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Utu: A Story of Love, Hate and Revenge

Chapter XXXVII. Crozet's Distrust—Venturesome Spirits—In Mortal Peril

page 175

Chapter XXXVII. Crozet's Distrust—Venturesome Spirits—In Mortal Peril.

The non-appearance of the Captain's boat at the close of the day occasioned no misgiving on board the Marquis de Castries, it being supposed that the fascinations of a sport of which the commandant was known to be fond, had induced him to prolong his stay with the native. But Lieutenant Crozet, on hearing of it next morning, shook his head sagely, and only hoped that his superior would ‘never have occasion to rue his unguarded trust.’ The continued absence of Monsieur d'Estrelles also occasioned the lieutenant some uneasiness, although he had no great liking for that personage, and his discomfort was increased when somebody whispered that the sulky giant, Pierre rouge, was also missing. Great laxity of discipline existed, and everybody came and went pretty much at pleasure, living more in the kaingas than in ship board, therefore it did seem a little queer that no one had come across either of the persons named for several days, and the lieutenant in his distrust was quite ready to believe that they had been made away with by native hands.

‘I don't like it,’ he said, ‘the crew have far too much licence. Such excessive familiarity is sure to end in mischief, and, pardieu! it's my belief that mischief is already brewing. At any hour we may be ordered to weigh anchor, for if we come loggerheads with these brown devils the sooner we bout ship the better. I'll go ashore myself to day to secure some spars, for it strikes me we'd better make “hay while the sun shines.”’

An hour later a strong body of seamen with the lieutenant leading beached their boat on the mainland, and proceeding some distance into the bush, set to work to fell some slender pines.

While they worked with right good will, lightening their labour by lusty songs, a very different scene was being enacted at the small island of Wai-iti. It will be remembered that here—at the chief Taranui's invitation—the invalided had formed an encampment. All were now convalescent, but still most of them held to their quarters when not on duty, and then their comrades took their places. Hitherto the camp had been as lively as any kainga, for natives of both sexes made themselves very much at home, and kids, curs, and concomitants, swarmed in it. Rut since the fracas ending so unpleasantly for Taranui, not a page 176 brown skin had been within its precincts, and the cheerful froggies were growing doleful in consequence. Syrens and song, caresses and cognac, were equally indispensable to their continued gaiety, and they resolved at last to go up in a body to the kainga, and endeavour to lure at least a few damsels to cheer their solitude. But they found the entrance securely barred against all intruders, and were fain to give up the siege of the gate. But a bright thought struck one of the party.

‘The old devil Taranui is sulking,’ said he, ‘because the captain refused him cognac. Let's take him a couple of bottles. We can make our way in at the back of the pa, and when he sees the cognac he'll be mollified.’

The idea was applauded, and acted upon instanter. Carrying ostentatiously the bottles of cognac and such other gifts as they judged would be acceptable to a sulky savage, these reckless spirits made their way to the rear of the fortress, and passed unhindered into its interior. But inside things wore a strangely altered aspect. A blight seemed to have fallen on the place. Scarcely any male, save the aged and decrepit, were visible, and the wahines, pursuing their domestic duties or squatting sullenly, were apparently stricken with dumbness. No ‘Haere mai’ greeted the ‘weewees.’ The old hags scowled, the younger women looked askance, but no one spoke. But undaunted by their cool reception, the Frenchmen continued to advance, saluting with all their national suavity the frowning fair, and enquiring cheerfully for Taranui.

‘Taranui is in there,’ cried a withered crone, pointing a skinny forefinger to the whare puni; and thanking her politely, they jauntily turned their feet in its direction, stopping, however, whenever they could get speech with the young wahines become all at once so strangely demure. One of their number, a handsome fellow named Henri, had been a prime favourite with the Maori damsels, and some of these, despite their coyness, not wholly proof against his bright eyes and gay audacity, were beguiled into an interchange of civilities. While, therefore, his comrades still bore onwards to the whare puni, Henri remained flirting with the dark-eyed charmers, oblivious, in his pleasure at overcoming their reserve, of the fact that he had been left behind.

The others, meanwhile, passed on chatting blithely, confident of conciliating Taranui, without whose favour they could not, of course, hope to reopen amicable relations with his people. The stillness of the pa, added to the forbidding looks of the women, disconcerted them somewhat, but they were resolved to brazen the thing out, never dreaming of serious hostility. As they neared the whare puni, an old man, approaching by a short cut, spoke some words through the door to those within—a self-appointed messenger no doubt, apprising the chief of their arrival. They nodded thanks as he passed them, to which he responded by shooting out his tongue. And now a hoarse murmur arose within page 177 the building, a confused hum of many voices, a hollow prolonged sough, like the sound of the surf on an exposed sea-shore. The intruders arrested their, steps, seeking each others eyes, as the murmur increased to a roar, and the door of the whare puni, suddenly burst open, revealed two or three score of naked savages, daubed with paint, and fully armed, as though equipped for battle.

The adventurous foreigners were not allowed much time for reflection. A second later an awful Nell arrested the light words on Henri's lips, and wheeling about he saw, to his unutterable dismay, a rain of clubs descending upon the devoted head of his lately so joyous companions. The girls caught their breath, and one, motioning him away, gasped. ‘Haere!

He wavered for a moment, but his comrades were past help. He fancied himself of still unnoticed, and impelled by human nature's strongest instinct, he turned and fled, bounding like a hunted stag to the rear of the pa. A dozen projectiles whizz about his ears ere he has gone as many paces, but they miss their mark, and on like the wind he rushes. A dozen whooping warriors follow, children and curs howl in chorus, beldames yell, and damsels moan. Bedlam seems let loose. Darting like lightning he turns the rear staging, and down the hillside, followed by fleet-footed savages, he careers madly—living for dear life. Close behind him, panting with fury, grasping their clubs, press the pursuers, thirsting for his blood. He has a good start, but they are noted runners, and they press him hard. On, on, he dashes. His head is dizzy, his breath labours, the foremost savage, a muscular fiend—is gaining on him. Haste, Henri, haste! the beach is near, the dancing waves invite thee, thou art a strong swimmer. God help thee if thy pursuer gain on thee another foot! Fly, Henri, fly! The savage presses nearer. See! he raises his club to fell his printing victim—but, ere the blow descends his foot trips and he falls heavily. His fellows stop dead, aghast. Tis an omen of ill! Thank Heaven! Courage Henri, thou art saved.