Utu: A Story of Love, Hate and Revenge
Chapter XXIV. Restoring a Drowned Man—Results of Excess—An Old Woman—A Tender of Corpses ‘C'est Bien, Monsieur.’
Chapter XXIV. Restoring a Drowned Man—Results of Excess—An Old Woman—A Tender of Corpses ‘C'est Bien, Monsieur.’
‘Mon Dieu! What's in the wind now?’
The exclamation proceeded from Captain du Fresne, as, about a week subsequent to the incidents detailed above, his boat neared the landing at Wai-iti. On the beach immediately before him was gathered half the population squatting in clusters, lying down, playing with their dogs, or otherwise diverting themselves, while they watched the chief actors in what, at first sight, appeared to Du Fresne a diabolical piece of work. On the shelving part of the beach, above high-water mark, stood a scaffolding, recently erected, beneath which was smouldering a fire of logs—logs saturated with damp to judge by the dense volumes of smoke rolling upwards. The scaffolding was about ten feet high, and from the cross beam depended, head downwards, a human figure fastened by the heels!
Monsieur du Fresne stared, rubbed his eyes, and stared again. Yes, there was no doubt of it. He could not see much of the figure for the thick smoke, but assuredly those were human feet, and there was no mistaking the outline of the calves, bulging out just before the knees were lost in the smoke cloud.
‘Give way, boys,’ he cried, and in a jiffey he was ashore and striding excitedly to the scene of operations. To his surprise he recognised among the spectators the recruiting sailors and sundry others nonchalantly smoking, or chatting with the native girls, apparently acting strictly on the non-intervention principle.
‘What's the meaning of this, Jean?’ he demanded of his little interpreter. ‘Find out quick, garcon!110’
A smile broke over petit Jean's face as he received the Maori explanation, garnished with abundant pantomime.
‘They are busy, those people there, trying to restore a drowned man, he said with a gay Gallic laugh.’
‘To restore a drowned man! They're not such idiots surely, Jean.’
‘Well, a half-drowned one then, mon capitaine.’
‘Design they to roast, or smoke him back to life, then?’
‘The latter, I believe, Monsieur.’
‘But this is nonsense, Jean.’ said the captain, looking severe. ‘Explain the matter seriously.’page 117
‘Well, Monsieur, some of our people had given the miserable there just a little too much cognac—he, silly fellow, likes cognac—and when he tired of rolling about the beach he rolled into the water, and before he could be fished out was pretty well dead. They are doing their best to revive him. They say the smoke'll do it if anything can.’
‘Mon Dien! Holds the world such fools? Why, the smoke will choke him.’
‘So one would suppose, captain; but they say if he has any life in him it will induce respiration, or at least bronchial irritation. At the first sign of life they'll cut him down, blow up the fire, lay him close to it, and pour hot water down his throat.’
‘Mon Dien! The treatment seems heroic. Well. I only hope they'll be able to detect the first signs of life through that dense smoke. 'Tis more than I could promise. But now, Jean, you may amuse yourself for an hour, then join me at the encampment. Au revoir. I shall leave these clever people to their patient. It strikes me if they leave him much longer be'll be too effectually cured to show even the minutest signs of life either before or after they cut him down.’ And revived by his little joke, the captain strolled away humming a gay melody.
* * * * * * * *
‘Well, mon ami, and how does this bright day find you? But, upon my honour, D'Estrelles, I can't congratulate you on looking any better for the change ashore.’
D'Estrelles was lounging on the turf near his own particular whare moodily rolling some tobacco leaf. His brow, already dark enough, lowered.
‘You, at any rate, seem blithe enough, captain.’
‘Yes, I am very well, thank God.’
‘Oh, thank God by all means. You might ask Him for once to extend His favour to me, Du Fresne, just by way of obligation to yourself, of course, for your Deity, if He be anything, is much like these Maories here, too fond of utu to show me any goodwill for my own sake.’
The captain frowned.
‘Excuse me, D'Estrelles, I never jest on such subjects. But what say you to a stroll? I have just been witness to one peculiar native custom. We may come upon others,’ and he related with gusto an account of what he had just seen, ending by saying that he meant to forbid any more cognac being given to the savages.
D'Estrelles smiled grimly.
‘All the same, my friend, if cognac can purchase a desired favour. I fear it will still find its way to Maori throats. And, by the way, come into my whare and have a nip before we set out. for pardieu! if it were not for cognac the lives of some of us would not be worth much.’page 118
‘Are you sure, D'Estrelles, you do not take more than is good for you? I own I sometimes think you drink too deeply.’
‘I drink deeply? Nay, then, I think myself very moderate. But entre nous111, Du Fresne, if a man can't sleep he must drink. I swear my brain would burst sometimes did I not soothe it with brandy.’
‘Mon Dieu! The matter is serious enough, D'Estrelles, but you intensify the evil, believe me, by your excessive use of such a strong stimulant. There now, you are taking it neat, a thing I never could.’
‘Bah! Your flavoured eau sucree112 is but a drink for children. As for me. I like something more than a flavour. But what think you of my death's head?’ for the captain's eyes were riveted upon the cured head from Motu Arohia which D'Estrelles had affixed to the central post of his whare.
‘Faugh! I wonder not at sleep deserting you with such horrid objects about you. One would think it quite enough to have that fellow Arnaud in your whare without this additional horror.’
‘But, my friend, the head is not a visible object when my lamp is out, and Arnaud does not share my whare. And, pardieu! 'tis when I'm alone, and not when he is here, that I am most distracted.’
‘Arnaud does not pass the night here, then?’
‘Pardieu! no, mon ami. Wai-iti furnishes more agreeable company than my valet, much as I appreciate that clever rascal.’
‘Clever rascal you may well call him, for that he is a rascal I am convinced, and of his cleverness there is no doubt. See how quickly he has picked up this infernal lingo, which, for my life, I can not master. “Oui, oui,” I reply, but hang me if I understand half the brown-skins say. And how the fellow has ingratiated himself with them. I believe there is some affinity between him and them. His skin is much the same colour, and 'pon my soul he could pass for one in a crowd. The more I look at the fellow, the more I see of his supple figure and designing face, the more I mistrust him. He never sets eyes on me, thank goodness, else I should do what you once threatened—take measures for self-defence. And. parblea! I think it time you did so, mon ami. I do not advocate extreme measures, you know, but if I were you I'd put the rascal on another island, and then see if I could sleep at night.’
‘Pardieu! Du Fresne. You have taken a most unaccountable prejudice against poor Arnaud. He has nothing to do with my sleeplessness, I am convinced. It is in the dead of night, when all around are buried in slumber, that the trouble begins—whispering voices, cries of agony, moans of the dying, groans of the damned, mocking of Jezebels, laughter of fiends—such a devils' concert as never was heard out of Gehenna.’
‘Mon Dieu. D'Estrelles, what you say more than ever convinces me that you drink too much cognac. Those are the true symptoms of that page 119 terrible distemper, delirium tremens113. Let me beg of you my dear friend, to abstain for a time before it is too late.’
D'Estrelles laughed, with some annoyance in his tones, however.
‘Bah! Du Fresne. you must think me a child of a fool, surely. I tell you it is nothing of the kind. Whatever is the cause of my insomnia, neither cognac nor Arnaud is responsible for it, and I can't do without either, for the one soothes my brain, and the other attends to my comfort as no one else could. But, au nom de diable114, what have we here?’
They had sauntered, after finishing their cognac, towards the back of Tauanui's kainga, behind which a wooded platean gave some excellent cover. Owing to this advantage, rearward fortifications had been dispensed with, and as they turned the angle of the lofty staging erected at the extremity of the lengthened flank, all the back part of the settlement lay disclosed to view. The kainga covered a considerale area, the hindmost huts being more scattered than those in front, and about them some enclosed patches under cultivation. A great deal of the undergrowth and most of the lesser timber had been cleared from the central part of the bush immediately behind the kainga, from which a number of foot-tracks led into the shady recesses of the forest. Within the space occupied by the whares, the usual scenes were in progress, but D'Estrelles' exclamation was occasioned by an occurrence nearer hand, and which they stood on their steps to observe. Not a stone's throw from them as they were about to emerge from the tangled underwood, stood a figure, grotesque in its deformity. It was that of a woman, an old woman, a very hag—a woman of the lower caste, with body bowed by hard field labour, and a face from which all comeliness had long since departed. She had once been tall, but work and rheumatism had nearly doubled her form, and her uncouth face, surmounted by a shock of rusty black hair, was little more than three feet from the ground. She was in the act of driving a stake into the ground with the aid of a large stone. This done to her satisfaction, she took from a kit of scraps beside her a lump of very fishy-looking meat and with some strips of green flax bound it firmly to the middle of the stake, her shrivelled brown claws making the unwholesome-looking mass still more repulsive. This done, she threw the remaining fragments in a heap on the ground beside it, and then erecting herself so far as she could, cried out in a harsh, rasping voice:
‘Wawau! (stupid). Kai! Kai! Haere mai!’ and without pausing for reply, turned, and hobbled away towards a cluster of rude huts as fast as her tottering legs admitted, the two spectators curiously watching her progress, wondering the while if she had ever been young and winsome. She had scarcely got back to her quarters when a wheezing sound proceeding from the direction of the clearing attracted their attention, and turning their heads they saw crawling out from some lair in the page 120 forest a creature just sufficiently human to outrage humanity. Humpbacked and wizened, a filthy fragment of a native mat wound about his loins, and another cast over his shoulders were his sole protection from the forest damps. Shock-headed, blear-eyed, limp-jawed, knock-kneed, he could scarce totter forward for the asthma which oppressed, and every minute or two threatened to choke him, as successive fits of coughing shook his wasted frame like a storm-tossed leaf. Every step of the wretched being was accomplished with difficulty and pain, but, as if hunger-goaded, he kept on his miserable way with purblind eyes fixed upon the stake to which was tied the unsavoury meat. At length he reached it. and dropping on his knees, began ravenously to devour the heap of refuse like a famished dog—say rather like a hog—for a dog would have helped himself with his paws, but this loathsome creature, holding his crooked fingers interlocked behind his back, rooted like a swine, though obliged every moment to desist by reason of his dreadful cough. Presently, his stomach's craving somewhat appeased, he attacked the flesh tied to the stake, which he worried and tore in a fashion which made the wonder-stricken Frenchmen sick to behold. The disgusting appearance, the wolfish appetite, the utter brutalization of the hapless creature, were revolting to the last degree, and yet, as if fascinated, the two observers lost not a detail of the horrid sight, their attention being so completely engrossed that the advance of two others of their species was unnoted until they stood beside them.
The salutation, uttered by Naku-roa, startled them considerably, but making haste to return it, they eagerly enquired of him, through Arnaud, who was his companion, the meaning of the sickening spectacle. And then they learned that this was but an instance—common to every kainga—of the most dreaded and dreadful form of the tapu; its unclean form. This famished, friendless, semi-idiotic creature was a tender of corpses, and as such debarred from all human associations, shunned as a leper, regarded as an outcast, precluded from ever again taking a place among his kind, forbidden even the consolation of a dog; for his touch was pollution, nay more, it was death, and life was too short for the ceremonies necessary to his purification. His very food he must gnaw like a brute, lest his unclean hands should sign his own death warrant. Death, one might suppose, would have been a longed-for climax to such a catalogue of woes, but such a death the Maori was from infancy taught to tremble at as the most terrible of all. Hands corpse-polluted would bewitch whatever they touched. Food so contaminated would, if eaten, evolve a progeny of imps in the stomach of the eater, and to be gnawed to death by devils was a possibility the bravest and most miserable alike shuddered at.
The captain was unutterably shocked, and with many a ‘Man Dieu!’ page 121 he expressed his abhorrence of the superstitious inhumanity of a people who could devise a law so barbarous in its operation.
Perhaps it was fortunate that the impulsive commandant could not express himself in Maori, since Naku-roa, to whom his voluble French was gibberish, looked both puzzled and offended at his emphatic gestures of dissent and disapproval, while Arnaud, with unruffled aspect, retailed in smooth accents the information supplied by the young chief, who evinced a lofty wonder that a creature so vile should awaken any interest in rangatira pakehas.
But Monsieur d'Estrelles was even more moved than the captain.
‘Pardieu!’ he cried, ‘what a horrible fate. To think that any human being should descend to such a pitch of degradation! And what a life! Why, the very thought of it gives me the vapours. To think that even a savage should be so saturated with d——d superstition as to live it, or hesitate to cut it short with his own hands. Why, I'd hang, drown, burn myself alive sooner than endure from day to day such misery. Pardieu! I should. To think that any fool should be so afraid to die! Why, if I believed in hell—which the devil himself shall never make me—I'd choose it in preference. Pardieu! ‘I should,’ and the gay epicure shivered with real horror at the very thought of such unmitigated woe. Then, seeing Du Fresne somewhat impressed by his unusual excitement, for ordinarily he affected a supercilious indifference of demeanour, he rallied himself, and recovering with a forced laugh, said:
‘Let us get out of this, Du Fresne. The gloom and horror of this accursed place is enough to give one the blue devils.’
He did not know that, furtively, as a cat watches her prey, his valet was observing him, nor hear the silently-uttered phrase. ‘C'est bien, Monsieur,’ or he might have carried away additional food for uncomfortable reflection.
113 A violent delirium with tremors induced by chronic alcoholism.
[Note added by Vicki Hughes as annotator]