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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 12 (March 1, 1938.)

Kehu's White Man — A Memory Of The Old Bush Life

page 9

Kehu's White Man
A Memory Of The Old Bush Life

I First saw Kehu at the home of the pioneer Pakeha-Maori of Taumarunui, in the heart of the King Country, a good many years ago. She was nearly fifty, with more than the remains of much youthful beauty. She was tall and straight, with a generous depth of bosom. I could easily believe what her old friends had told me, that twenty-five years back, or thirty, she had been the beauty of Taumarunui.

Kehu's greatest beauty was her hair. It was long and shone gloriously in the sun, for it was fair, almost golden, a coppery golden. In Kehu you saw the ancient fair-haired type that persists in the Maori race, a relic of the ancient lighter-skinned people that the Maoris of the Tainui and Arawa and Aotea historic migration found living in New Zealand when they arrived here. The ancient people were called in these parts the Whanau-a-Rangi—the Children of Heaven. Her name described her. Kehu is short for Uru-Kehu, which means Fair-Hair. There were several other uru-kehu women at Taumarunui; one of them was Kehu's cousin, and wife to my old friend, the Pakeha-Maori. But Kehu was the handsomest and fairest of them all, and so her name. She was of the Whanau-a-Rangi.

I was sitting one night with the greybeard Pakeha-Maori and his family in their comfortable little house of pitsawn timber which stood on the banks of the swirling Ongarue just above the meeting of the waters, the junction where the Upper Whanganui came snoring in over its gravels from the far-off gullies of Tongariro and the snows of Ruapehu.

Taumarunui then wore a very different face from what it does to-day. There were no railway trains, no motorcars, no wheel roads, no bustle of traffic, no shops, commercial travellers, boarding-houses, schools, policemen, and other blessings of civilisation. It was a purely Maori kainga, very quiet and peaceful, far removed from the world. The Pakeha-Maori was the one white inhabitant; he had lived there since the middle Seventies with his Maori wife. He had been a soldier and fought in the wars. Now he had taken to the blanket, and was content with his dozen or so of pretty half-caste children around him. A happy valley, too, this green basin of Taumarunui. The crystal rivers that met here made murmurous music all day and all night long, and added to that music was the song of many birds. The hills and the dark rimu forest shadowed the valley, and the tui and the bellbird rang the angelus of the bush. But now they have flown to other retreats, the bush is ruined, and the place is full of the honk, screech and clatter of the busy pakeha.

As we were sitting there, in walked Kehu. She shook hands with me, the stranger. She looked frankly out of her deep, shining eyes, and said in Maori, “Welcome, welcome to the nest of the bush-owls.” Kehu sat down on a mat by the fire. In repose her face settled into an expression of sadness. She sat for a long time, gazing into the fire, speaking no word. At last she rose, and with her cousin went into an adjoining whare, which was used as a storeroom and larder. She presently returned with a large and bulging flax basket, strapped with flax leaves. She bound a handkerchief about her head, drew her long shawl around her and said, “Now I am going. Remain you here, friends.”

“Won't you stay till the morning, Kehu?” asked the Pakeha-Maori.

“No,” said the woman, “I must go. I am not afraid of ghosts. Besides, it is moonlight.”

“We'll see you off,” said the old soldier, and he beckoned to me to come with him. Kehu gave me a quick, half-frightened, half-appealing glance.

“It's all right, Kehu, he's a friend of mine,” he said.

Kehu's manner puzzled me. I followed her out to the bank of the river with the Pakeha-Maori and his wife.

She descended the bank, cast loose a small canoe tied up to a stake, and placing her kit of stores carefully amidships, she seated herself in the stern and pushed off from the bank.

Haere ra, haere ra!” we called to her: “Depart, depart, O Kehu!”

E noho ra koutou, e noho!“ cried Kehu, without looking back. “Remain there.” she bade us. Her paddle dipped and rose and dipped again, making silver splashes in the moonlit water. Her strong strokes soon took the light canoe across the river.

Inland voyagers: A picture on the-Upper Wanganui.

Inland voyagers: A picture on the-Upper Wanganui.

I thought I saw a figure come down to meet Kehu on the opposite bank, but the shadows and half-lights were deceptive.. Next moment Kehu had melted into the blackness of the bush.

“Was there some one waiting for her?” I asked the Pakeha-Maori's wife.

“Waiting for her? It must have been her shadow you saw. This person, Atarau, the moonlight, plays tricks with one's eyes sometimes.”

Later I learned something of Kehu's history. And as her story struck me as a remarkable and romantic one I now set it down here much as I heard it from the lips of the Pakeha-Maori and his wife; and bear in mind, please, that this is not fiction. Kehu is no creature of the imagination.

* * *

Kehu, being a beauty as well as a rangatira girl, was made a great deal of by the people of Taumarunui, and as she grew up and her charm developed she won many young Maori hearts by her deftness and grace in page 10 the poi action song and in the lively dance of the kanikani. Many a young Maori longed to take her to his whare, but she was not for them. She was destined to become the wife of a chief of the Maniapoto, the warrior tribe of the King Country. The couple had been betrothed while they were yet children. It was to be a state marriage, arranged by the parents of the girl and boy. Kehu's consent was taken as a matter of course.

But to the surprise of the tribe—the two tribes, in fact—Kehu displayed not the slightest interest in her aristocratic betrothed. When he came to visit Taumarunui with a cavalcade of friends and followers and a string of pack horses, bearing loads of presents for the Wanganui people, seventeen-year-old Kehu would hardly look at him. She said she did not want to marry any one yet, she'd wait a year, or perhaps two, perhaps three. What did it matter?

When the fair free-hearted Kehu was eighteen or so, it befell momentously that her parents took her with them to Lake Taupo, on a ceremonial visit of condolence to the Heuheu family, the great people at the south end of Taupo, who were holding a wake over one of their dead. It was a glorious wake, a very great tangi, for there were hundreds of Maoris there, from east, west, north and south, and there was much wailing and wardancing, and, above all, much feasting, for the Tokaanu tribespeople had piles of kumara and potatoes and pakeha flour and sugar, and storehouses full of bark baskets of preserved birds—tui, pigeon, kiwi, weka—and scores of fat pigs, and many calabashes of preserved whitebait, and long strings of koura, crayfish. It was at that tangi that Kehu first set eyes on Jack Hard-wick, the big, fair Englishman.

Hardwick could almost have been called a giant of a fellow. He stood some inches over six feet, he was broad, and thick through of chest, and strong as a bullock. He had blue Saxon eyes, and hair and beard that were nearly golden in colour, like some of those big blonde Scandinavian sailor-men we used to see in Norwegian and Swedish sailing ships. Hardwick was a wanderer. He had carried a carbine awhile in the Armed Constabulary; now he was pit-sawing in the bush for a European who intended to put up a weatherboard public-house in Tokaanu.

Kehu and Jack Hardwick soon came to an understanding. The white man who had kept aloof from Maori girls lost his heart to Kehu the lissom and full-breasted, the maid of the Shining Hair. And Kehu—she couldn't help admiring the tall, straight, fearless-looking pakeha, with the beard that was nearly the colour of the kowhai flower, and the eyes that were like the blue of Taupo Moana. They met in the whare-puni, and sat side by side listening to the speeches and watching the dancing. Hardwick didn't know much Maori, and the girl hadn't a word of English, except one or two swear words, which she used quite innocently, until Hardwick laughed. Then he was sorry for her, and began to teach her English.

Hardwick taught Kehu well, and she in her turn schooled him in Maori so quickly that the pair of them were missing from the village one morning. So was Hardwick's horse, also a packhorse he had borrowed from the other white man in Tokaanu.

* * *

In a valley deep in the forest to the west of Mount Tongariro there was a well-hidden bush camp. Through the gully a stream rippled to join the Whanganui headwaters. High rocks, shrub-grown, rose on each side, and behind the little level ground the grey volcanic cliff leaned outward, overhanging. At its base was the little bush bower, a wharau, as the Maoris call it, of saplings and ponga fern-fronds. Beneath the shelter the ground was covered with layers of great fern-leaves, and on this sweet-smelling couch were spread blankets. Against the rocky wall outside stood a double-barrelled gun and an axe. In front of the wharau burned a camp-fire, with a tin billy swinging above it, and there sat the two lovers, Kehu and her white man.

Kehu was happy. Now she knew what love was, and she sang softly to herself a little song about a bird—not the tui that gurgled and fluted above her in the trees, but the bird of spring, the ocean-crossing shining-cuckoo, the pipi-wharauroa; and she mimicked its summer cry of gladness and rejoicing—“Kui, ku-ui! Whitiwhiti ora!

A temporary guest-house, built for a gathering of the tribes.

A temporary guest-house, built for a gathering of the tribes.

And when their evening meal was over, and the shadows deepened in the bush, and the tui rang its good-night bell, and the melancholy morepork cried its “Kou-kou” to the moon, the lovers sat by the fire with their arms around each other, and Kehu spoke English to Tiaki and Tiaki talked Maori to Kehu, and they laughed and were altogether insanely happy. They entered their fern-frond bower. Such was the honey-moon of Kehu and her white man. Their marriage was Edenic in its simplicity. Kehu would have summed it up in three words, in the direct fashion of the Maori: “Kua moea taua.

That night was the seventh after the elopement, and so far the lovers had been unmolested. They knew the people must be out searching for them, and that there would be trouble when they were discovered. Hardwick had designed to work out quietly to the Hawke's Bay side, but this would be a weary journey, for long detours would be necessary to avoid the Maori settlements. For the present this bush retreat was safe enough, and would do as long as there were birds in the bush to be shot or snared. That day the white man had shot a brace of pigeons. It was imprudent, because the sound of a gun might bring prowling Maoris down on the camp. But the risk didn't trouble him.

* * *

The fire in front of the wharau had burned nearly out. The lovers lay asleep. And softly, as if stalking an enemy on the war-trail, a band of Maoris, ten or twelve of them, crept out from the bushes, keeping in the shadow of the cliff, creeping towards the camp. They had been making quietly towards the fire all the evening from their look-out on the opposite spur.

The foremost Maori, creeping along on hands and knees, laid a hand on the page 11 white man's gun, leaning against the hollow cliff. It was very careless of Hardwick. There was no longer any need of concealment.

The Maori ripped out a yell, and the party sprang from the ground and dashed into the wharau. The frightened girl was dragged out into the open, naked, just as she sprang from the blankets and her lover's arms. Hard-wick was hauled out too, punching and kicking in a Baresark rage. He was literally a Baresark as he struggled there, with half a dozen yelling Maoris on top of him. They soon mastered him, tied his hands and feet, none too gently, with their flax belts, called him a lot of hard Maori names, and all the pakefya bad words they knew—and then set to work to build up the fire again and look for something to eat.

Poor Kehu sat there, covered with a blanket now, a captor on each side of her holding her by the arms. She wept, not for herself, but for Tiaki, for she feared they would kill him there in the forest.

The Maoris had been sent out by Kehu's father with orders to continue the hunt until they had found the couple. They were not to harm the white man, so they were enjoined, because it might result in inconvenient enquiries from the Government, and even in a visit from a force of Constabulary. But they were to bring Kehu home.

This was done. The girl was taken to Tokaanu, thence through the great forest to Taumarunui. As for the white man, they suffered him to return to Tokaanu with them. He went to his camp at the sawpit, feeling that he would see Kehu no more.

The poor girl was shockingly berated by her father when she made her home-coming. She was forced to appear before the tribe in the wharepuni and listen to many abusive speeches. She sat there with bowed head, her shawl gathered about her shrinking shoulders. The speakers reviled her lover as a tutua, a low-born fellow who stole other men's property. And she—she had put the tribe to shame. What would those Ngati-Maniapoto people have to say now? The name of Kehu of Taumarunui would be a by-word throughout the land.

At last Kehu turned. She rose and faced them, furious. She was of noble blood, so was her lover, Tiaki, the white man, and she would never give him up. She would never marry that pig of a fellow in the Maniapoto country, never.

Kehu's stubbornness did not pass from her. She refused to listen to anything more. “I have told you,” she said, “I love Tiaki and I shall marry him and no one else.”

Kehu's father shut her up in a small raupo hut next to his own. The door was securely fastened on the outside; only the tiny window was allowed to he opened for water and food to be passed in to the prisoner. The hut was guarded day and night.

Kehu refused all food; she took only the calabash of water from her attendant. Day after day passed, and not a morsel of food would she take. In the depth of pouritanga, the soul of darkness, she was starving herself to death.

The old chief went to the hut each morning, pushed back the sliding window and cried gruffly, “E Kehu, are you there?”

“Ae,” the girl answered from the gloom of the whare.

“Will you give up the white man?”

“No, never! I will die sooner than take any other man!”

Bang! The sliding window was slammed to again.

This went on until the fifth morning, when Kehu did not reply to the usual call. The old man, alarmed, pushed the door open and entered the hut. Kehu was lying motionless on the mats. He carried her out and laid her on the grass. She was seemingly without life. The old man with a cry of grief bent down and pressed his nose to his daughter's and wept over her. He greatly feared that she was passing to the Reinga.

The girl opened her sad dark eyes. “I want Tiaki,” she said.

Her father, weeping, bent down again and said, “I shall bring your white man to you.”

The peaceful Maori settlement of Kehu's youth has changed with the years, and Taumarnui is now a busy provincial centre.

The peaceful Maori settlement of Kehu's youth has changed with the years, and Taumarnui is now a busy provincial centre.

Kehu sighed and smiled a pitiful smile and whispered, “That is well, but make haste.”

Messengers were sent off to Tokaanu, with orders to bring Tiaki the white man to Taumarunui at once, and if he would not come willingly to tie him up and carry him.

But Hardwick needed no compulsion. He was soon at Taumarunui, and Kehu was weeping over him and tangi-ing to him, and there was a ceremonious talk in the council-house, and long speeches from everyone of consequence, and with songs of jollity and the merry poi dance, the happy Kehu was handed over to the white man, together with many other gifts. And Tiaki made quite a good speech himself, and so completely won the hearts of the Taumarunui folk that he could have had half a dozen other wives had he wanted them. But he had Kehu. So matters were agree-ably adjusted, tribal etiquette was observed, and tribal honour satisfied. Everything was “tino tika”—shipshape, and altogether correct.

Now had this been an imaginary affair of hearts, all the canons of orthodox romantic literature would have been satisfied by the valedictory announcement that the lovers loved exceedingly and lived serene untroubled lives. Unfortunately, however, this is a true story, so the action must go on to the end that the Fates mercifully conceal from puppet mortals.

(To be continued.)