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Amongst the Maoris: A Book of Adventure

Chapter XI

page 108

Chapter XI.

A Night In A Native Pah.

A Few days after this the travellers arrived at a native village or pah. They were aware of its vicinity for some little time previously by the variety of sounds and smells coming from it, and the smoke arising from the fires, for it was cooking-time. As they neared the pah the Maori attendants ran forward, announcing the coming of the Pakeas or Europeans, with long flattering titles attached to their names—titles of their own invention. Colonel Bradshaw seemed well known by the Maoris of the neighbourhood, and no sooner did he step into the radius of the village than the chief came forward to meet him. First he violently shook hands with him; then turning to Bernard and Jack, he went through the same ceremony with them. Neither of the guests objected to this mode of greeting; but when the chief, not content with shaking hands, proceeded to rub his nose against that of Colonel Bradshaw, Jack exclaimed,

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“By George! I hope he is not going to do the same to all of us;” and Colonel Bradshaw burst into uncontrolable laughter at the expression of Jack's face, as he found that his fears were not unfounded, and that he was obliged to submit to the process. Bernard was the next victim, and he, with a much better grace, allowed himself to be saluted.

“Is this absolutely necessary?” asked Jack, when he had partially recovered from the effects of the affectionate greeting of the chief. “How often shall we have to be rubbed? If frequently, I vote we go on our way.”

“I expect that will do for the present,” said Colonel Bradshaw, who was shaking hands violently with many others who came up, and then passed on to Bernard and Jack. “You are not expected to rub noses with the subordinates, and we must take it as it is intended—as a mark of great respect and friendship.”

The Maoris laughed aloud as they shook hands with the Europeans. All the men were frightfully tattooed, their faces being seamed and scarred all over, so as to disfigure completely whatever of good looks they may originally have had: though beauty is very unusual amongst the Maories even without tattoo.

They were mostly dressed in flax mats, which, as we see them, are nice, clean, fresh-looking things, but upon the person of a Maori are dirty and frowsy, and anything but fresh; but some of them were adorned with blankets, which were a degree more dirty than the mats. Their page 110 hair, with some, hung down their backs in elf-locks; with others, twined up on end, like hearth-brooms; and in either case it was thick with a sort of pomade of grease overlaid with dust.

There was an old man decorated with a pair of trousers, made in the European fashion, though I think no London or Paris tailor would have disputed the making of them. They were of a very large size check pattern, and, being also much too big for their wearer, were confined round the waist with a belt of flax. He was a very vicious-looking old person, and his dignity, or, perhaps it was his unpleasant temper, did not allow him to come forward in the genial manner that had been evinced by the rest of the men, but induced him to stand on one side, looking at the proceedings, and scowling in a malevolent manner.

“Look, sir!” exclaimed Jack Stanley, impulsively and unthinkingly. “Look at that horrible old object! I dare say he thinks himself very attractive. What an old toad!”

“Hush! hush!” said Colonel Bradshaw, hastily. “My good fellow, do not speak so loud.”

“Why, the old gentleman cannot understand me, can he?” asked Jack, in a more subdued tone. “I did not intend to hurt his feelings; but really he is too much. Look at the expression of his tattooed old face!”

“He may not understand your words; but any one can understand the expression of your face,” said Colonel page 111 Bradshaw: “you have a very transparent countenance, Master Jack, and some of these priests are wonderfully sharp and observant.”

“Is he a preist?”

“He is the tohunga, as the heathen priests are called. I can assure you he is a person of great importance; not in his own opinion only. Even the chief stands very much in awe of him, because of his supposed power to work evil upon those who offend him.”

“Well, he looks as if he could work any amount, if it depended upon himself; I think I never saw a worse countenance. You must agree with me, sir, that he is a hideous old toad,” said Jack.

“Oh, I am quite of your way of thinking,” answered the Colonel; “but one must not always say what one thinks.”

“I do not much care if he did understand; at any rate, I am not afraid of him. He may curse me as much as he likes, if it amuses him to do so; but I think he ought to be told occasionally what an old wretch he looks,” said Jack, laughing immoderately, as he observed the eyes of the tohunga fixed upon himself.

“It is always better not to offend people, if it can be avoided,” said Colonel Bradshaw, gently. “He is, in reality, the principal man in the settlement, so I hope he did not understand what you said.”

“I thought the other fellow who came forward first was the chief. By-the-bye,” exclaimed Jack, suddenly, with page 112 a look of horror, “I hope to goodness that we shall not be invited to rub noses with that old rascal! I positively will not do it, sir!”

“No, no, Jack,” the Colonel answered; “never fear: the tohunga will not lower his dignity by offering such an honour to so insignificant a person as yourself. Yes, you are right: the other one, with the parrot's feathers in his hair, is the chief; but the chief, even, has to submit to the power of the tohunga. It is the old story of the Dark Ages over again: kingly power must give way to ecclesiastical authority, however arbitrary it may be.”

Shortly after the arrival of the travellers, a dreadful noise arose throughout the pah, more like the howling of some wild beasts than anything else.

To the astonishment of Bernard and Jack, they found it proceeded from some women, who were seated upon the ground by a large fire. These women shrieked and yelled, sometimes in a high pitch enough to split one's ears, then, descending the scale, they would mutter and wail, the tears all the while streaming down their cheeks, while they wrung their hands as if in despair.

“What is the matter? Poor things! what can have happened?” said Bernard, as once more the howls and squeals became louder and fiercer. But to his surprise, Colonel Bradshaw took no notice of their grief, but looked on with a smile. “I am afraid we have arrived at an inopportune moment: they would, I dare say, rather be alone,” said Bernard, again.

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“Why, all this yelling is in honour of our arrival,” said Colonel Bradshaw, laughing.

One of the women, who proved to be the wife, or one of the wives, of the chief, and who was nursing a small pig in her arms as a European would nurse a little dog, stopped howling for a moment, laughed heartily, and said something about the strangers, for the words “te pakea” were audible; then, resuming her duties, she yelled and squalled worse than ever.

“Are they vexed, then, at our coming?” asked Bernard, “or why do they weep and lament in that distressing way?”

“That is all rejoicing,” answered Colonel Bradshaw. “I confess I shall be glad when it comes to an end, for it is by no means musical. It is what they call tangi in their language.”

During the time that the women tangied, the men stood silent, looking perfectly wretched, as if they were going to be hanged on the spot. When at length it was come to an end, to the intense satisfaction of Jack Stanley and Bernard, the chief asked them to partake of some food, and to remain in the pah for the night, which was fast coming on. They therefore withdrew, which they had not thought respectful to do during the ceremony of welcome, feeling very glad of rest after their long day's march.

There was plenty to interest them in watching the various inmates of the pah. The men came and stood near to gaze at the strangers, while the women less openly did the same. Merry little children were up to all sorts page 114 of games and fun, and Jack Stanley found himself after a time submitting to liberties from a pretty little brown-eyed boy of three or four years old. The women were cooking food at a large fire close to him, and he watched with some curiosity the novel mode of cooking, which he now saw for the first time. There was a rude fireplace made by digging a large hole in the ground; into this were placed large stones, and the fire was lighted upon the top of them. After a time, when the stones were redhot, some of them were taken out by one of the women, she using two sticks as tongs. Then she threw a quantity of cold water upon the blazing embers, and placed potatoes upon the top of them. She next covered the potatoes with green leaves and a dirty-looking cloth; then she poured upon the top of the whole a quantity of cold water until the tent was filled with the steam; lastly, she threw a cloth over the whole. Shortly after this arrangement a most disgusting smell filled all the air around, which smell appeared to please the Maoris greatly. Jack rose and sought the open air, and testified his intention of dining al fresco, at the same time saying that he would prefer some of their own provisions to anything prepared by the natives.

“Oh, you may safely eat the potatoes: they are all right,” said Colonel Bradshaw; “but, whatever you think of the Maori arrangements, don't make remarks aloud within hearing: some of them will understand you; and avoid turning up your nose, my boy.”

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“I did not know my nose turned up so easily, sir,” said Jack, laughing. “I feel disposed to wish that I had no nose at all under present circumstances. What is that abominable stench?”

“That is the favourite delicacy of the Maoris—putrid maize. They soak it in water until it is in a state of decay, and then they thoroughly enjoy it, as you will see presently.”

“There is no accounting for taste. I hope their potatoes are not putrid also.”

“Not on this occasion, but I have met with them. Under the putrescent form they are very much esteemed, and are made into small cakes, and eaten hot. I confess that they are really enough to turn any man's stomach, the smell is so fearful.”

“I think this will be enough for me for the present,” answered Jack, glancing towards the hut's entrance, where a woman was pouring out of a large iron pot, a thick stuff like gruel, made of the rotten maize corn, the effluvium of which was wafted in steamy clouds to where he and the Colonel stood.

“Well, we must shut our nostrils, and go and dine. This is nothing to what you will meet with in some places, where they give you a repast of decayed shark's flesh. Travellers must not be too particular.”

“I remember once hearing a gentleman—he was a captain in the navy—say,” observed Bernard, who had joined them unseen, “that he made a point of tasting page 116 everything that was set before him. He had eaten bird's nests and puppy dogs in China; horses and rats in France during some extremity; slugs and snails in some other part of the world; and rattlesnakes in America. I wonder if he would have partaken of our friend's stinking shark or putrid maize?”

“No doubt he would: if there were not some such bold spirits in the world, how should we ever discover any new food? how would all the various articles of food have been discovered? He must have been a courageous man who first swallowed a raw oyster. But the Maoris are no worse than their neighbours, the Australians,” added Colonel Bradshaw, “for they hang up the kangaroo meat until the maggots drop from it.”

“That may be from motives of economy,” said Jack, “for I have heard that the Australian natives eat maggots also.”

“And not they only, perhaps; for I have heard of an old Irishwoman or Scotchwoman who was in the habit of salting down a barrel full of slugs, upon which she and her children lived during the winter.”

“Oh, come, sir!” exclaimed Jack.

“I'll tell you what I once saw myself, and then you may call out, ‘oh, come!’ if you will, Master Jack. Now, this is a fact. I was once walking in the country with a Scotchman, a bailiff, and as we walked and talked, every now and then the man stooped and picked something from the grass by the side of the hedge, and ate it. It page 117 was too early in the year for blackberries, and there were no wild strawberries about; so I wondered what he could be putting into his mouth, and I looked next time he stooped to find out what he was eating. He picked up one of those large black slugs we find so frequently in England, about the size of leeches, and swallowed it.”

“No!” said Jack, with a look of most intense disgust. “What did you say to him, sir?”

“I said nothing; but it made me feel rather sick. But when, somewhat later, this same man began scratching out the nest of a field-mouse, and deliberately eating the young ones, fur and all, I could stand it no longer, but wished him good morning. But after all, as the ship's steward said, ‘it is only prejudice:’ they may be ‘uncommon good.”’

Colonel Bradshaw ceased speaking, as some of the Maoris came to them to intimate that dinner was ready; and when the friends sat down to the meal, notwithstanding Jack's fears, they found that the potatoes were first-rate.