlorn-looking white soldier before him.
“Here, you pakeha!” he cried, in mixed English and Maori; “go back, quick! Haere atu, haere atu! Go 'way back to t'e soldiers. I shoot you suppose you no go! Hoki atu!”
“Shoot away!” returned the white man. “I won't go back. I'm running away from the soldiers. I want to go to the Maoris. Take me with you!”
“You tangata kuwaré!” the Maori said. “You pakeha fool, go back! T'e Maori kill you, my word! You look out.”
“I don't care if they do,” replied the soldier.
“I tell you, I want to live with the Hauhaus.”
“E pai ana”! (“It is well”), said the scout.
“All right, you come along. But you look out for my tribe—they kill you.”
“I'm not frightened of your tribe,” said the soldier.
“What your name, pakeha?” was the next question.
“Kimble Bent,” answered the pakeha.
The Maori attempted the pronunciation of the name, but the nearest he could get to it was “Kimara Peneti.”
“Too hard a name for t'e Maori,” he said. page 6 “Taihoa; we give you more better name—good Maori name. If”—he qualified it—“my tribe don't kill you.”
Then the swarthy warrior dismounted and ordered the pakeha to get into the saddle; he saw that his prisoner was dead-tired. He turned the horse's head back towards the Maori country, and the strangely-met pair struck down along the banks of the Tangahoé, the Maori striding in front.
For about three miles the track wound down through the fern and flax, parallel with the course of the river. Then the travellers came to a ford. They crossed safely, and clambering up the steep muddy bank on the other side, they marched on towards the blue hills of the rebel country.