Utu: A Story of Love, Hate and Revenge
Chapter XXVI. Pierre Rouge—A Native Concert—Two Dusky Charmers—Old Kaitangata's Smoke-Dried Poll
Chapter XXVI. Pierre Rouge—A Native Concert—Two Dusky Charmers—Old Kaitangata's Smoke-Dried Poll.
‘Patience be d——d! Have I not had patience? But 'tis ever so—Always you preach patience, Arnaud. But I want revenge! Revenge! I tell you.’
‘You shall have revenge, Pierre. But are you the only one then? I have promised you yours, but I also. I must have mine—and I am enjoying it. You long to deal your enemy a death blow. I prefer to make his life a hell, and watch him writhe under it. Yet yoy too shall be satisfied, and ere long.’
The red-haired giant, Pierre, a sulky-looking Hercules, muttered an oath.
‘So you have said a dozen times, mon garçon, but it seems no nearer and I tell you I'm getting sick of waiting. When you persuaded me to come out on this voyage of fools, you promised me quick revenge, and gold to boot. As for gold, to all appearance there's none here and vengeance seems no nearer. It strikes me, Arnaud, you're playing double, but if so, have a care, for, par le diable120! I'd as soon throttle you as him any day if I found it so.’
While he was speaking the valet quietly removed his eye-shades, and without a trace of emotion in his thin brown face was looking at him fixedly. Pierre felt the gaze, although his eyes being east, as usual, earthwards, he had not met it.
Involuntarily the ferret eyes were uplifted, and then Arnaud had him at his mercy.
‘He would not esteem it a boon, however,’ muttered Pierre, morosely.
‘He loves life and pleasure too well.’
‘Life and pleasure? Have your eyes, then, become dim since you left la patrie121? Have you not seen him grow thinner day by day. nor marked his glooming eye, his slower step, and sateless thirst for cognac? Are these the signs of life's enjoyment?’
‘Bah! He has been losing lately at play, that's all.’
‘Think you so?’ Then, after a pause, ‘Pierre, have you ever lain awake at night haunted by the memory of your crimes?’
‘Pardieu, no! I'm not such a fool. Perdition122! Let sleeping dogs lie, I say.’
‘But suppose the dogs should awake and bark till they roused you. Suppose they howled at you in the night watches, until you thought each one a fiend sent to torment you before the time. Suppose the voices of those you have betrayed—and perhaps murdered—shrink not, Pierre, you are not the only Cain who walks the earth—suppose these voices mocked your midnight misery, calling upon you ever to meet them at heaven's tribunal, until, spite of your boasted Atheism, you found yourself trembling in abject fear of an Almighty Judge—would you be very happy, Pierre?’
‘Pardieu, no,’ muttered the giant in his throat. ‘But who says Conrad d'Estrelles suffers this?’
‘I do,’ replied the other gravely.
‘And it is your work?’
‘Partly it is mine.’
‘And who has helped you?’
‘I believe you, Arnaud. He looks out of your eyes this minute.’
‘C'est bien, mon ami, Pierre!’
‘There will be a gathering to-night up there at the kainga, a native concert and dance, which will likely see the moon to bed. The captain and others will be there. Can you manage to come with them, think you?’
‘Likely enough, but I want no infernal native music. I had enough of it the day we arrived to last me a lifetime.’
‘Oh, as to that, we are not bound to attend, though you might perchance like their dancing better. But I think I can promise to show you something that will please you better still.’
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As the daylight faded away that evening the youthful inhabitants of Taranui's kainga might have been seen trooping from all directions to the whare matoro.* Lads and lasses of all ages, and not a few of the younger married folks, in single pairs or laughing groups, hurried on bound for one goal, for this was a special occasion, a show night, and their easily excited spirits were bubbling over. The Weewees† were coming to see them dance, to hear them sing. Not merely the Weewees down there at the encampment—most of them tutuas, but the rangatiras, all of them, very many. In honour of the occasion gala garments had been donned, handsomely fringed, brightly bordered; faces had been painted, and heads, ears, and necks of both sexes lavishly bedecked with feathers and flowers, bone and greenstone ornaments. Their treasure boxes must have been ransacked, but among all their gauds never a glitter of gold appeared, nor indeed a trace of any other metal, as the Frenchmen noted, some with sang froid, others with internal disgust.
A lengthened programme had been prepared for the delectation of the strangers, but—as the newspapers say when the reporter has not been round—we have not space for a detailed description, nor indeed would it be discreet, in view of the refined sensibilities of the present day, to describe too minutely the items of an entertainment which consisted but of varieties of the voluptuous Haka124 in all its primitive indelicacy. In some cases youths and maidens danced together, in others the sexes danced separately. Singing of love songs accompanied the dance, the best voices taking the verses, while all joined in the chorus, ‘which consisted of a peculiar noise caused by repeated expirations and inspirations, slapping one hand on the breast, raising the other aloft and making it vibrate with great rapidity, and moving the body in indelicate attitudes.’ Some of the words were of sensual character, others irreproachable, as in this song:
‘Tawera is the bright star
of the morning.
Not less beautiful is the
Jewel of my heart.’
The native music was very simple, and to unaccustomed ears rather monotonous, but many of the singers had sweet voices, and all correct ears for time and tune, and their one instrument, the flute, the best only capable of producing five simple notes, was managed by the players with no little skill.
* Assembly room where the native youth met to sing, dance, and otherwise while away their winter evenings.
† Probably derived from the French affirmative.
By and bye, as the odours within became more oppressive, and the cool moonlit atmosphere without more attractive by contrast, he prevailed upon them to forego the remaining items in favour of a stroll upon the beach, where the gentle lapping of the waves made a music infinitely soothing. As they strolled along in the waning moonlight the merry chatter and frequent laughter of the maidens echoing through the quiet air, two figures pacing to and fro in the shadow of the village palisading watched their motions with something more than casual interest.
‘That gay gallant there seems not to suffer very greatly, mon bon garçon125. growled the sailor, Pierre, to his neighbour, the soft-stepping valet.
‘No, Pierre. He is not without spirit, and makes a brave fight, but a mouse might as well think to escape the claws of its captor, or a snared bird the fowler's net, as he to elude his fate now.’
There was a concentrated hate, a deliberate purpose, in the soft tones of the valet which Pierre had not marked before.
‘What's your grudge against him, my boy?’ he enquired, his gruff tones showing quickened interest. ‘Did he rob you of your sweetheart that you hate him so?’
A quick gasp proved that the query had struck home, but the valet's change of expression passed unnoticed in the gathering gloom, and after a pause he replied coldly:
‘Enough, Pierre, that we both seek vengeance. You have your reasons and I have mine, and both shall be satisfied.’
‘You are as close as an oyster, Arnaud,’ said the other, glumpily. ‘But damn me if I care. He robbed me, anyway, perdition seize him and of something better than a wench. They are easily come by. But goll is not so plentiful—after all my scheming, too, and trouble, coaching page 132 him up. Without me he would have been still a vagrant, for all his cleverness; but I put him in the way of a fortune, only stipulating that we should go halves. I might have demanded more, for without my help he could have done nothing, would have known nothing. But the villain robbed me of my share, secured the booty, and gave me the slip, d——n him! He disguised himself well, pardieu! But he forgot how hate sharpens the eyesight.’
‘As you forget sometimes, Pierre, that but for me you would still have been seeking him.’
‘I don't forget, Arnaud, pardieu! But tell me how came you to know anything of my affairs?’
‘Another time, Pierre. See, those promenaders there are nearly out of sight. Let us be going.’
Monsieur D'Estrelles and his two companions had sauntered chattering along the beach until within sight of the French encampment, and then the girls readily accepted his invitation to go up to his whare for more bonbons. At the door the three lingered awhile watching the young moon drop down behind the horizon, and when its last glimmer died he invited them inside, proceeding himself to light a small lamp upon a stand improvised by the deft-fingered Arnaud, to whose natty care the whare did credit. Soft mats everywhere concealed the earthen floor, while absorbing possible damps, but the furniture was of the simplest. Upon a bunk at the far end a downy bed was heaped with thick rugs, for Monsieur loved to lie soft and warm; but a small table, camp-stool, his travelling case, and the lamp stand were the only other articles, if sundry liqueur bottles and glasses piled on a tray and the tatooed head bracketed to the centre post be excepted. The voluble interest aroused in the lively damsels by old Kaitangata's poll afforded ample subject for jest and laughter, and much grimacing, while from his case Monsieur produced more bonbons. The whare was cool and sweet, but D'Estrelles, who always felt stifled within narrow walls, went to the window and drew back the slide, thus admitting a current of air, whereat the girls exclaimed, for to the Maori fresh air at night was a thing intolerable. He warmed them, however, with a mouthful of diluted cognac after satisfying his own more ardent thirst, and again they fell to discussing the defunct chief's head.
‘Kaitangata's a queer name,’ said the host in very poor Maori. ‘It means manfood, does it not?’
‘Kahore’ (no), quoth the girls, laughing immoderately, and D'Estrelles, out of civility, laughed with them, and then they all stopped suddenly, and stared first at the head and then at each other, for each one could have sworn that the dead head was laughing too—not a laugh full of mirth and melody like their own, but a wheezy, whistling, racked kind of laugh, such as the old sinner's rough throat might have page 133 given forth in life. The girls drew instinctively nearer each other, but D'Estrelles, affecting unconsciousness, asked nonchalantly:
‘What, then, does it mean?’
‘It means man-eater,’ they replied, almost in a whisper, glancing timidly at the skull, as if half-afraid that it had not yet wholly lost its former predilections.
‘Man-eater!’ echoed D'Estrelles. ‘Do your people then really eat human beings?’
With another glance at the head: ‘Kapai te tangata kai,’* they said, and laughed again, very softly this time.
To their unutterable horror their speech was echoed from the tight-drawn lips of the dried face looking down on them. In harsh guttural tones the words came back. ‘Kapai te tangata kai! Kapai! Ha-ha-ha!’ And as the crackling laughter smote on the air, the terrified damsels turned and fled, screaming as if the devil was at their heels.
Monsieur d'Estrelles became pale as death, and trembled visibly, but he stood his ground, with eyes fixed upon the skull, and the yells of the flying girls ringing in his ears.
A few unpleasant seconds passed thus, then gulping down a copious draught of brandy, he stepped up to the centre post, and shaking his fist at old Kaitangata,
‘Devil!’ he cried, ‘I defy thee!’
‘Ha-ha-ha! Ha-ha-ha!’ Again that dreadful laugh echoed through the all but empty whare.
‘Damnation!’ yelled D'Estrelles, as, mad with rage, and bold with brandy, he seized the head and shook it savagely. The thing laughed in his hands, muttering maliciously, ‘Katahi te tangata porangi (what a fool you are)!’
In a paroxysm of fear and fury, and with a string of maledictions, Monsieur flung it violently from him to the farthest end of the whare, and as it fell with a sounding crack, it groaned horribly, muttering, ‘Ka kino ia koe (you are a bad one).’
Monsieur d'Estrelles waited for no more, but rushing from the place, sought in the cool night air some relief to his throbbing brain. As he darted out of the doorway, two figures glided swiftly behind a contiguous hut and silently disappeared into the darkness.
* Man's flesh is very good.
124 Vigorous dances with actions and rhythmically shouted words.
[Note added by Vicki Hughes as annotator]