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Amongst the Maoris: A Book of Adventure

Chapter XIII

page 125

Chapter XIII.

Jack Stanley Gets Into Trouble.

You may be sure that the travellers were up early on the following morning. There was not much inducement to prolong their sleep under the very unpleasant circumtances in which they were placed, and Colonel Bradshaw and his companions strolled round the settlement whilst waiting the preparation of breakfast.

The old to hunga still kept his evil eye upon them; and they had not walked many yards from the cooking-place, when they perceived him squatted among some trees near, evidently observing their movements.

“I wonder which of us it is he has fallen in love with?” said Jack carelessly.

“Not you, my fine fellow,” answered the Colonel, laughing. “There is no love lost between him and you, I am sure. I believe it is you he is looking at, Jack.”

“If he looks much longer, I will make a face at him,” page 126 said Jack; “so come along, sir, and let me get out of the way of temptation as soon as possible.”

They all laughed and moved on, and the next moment forgot all about the old priest.

In one corner of the pah there was an erection, made of sticks and surrounded with a wooden palisade. This place seemed filled with the most dreadful rubbish—old rotten garments or mats made of flax, feathers of warriors, and, amongst other things, an old broken canoe and spears and arrows.

“Why,” said Jack, “here seems to be the public dusthole.” As he spoke, he leant his arms upon the top of the palisade, and said to Bernard, “What is that round thing, Hope? There, close to those old feathers! Good gracious, how horrid! I do believe it is a skull.”

“No doubt of it,” answered Bernard, “and there is another. Why, Jack, the place is full of human bones. Look there again; there is a head with the flesh still partly on it. No wonder there is such a stench.”

“Really, the whole village smells so insufferably that, until you mentioned it, I had not observed that the stench had increased,” said Jack. “What an opportunity for the Sanitary Commissioners! I wonder now if typhoid fever is frequent in such a place as this?”

All this while Jack had been leaning his arms upon the palisade until the discovery of the human remains, when he started back in horror, and in so doing a piece of the wood, which was very rotten, gave way, and fell inward page 127 upon the heap, taking with it some old weapon which had been hung upon the top. At the same moment the old tohunga stepped forward, talking loudly and gesticulating furiously, and Colonel Bradshaw also joined Bernard and Jack.

“What are you about? What have you been doing?” he asked. “I hope you have not touched anything?”

Then turning to the native priest, he spoke to him. Then again to Jack, “You have not touched anything, have you?”

“I knocked something down, that is all. I threw down a piece of the palisade and that affair there,” said Jack, pointing to the spear.

“It is my fault,” said the Colonel. “I should not have left you; but I forgot we were so near the place. I am very sorry it should have happened so.”

“Why? what is the matter?” asked Bernard, who was surprised that the old priest still continued muttering and grumbling.

“This is their sacred place,” explained Colonel Bradshaw. “You ought not to have touched it. I promised for you that you should not desecrate any of their consecrated or tapu properties.”

“But we did not do any harm,” said Bernard. “It was not Jack's fault that the palings gave way.”

“It is all my fault,” said the Colonel, in a vexed tone. “I ought to have told you. It is very unfortunate, and we will leave this with as little delay as possible.”

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“The sooner the better,” said Jack, “if we do not give ourselves up victims to cholera or something as bad. But, sir, do tell me what can induce these people to throw human heads and bones into a general dust-heap. What do you mean by a sacred place?”

“Stoop down and look at that row of heads at that side,” said Colonel Bradshaw.

Bernard and Jack examined more closely the objects which had previously given them such disgust. At the farther palisade there was ranged a row of heads, with their mouths so stretched that they were made to look as if grinning from ear to ear. There were chests and muskets and different articles of civilized production, which, it was to be presumed, had once belonged to, and been valued by, the dead. At one corner were pans of water and food.

“What can those be for?” asked Jack Stanley, upon whom the sight appeared to have a greater effect than upon Bernard. He spoke in a low voice, for to him there was something solemn as well as terrible in the scene.

“They are meant as food and refreshment for the dead chief,” answered Colonel Bradshaw. “The Maoris maintain, and, I presume, believe, that at night the spirit of the departed returns to eat the food left for him.”

“What a very material idea!” said Jack.

“Perhaps the old tohunga could throw a little light on the way in which the food disappears if he chose,” observed Bernard.

page 129

“Heathenish ideas are generally very material; it is not to be supposed that mere natural intellect can ascend to anything higher. Remember what very human gods in all their weaknesses and their passions they of the classical mythology were.”

“And what is that for?” asked Jack, indicating a small canoe, with its sail and its paddles in it.

“That is for the spirit of the dead man to find its way to the New Zealand heaven or Paradise.”

“How strange!” said Bernard. “It sounds like an idea from the Greek mythology.”

“Of that ‘grim ferryman’ the poet speaks of. Yes; it is the same story of Charon and the river Styx,” said Colonel Bradshaw. “But, if you will observe, all mythologies are very similar in their leading incidents, and I believe myself that they all have their foundation in truth.”

“How, sir?” asked Bernard.

“Almost if not all mythologies speak of a Deluge in consequence of the wickedness of the world at the time of its destruction. Every one has its strong man, whether called Khasind, or Hercules, or the Eastern fellow (whose name I forget): they are but different legends of the real Samson. Each has—which is the most remarkable feature in all mythology—a great regenerator of the world, who once lived a blameless life upon the earth, was misunderstood, treated with contempt, his doctrines rejected; and who was removed from a world which was unworthy of page 130 him, with the promise of revisiting it some day, and bringing to the souls of men a reign of happiness and peace. Hiawatha in the American prairies, Frithiof in the Northern regions, and in our own Britain Arthur, are merely all the same person, and are all corruptions of the Great Regenerator of the world, who shall surely some day come again, and bring a time of happiness and peace.”

“It never occurred to me before,” observed Bernard, “but it makes mythologies very much more interesting.”

“The more you look into them, the greater the likeness will appear. The character and the whole story of Arthur has always seemed too pure to be a merely human legend: his long-suffering patience with his twelve knights; their want of appreciation of his superiority; his betrayal by his dearest and closest friend, Lancelot; his continual warring with evil, which, according to the human tradition, takes the form of his earthly enemies—the heathen; his being left alone at the last to die, forsaken by all his folowers but one; and his dying promise of returning when the world would be more fitted to understand him. You may remember the incident of his sword being thrown into the water and refusing to sink, as if intended to imply the imperishable nature of the warfare which he had carried on of Truth against Error; and also, that when Bevis returned to where he had left his master dying, Arthur's body was not to be found: he had been carried away, or had ascended with his body, and will page 131 come again as he was then. Surely that must remind us of a corresponding fact.”

“But,” observed Jack, “I can never understand at what time Arthur is supposed to have lived. We usually think of him as dressed in plate-armour.”

“The legend of Arthur was told or sung centuries before plate-armour was worn, Jack. But even then, cannot you see the poetry of the idea? The Bible speaks of the ‘armour of God’—meaning by the expression all the panoply of the Christian virtues; and Arthur, as the perfect man, was fully armed.”

“Then you look upon it all as no more than a joke. I half thought that Arthur really lived,” said Jack.

“I do not look upon it at all as a joke, but as a heathen version of the truth. No doubt the facts told us in Scripture reached even to heathen countries, if, indeed, the Gospel was not actually preached in them.”

“No one seems to take any care of this dreadful-looking place, notwithstanding they esteem it sacred,” said Jack Stanley, glancing round still at the tapu yard with a sort of fascination for the horrible scene, in spite of the smell of which he had so much complained. “Look here! the clothes are worn to rags, and fluttering in the wind. The whole thing is the picture of desolation.”

“None of the natives would dream of coming within reach of this tapu place by yards, with the exception of the priests,” said the Colonel.

“What does ‘tapu’ mean?” Bernard asked.

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“‘Sacred,’ I presume.

“They have a somewhat different idea of what is sacred to what we have,” said Bernard. “We make our memorials to the dead as imperishable as possible; they appear to go into the other extreme, and submit them to everything that is likely to induce decay.”

“Oh, dear,” said Jack Stanley, “the sight of these things brings back to my mind all sorts of remembrances about baked New Zealanders' heads, and horrors that I used to hear of. I have a vague recollection of having, as a child, been taken to some show at a fair, where a man, covered with tattoo, performed a fancy dance with an accompaniment of yells; and baked heads were handed round for examination. I had forgotten about it until now. Tell us more about this horrid custom, sir.”

“Not now, Jack,” answered Colonel Bradshaw; “we will talk it over after we have left these horrid objects behind us; not in their presence.”

“It makes me sick to look at those grinning heads,” said Jack. “Cannot we move on at once? I quite long to be again out in the fresh wholesome air. I feel as if I could not breathe in this place. I am sure I shall dream of that charnel-house.”

“No, I do not think we can, Jack,” said Colonel Bradshaw. “They expect us to stay and eat with them, and it will not do to offend them; but we will go as soon as we can, depend upon it.”

Without intending to hurt the feelings of the Maoris, page 133 Jack Stanley found it quite impossible to take any part in the morning meal which they had prepared. He could not dispossess his mind of the remembrance of the tapu enclosure and its ghastly contents; and he hastily rose from the ground and walked away. Such a thing as turning sick at a bad smell was incomprehensible to the Maoris, and they received Colonel Bradshaw's excuses for his friend with evident incredulity and amusement.

After many delays the Colonel and Bernard joined Jack, and they started on their way once more, bidding farewell with very small regret to the pah. Their hands were wrung heartily by the chief and the rangatiras or gentlemen of the place, who walked with the travellers some distance out of the village. Then as, having parted with them, they watched their retreat, as a last mark of respect and affection they gave a most hideous and prolonged squeal as a sort of benison upon the departing guests.

Jack Stanley's spirits rose in preportion to his previous depression as soon as they were out of sight of the settlement, and he talked and laughed incessantly. Through the greater part of that day they pushed on, and, as evening closed in sat down in a most exhilarated state to rest and cook some food, which during their march they had procured with their guns.

“Where is Karee?” demanded Colonel Bradshaw of one of the guides, as, looking round, he noticed that one of their number was missing.

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“Gone the other way, round by river to fetch water,” answered the man quietly; only he did not speak near such good English as I have put in his mouth.

Karee was some time before he returned, and, when he did, seemed unduly warm and hurried. But no one asked him any questions as he brought the water with him; and, before another hour had passed, all the party were apparently asleep for the night.

How long he had been unconscious Jack did not know. He was roused from the deep slumber into which he had fallen by a large bony hand being pressed upon his mouth; he endeavoured to start to his feet, but the effort was of no avail; both they and his hands were already securely tied with ropes of flax. He very soon found that struggling was perfectly useless. By the light of the moon he could see three or four dark native faces bending over him, and a figure standing in front, in whose hands rested a huge war-club, which Jack instinctively guessed would, without much hesitation on the part of its owner, descend upon his head if he made any resistance.

One glance was sufficient to show him all these details —he had not time for much more than a glance—for almost simultaneously with his awakening a large and filthy blanket was thrown over his head, and bound so tightly across his face as almost to stifle him; and he felt himself raised from the ground upon the shoulders of some men, who set off, carrying him he knew not whither, at a brisk trot.