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Utu: A Story of Love, Hate and Revenge

Chapter XXII. D'Estrelles' Luck—Native Industry—A Preserved Head—Te Whatu's Transformation—A Misappropriated Present

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Chapter XXII. D'Estrelles' Luck—Native Industry—A Preserved Head—Te Whatu's Transformation—A Misappropriated Present.

The captain's party was scarcely lost to view when Monsieur d'Estrelles, who had watched them off leaning indolently over the bulwarks, hired one of the numerous light canoes lying alongside to paddle him to the Island of Motu Arohia. This was why he had declined to make one of the party he had previously promised to join, that, free from unseasonable interruptions, he might do the agreeable to the captivating Mademoiselle Rau-kata-mea. But Monsieur had reckoned without his host, and when, after propitiating the ruling powers of the kainga by liberal donations, and doing the amiable to them until his patience was nearly exhausted, without ‘Laughing Leaf’ appearing—he ventured guardedly to inquire after her, he discovered that she was the daughter of the very chief the captain had gone to visit, and had returned to her father's kainga to be present at the pakehas' reception. His dark face flamed with angry mortification at his ‘ill-luck,’ as he was pleased to consider it, but he endeavoured to carry the matter off lightly, and perforce consoled himself with the company of ‘the pleasant’ wife of Te Whatu and her handmaids, with whose help, after lounging some hours in the warm sunshine, which streamed full on the verandah of the whare-noa—apparently the rendezvous of the hapu—he set off to inspect the curiosities of the settlement.

From the gay, unoccupied demeanour of such natives as the Frenchmen had met, and who seemed, so far, to have literally nothing to do save bask in the sun, it had been rather hastily concluded that they were a people averse to labour. This assumption D'Estrelles now found to be quite erroneous. As he sauntered through the kainga, he noticed on all hands groups of busy workers. Slaves bringing water or dragging wood; freemen scraping the outsides of their canoes with knives of flint or obsidian, shaping paddles, tying up fences, forming weapons, mending nets, etc. Women building fires, scraping potatoes with pipi shells, weaving ropes or garments, cleaning fish, plaiting food baskets, beating the flour from the woody fibre of the dried fern root and so on ad lib

But these toilers had very little interest for the luxurious foreigner, who, like most people who live by the sweat of other brows, cared page 105 very little for the sweaters. His roving eyes very soon found more enter taining objects, these being nothing less than the head-like balls stuck on poles, which, on the day of their arrival, had been noticed at intervals of the palisading. He arrested his steps in front of one with a particularly lean, ill-favoured countenance. The head was of good form, the features, save the eyes, complete, the tawny skin, the moko all there; the perforated ears, the hair even, gathered up into a feathered top-knot. Native art never fashioned that head, or the frightful caricatures around him were libels on the artists. His curiosity was excited. ‘Were these the heads of enemies?’ he wondered, ‘and what had hap pened to the bodies?’ He was not nervous in the least usually, but of a sudden a creepy feeling ran through him. He shook it off, however, and asked the smiling Ma-rika-rika for particulars. But his Maori was limited, and he was benefiting but little from her explications, when, in the nick of time, he espied petit Jean skulking along one of the narrow lanes which separated the whares. The rascal was doubtless on pleasure bent, but D'Estrelles at once impressed him, and with his aid learned presently that his conjecture as to the humanity of the head frowning down upon him was correct. It was one of a number brought back by Te Whatu a fortnight previously from the Northern coast. It was customary, Ma-rika-rika explained, for the victors in battle to decapitate the bodies of fallen foes whose rank rendered them worthy of the distinction, and, being preserved by a certain process, to bring them home to grace their own triumph. They were stuck up round the pah (fortress or fortified village), and, as if the death penalty were not enough to exhaust the bitterness of hate, jeered at and taunted as the individual would have been had he fallen alive into the hands of his enemies.

‘And the preserving process?’

Ma-rika-rika had never seen heads cured. The custom was to prepare them on the field of battle, but she understood that after removing the brain, tongue, and eyes, the cavities were filled up with fern, flax, or dried grass. A piece of wood was then inserted in each nostril to preserve the form of the nose, the lips were stitched together, and the skin of the neck sewn round a small wooden hoop that it might not shrink. The head was then boiled, then plunged into cold water, and after wards baked. This caused the muscles to shrink, but features, hair, skin, and moko remained intact. The heads were finished off by being smoked, or dried in the sun or wind.

Very interesting this. D'Estrelles again caught himself speculating as to the fate of the headless bodies. He would like to make a closer inspection. ‘Was it permissible to take the thing down? Might he handle it for a moment, or, would they sell it?’

Ma-rika-rika hesitated. ‘She could not say, but Te Whatu would page 106 tell him—and see here he comes,’ and sure enough the chief, who had for some time been invisible, was approaching the party, and as he drew near with stately step and head erect, Monsieur d'Estrelles could not help admiring his noble mien. There was a quiet thoughtfulness in his expression which spoke of mental capacity, and a kindliness of eye which indicated a benevolent disposition. To his young wife he was evidently fondly attached. His glance as it rested on her spoke volumes of affection. He was also a kind father, and, if physiognomy were to be trusted, a faithful, generous friend. He seemed just a thought surprised to see them all there gazing up at the trunkless head, but when Ma-rika-rika acquainted him with D'Estrelles' desire, a swift change transformed his visage. From kind tranquillity it passed in-stanter to vindictive fury. The mild eyes, suddenly ablaze, rolled wildly, and brandishing aloft his club he yelled in furious accents:

‘What? You would rob me of my utu? What? You would carry away my best, my favourite head—the head of my hated enemy, Kai-tangata?’

He had come so very near in his apparently ungovernable rage, and used his weapon so threateningly, that his visitor involuntarily drew back a pace; but suddenly turning his eyes upon the bodiless cause of his excitement—

‘Ha, Kai-tangata?’ the irate chief exclaimed, tauntingly, ‘you are a great warrior, you! Verily I tremble before you! Where is your club, man, and what has become of your arms? And your legs, so good at running, where are they? Are you called Kai-tangata, you? E, ha! You flew before my mere, did you? And your arms let fall your weapon. And your legs, your fleet legs, they were food for my warriors! E. ha! And your thighs, your sweet thighs, lie entombed in my belly!* E, ha! You are a kai tangata, you! A tino tangata, you! A toa tangata, you! E, ha! E, ha! E, ha!’ And thrusting out a prodigiously long tongue, the amiable Te Whatu, flourishing his club, went through a series of the most extraordinary and frightful grimaces.

Fortunately for Monsieur's comfort, the foregoing horrible jibes were uttered in choice Maori, which the chief's rapid articulation rendered quite unintelligible to pakeha ears. Te Whatu's fury now seemed exhausted, and quietly relapsing into his ordinary manner, he gravely said:

‘It is a very good head. What will you give for it?’

For a moment the ready-witted Frenchman was taken aback. The page 107 torrent of vituperation addressed to the unfortunate Kai-tangata's smokedried poll had been so much gibberish to him. What it meant he had not an inkling, but he had thought there was no mistaking the gestures, and these proclaimed the warrior chief incensed to the last degree. And now the storm had become a calm, and with a cuteness which indicated latent commercial talents, the great rangatira was asking what he was prepared to pay for the object of his desires. Now it so happened that his largesses on his arrival had left him nothing save the gift with which he had designed to propitiate the lovely ‘Laughing Leaf,’ and this was—could the reader guess it? nothing less than his own shaving glass! His experience had convinced him that youth and beauty usually loved nothing so much as its own sweet reflection; therefore, he felt assured that no present could be more suitable or acceptable to Rau-kata-mea than a looking glass! But, as many of these commodities would probably find their way into the whares in the way of barter, he decided to present the reigning beauty with an unique specimen, and no doubt the dusky maiden would have received it with pleasure, for it was just such a dainty toy as a French beau with a full purse might be expected to indulge in. D'Estrelles did not half like misappropriating it to the purchase of the mummified head up yonder, but he was in a dilemma, for not to offer a price after begging leave to purchase was to belittle himself terribly in native eyes. So, with a grudge and a sigh, he proffered the plaything. It was accepted with avidity, and not withstanding Te Whatu Moana's exaggerated estimate of his old enemy's caput, Monsieur D'Estrelles carried it off in triumph to his whare on Wai-iti.

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At the settlement of Tokori Hiko-o-te-rangi.

At the settlement of Tokori Hiko-o-te-rangi.

* The ancient Maori was not a cannibal from choice. He merely ate his enemy for utu. as the last evidence of his hatred and contempt. But he found baked human flesh savoury, and esteemed the thigh as the most delicate part. The thigh was therefore always reserved as a tid bit for the foremost chiefs. Women were not allowed to eat human flesh except in rare instances.