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Utu: A Story of Love, Hate and Revenge

Chapter XXIX. The Exploring Party—Native Spies—The Sacred Grove—Breaking the Tapu

Chapter XXIX. The Exploring Party—Native Spies—The Sacred Grove—Breaking the Tapu.

In the early grey of the following morning the Captain s boat, with the exploring party, came softly alongside the landing place at Motu Arohia, where it had been arranged that Monsieur d'Estrelles should meet them. The moon had but just disappeared, and in less than half an hour day would break. Meanwhile, the light shed by the quiet stars was of the faintest. D'Estrelles had promised to be in waiting, but he was not there, and though all peered their hardest into the dusk around, not a sign of his approach could be detected. They waited awhile, not venturing to speak: they whistled softly, daring the risk; they grumbled audibly, growing impatient; but still he came not. At last the Captain, in subdued tones, full of vexation, gave the order to start.

‘If we wait any longer,’ he said, we may abandon the journey, and page 141 it is unlucky to turn back. What can have detained D'Estrelles? It is too inconsiderate of him. Give way, men. ‘Tis almost day, and not for worlds would I let the natives catch us trying to steal a march on them.’

The boat sped away from the island, the regular dip of the oars the only audible sound until they were about half-way up the stream which formed the highway to Takori's kainga, when a gentle sough rustling through the foliage on either hand spoke of the dawn, and a second or two later shrill cries of ‘Kaka! Kaka!’ rang through the forest, momentarily startling the whole party.

‘Give way, boys.’ again urged the commandant. ‘There strike the native clock.* We shall have the whole hapu about us directly.’

Swiftly the men plied their oars, and keeping as much as possible under cover of the abundant foliage which garnished the bank, the boat shot past the kainga, in which not a sign of life was visible to the keenly observant eyes bent upon it.

The possibility of being seen from the pa on the hill did not occur to any of the party, who all drew breath with infinite relief when they found themselves clear out of sight of the scattered whares, on the bank. But from that elevated spot at least one pair of eyes, keen, eager, malevolent, noted with suspicious wonder the stealthy approach and rapid disappearance of the pakeha boat, and Takori—for the eyes were those of the redoubtable chief himself—grasped his club and sprang to his feet as though he had caught the distrusted stranger in some misdeed which demanded utu.

These, however, kept on their way, their Sight hearts rebounding after the recent strain, and their merry voices waxing louder as they got further and further away from human habitations in blissful ignorance that a fleet canoe paddled by several dark silent figures followed in their wake, and that when they landed every step of their way was dogged by the tireless feet of native spies. Not venturing to light a fire, they breakfasted on cold meats with appetites sharpened by the morning breeze, and then began the business of the day, the prospecting, the industrious search for indications, however faint, of the existence of gold. But as the reader may not be endowed with the preternatural patience which carried the wondering spies through that long day, he shall be spared needless detail. Enough that the Frenchmen's labour was, like virtue, its own reward. As the afternoon waned, the more mercurial of the party, growing somewhat weary of their unproductive toil, took to botanizing by way of a change, and found their new occupation so engrossing that unawares they wandered gradually quite out of hearing of their companions. Struck, at length, by the utter

* The cry of the kaka was with the ancient Maori the signal to rise.

page 142 silence and solitude around, they were on the point of retracing their steps, when one cried:

‘Is not that a palisading showing redly between the trunks of those trees there?’

A palisading in the deep recesses of the forest seemed an improbability, but all admitted that the object pointed out looked like nothing else. A few steps forward would solve the question and satisfy their curiosity, and these were soon taken, to the unutterable dismay of such of the spies as had tracked the wanderers. Their instructions were not to lose sight of the pakehas, but although they had followed like shadows, they had done so latterly with a shrinking dread which almost palsied them, for every step brought them nearer the sacred grove which formed their hapu's thrice tapued place of sepulture, a place no human consideration would have induced them voluntarily to enter. When, peering through the dense undergrowth, they saw the strangers walk boldly up to the dark red* palisading, and, undaunted by its sanctity, proceed to scale it, all their self-restraint was needed to keep back the cry of horror which rose to their lips.

Unconscious alike of their proximity and of the character of the enclosure, the vivacious Frenchmen scrambled over the fence, not without some difficulty, for it was of considerable height, and chattering volubly, lost no time in gratifying their curiosity, now thoroughly aroused. Once within the sacred precincts, a singular scene presented itself to their wondering view. The palisading surrounded a grove of karaka—the beautiful New Zealand laurel—whose sliming foliage in contrasted finely with the dark red colouring of a multitude of carved images, of the same grotesquely repulsive character as those about the kaingas. These were of many shapes and sizes, from the squat half-length to monstrous statues ranging up to forty feet. Their number was legion; every available space bristled with them. They were uniformly red, and all of surpassing ugliness, despite their fine and elaborate carving. Great eyes of pawa133 shell leered through the greenery; protruding tongues mocked in the open; from the ground frightful abortions grimaced; from aloft giant caricatures glared at the too curious strangers. Above, beneath, on every hand, the red monstrosities obtruded themselves, always with staring shell eyes and out-hanging tongues, until, what with the silence and gloom, the volatile strangers felt their inquisitive ardour something damped. Still, disinclined to go back to their comrades only half-informed upon the features of the singular place, they resolved on a closer inspection, and the distended orbs of the spies—now crouched tremblingly on all fours peering intently between the chinks of the palisading—beheld them scatter themselves with sacrilegious temerity about the sacred enclosure.

* Red I was the sacred colour of the Maori.

page 143 Tiny red houses, not unlike dovecots, perched on tall poles: odd-shaped wooden cases resembling two ends of a canoe conjoined, placed on high stagings, and here and there amid the branches of the karakas, aroused curiosity as to their purpose; but not a sound or sign of life appeared to elucidate the mystery. One of the more reckless of the intruders suggested climbing a pole, or at any rate a staging, in order to examine the contents, if any, of the singular objects on top of them. The rest, however, felt that such an act would be easier performed than its traces concealed, and as a compromise it was determined to take down a canoe-shaped case which they had espied resting on the strong boughs of a tree close beside them, as, when replaced, possible damage in opening would be concealed by the thick foliage. With great care and infinite pains this was done, the spies in speechless horror watching. The thing appeared to be actually formed of the two ends of a canoe bound together and smeared all over with red paint. To unwind the interminable flax bandages occupied considerable time, and the sun was very low, but these earnest enquirers having gone so far, were not to be deterred now by any consideration. A loud vivat signalized the unwinding of the last band, and then the two halves were drawn apart. The Frenchmen, with beaming eyes and smiling lips, bent to gaze, but on the instant their smiles froze, their eyes dilated, and their bodies stiffened into obtuse angles, for there on the ground before them squatted a veritable Maori warrior! A chief, too! That was evident in the texture of the wrapper enshrouding him, the feathers adorning his top-knot, the quality of his ornaments, and more than all by his mere pounamu , clear as glass, save for certain lovely cloudings towards its centre. That mere at once awakened the cupidity of the only one of the party not too scared to mark its beauty, and he secured it a little later. But the chief? What did he there? and was he asleep, that his eyes were shut so fast, or—was he—was it possible that he was dead, and this—this place—a repository of corpses? The thought was awful. The fearful silence, the intense gloom, the damps of approaching night combined with it to give each one the shivers, and as they stood there quaking harsh screams awakened the forest echoes, and they clutched each other's garments convulsively with starting eyes. But it was only the kakas uttering their sunset notes.
‘For God's sake let us put the thing back and get out of this inferna place!’ cried one excitedly, and then, with nervous lingers they essayed the task of replacing the fastenings, for beyond a doubt that silent figure, still so lifelike, was dead. The odour rising to their shrinking nostrils was proof enough, and now, as they wound and. wound those. everlasting bands, it seemed as if the air had all at once become

Short club of a rare greenstone, highly prized.

page 144 miasmatic. All the silent inhabitants of the gruesome place must be exuding putrescence. The thought quickened their trembling digits, if it did not add to the exactitude of their work. But they had not time to be precise; their chief thought was to get away from a spot suddenly become loathsome. However, they found that to get the novel coffin up the tree was a task which trebled in difficulty that of getting it down. In fact it was, in the absence of ladders or tackle of some kind, an impossibility. In their hurry to take it down they had not foreseen this. What was to be done? But the had not time to deliberate. They must go if they would not be lost in the dense bush, a climax to their day's adventures not unlikely as it was; they must go, and leave the thing where it stood, Stay. Happy thought! Turn it over on its side, so. Now it will be supposed to have fallen from the tree; been shaken out in a gale—what not? Vivat! And now over the palisading. Quick! and away to the rendezvous, but mind, not a word to the commandant. Haste! haste! But see, there is the moon uprising yonder. Hail, silver Queen! We shall not be lost after all, mes amis. Vivat!

* * * * * * * * * *

The spies, aghast with horror, aflame with wrath at the desecration of their holiest place, saw not the closing act. At the kaka's screech they had sped away, not daring to linger after sunset; and when, some hours later, the Captain's boat glided past the kainga, it lay sleeping in the moonlight silent as the sacred grove in the heart of the forest.

133 Abalone shellfish, known as paua.

[Note added by Vicki Hughes as annotator]