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Taranaki: A Tale of the War

Chapter XI

page 76

Chapter XI.

“Alas! we were warn'd, but we reck'd not the warning,
Till our warriors grew weak in the day of despair;
And our glory has fled, as the light cloud of morning,
That gleams for a moment, and melts into air.”


We must now for a little follow the steps of our hero, and shift the scene to another country, craving the patience of the indulgent reader for our digression. Far different is the landscape that bursts on our view as we pause on the top of a lofty hill, that with difficulty and toil we rode to, after leaving miles of interminable forest and jungle behind. Everything denotes a tropical climate. A wide extensive plain is before us, stretching away to the sea, from whose bed the glorious sun is now rising. A fresh breeze is blowing from the heaving ocean, and invigorating to us and our weary steeds. Stretching from the heights on which we stand, the view is extensive and diversified; immediately under the brow of the chain of hills several farm-houses and cottages are scattered, presenting an uncommon and curious appearance. The style of architecture might truly be said to be page 77 of the fantastic order, for the roofs of the houses seem covered with figures, whilst each house is surrounded with verandahs most elaborately made of reeds, and highly ornamented in grotesque style. The gardens are neat and trim to exactness, and the hedgerows, cut in every form, give all the farms a quaint and yet pleasing idea of care and industry.

The few labourers seen in the fields and about the houses wear curiously-shaped caps, with turbans, or deep-brimmed straw hats. From the hill we have an extensive view over a wide plain, with a river flowing through it. The country seems low, and easily covered with water, as there are no banks to the river, and the fields alongside are like a swamp, although evidently cultivated, for the fields are all marked out, and several labourers are at work in them. The plain gently rises to the hill we stand on, and in the distance is the sea, the river gradually widening into a large sheet of water as it gains it.

Not far from the shore is an extended line of large ships, whilst an immense number of boats, steamers, and smaller craft are passing to and for and up the river, where there are several landing places built on either side. On the crest of the hills which run along both sides, at several miles distance, are the snow-white tents of a large force, on both sides of the river, and at considerable distance from each other. In one or two of these encampments are seen numerous horses picqueted and trains of guns; it is evidently a large army of horse, foot and artillery, page 78 and the ships line-of-battle men of war. Where, then, are we? By the turbans and glittering dress of those men where the horses are picqueted we recognize Fane's Horse; and on the side of the hill we see the red jackets and white caps of the 99th Regiment, our old friends in New Zealand.

Near to the right of those pretty cottages and farm yards (evidently belonging to the race of Celestials) are the plumes and horses of the King's Dragoon Guards, and further on are others we cannot distinguish. It must be the British force before Pekin! “Talien plains and Talien Bay!”

But let us proceed here: as we ascend the hill is a fine encampment; it is a Regiment of the line under the brow of the hill, before unseen to us: it is in truth Captain St. Pierre's Regiment. Let us enter this large marquee, and enquire for him. We must stop to describe the scene before us.

A large marquee indeed it is, more than double the size of any we ever saw. It forms a splendid apartment; a beautiful table is in the centre, littered with books, maps and engravings. Several officers are sitting round reading and writing; their seats are cane-made lounges; but around in this large apartment, for large it is, are several others, in all sorts of forms and attitudes, lounging on various kinds of easy chairs; whilst, on gorgeous Turkish mats, propped with pillows, two or three are hid away under the drapery of the pink silk curtains that hang so loosely and gracefully around. Several servants in turbans and costly page 79 flowing robes hand round sherbert and iced-wine in large silver goblets. We pass on to where our friend resides, directed by one of those grand cup-bearers. Softly! this is his tent; let us pause and see how our old friend is occupied.

By the side of a small table covered with letters and writings sat our hero, in an undress uniform. But how is he engaged? Can it be that the man who gallantly led his Company at Lucknow and Ghuznee, and but a few hours since we saw leading his gallant corps (for he is now the Major Commanding)—is weeping! But such is the case; with his hand spread over his face, leaning on the table, the tears fall thick and fast on an open letter before him. Alas! what grief is it that so oppresses the manly heart of our friend? Let us look over his shoulder and read that letter, now after many months in our possession. It is dated from New Plymouth, September, 1860, not a year from the time we met him there, so happy amongst his friends, and is from his cousin, Mary St. Pierre. Thus it ran:—

“In my former letter, dear Herbert, I told you of the dreadful fear we had of an outbreak amongst the Natives. Alas! our fears are more than realized. War, with all its horrors, has swept over our favoured land; we are driven from our dear, happy, lovely home; the Retreat is a heap of ashes; our flocks and herds are driven away; all our beautiful gardens destroyed and devastated; and the whole of our farms and page 80 grounds laid waste; ourselves hurriedly hastened into town, are now living in a miserable store. We have but one servant, and my Aunt and I are obliged to assist in every household work. You know I was always strong, and liked to work, but still I feel the change tremendously. The loss of all those elegancies and comforts, that you used to remark and admire, is much felt by me; and if it is thus so by me, what do you suppose must be the trial to our mutual friend Fanny Wellman? for the same fate has befallen Glenfairy; and where you and I used to wander to meet her and stroll over those dear, loved and beautiful grounds, their nice house and gardens are like a barren waste. My brother Charles and Walter Wellman have got Commissions in the Militia, and their duty is so severe,—daily on escorts and every other night on guard,—that you would scarcely know them. They have both been in several of the engagements with the Maories, and Walter Wellman was wounded at the battle of the Waireka Hill, but is now well again. Mr. Wellman bears up but badly against these reverses, and great fears are entertained for his life. The shock has been too great for his delicate constitution, and all that he had heretofore gone through now tells doubly on him; thus poor dear Fanny has even a much harder task to perform than I have, and far greater trials; but still she is ever preaching forbearance and hope to me, even whilst she weeps on my shoulder. But, then, when we are alone, and she can speak of you, the old sweet smile page 81 returns, and she says to me, ‘Oh! write to him, and tell him I am even still the same true one to him.’ You know how devoted she ever was to her most kind father; well, he has discovered your secret, and one or two ‘would-be’ friends have spoken unkindly of you: that you will never return; that, soldier-like, you are heartless and forgetful; and that, now that cares and misfortunes have come, you will never come back. Oh, dear Herbert, this cannot be true of you; and so Fanny ever says, in spite of every counsel or advice, she will not change. Thus, in addition to all the loss and sorrow, and all the toil, anxiety, and constant worry, ever careful and devoted to her dying father, hearing daily reproachful words against you, she bears up heroically, and ever hides her own griefs to console and comfort others. Come, then, my dear cousin, and prove to all that you are our own true-hearted and constant cousin and friend,” &c, &c.

Can we now wonder that the stout heart failed, or that the mortificatin of his honor doubed, and the grief thereby entailed on one he so dearly loved, in addition to all her sorrow, toil, and care, should have caused this grief, for the moment, as he read the foregoing. Quickly, however, tears were dried, and his determination fixed; for by a letter dated that self-same day we read of it, as thus he writes to his mother:—

“Blame me not, dearest mother, if, now that peace is decided, I leave the service. Neither blame me if I do not return to you at once; another and a stronger tie of equal love and duty calls me to the page 82 South, and I must hasten to the loved ones who loved and honored the stranger in their day of prosperity, now sorely afflicted by the rude hand of war and bitter loss and sorrow.

“The papers I forward to you will tell you of the war in Taranaki, which, no doubt, my poor uncle has long since given to you in detail. I must hasten to them and to her to whom I gave my heart's best affections, as I have already told you. I must rescue her, at least, from this sad fate, and bring a loving, lovely daughter to your feet; perchance I can also assist my uncle and cousins, and persuade them to return with me to our old home once more.”