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Hine-Ra, or The Maori Scout: A Romance of the New Zealand War.

Chapter XI. — The Encampment

page 52

Chapter XI.
The Encampment.

The sun shot up like a huge burning shield from his vast bath in the east, and above the serrated peaks of the inland range of volcanic mountains of which the ever-smoking Tongariro and Ruapehu are the crowning glories, into the pure, calm, semi-tropical heavens, on a bright and clear summer morning.

With him came a faint wind that scarcely rippled the surface of the sleeping sea. To the north and east rose, in the distance, glittering like one huge pure crysolite, the monarch of all the north island mountains, the giant Taranaki, whose head, towering 8270ft. above the sea, forms a perfect cone, crowned with a diadem of eternal ice and snow. Between, and stretching away from the blue cliffs of the main land as far as the eye could reach, lay the green, purple, and olive forest—dense, dark, mysterious.

Viewed from the sea, the land showed along curved line of lofty, rocky, broken headlands, with here and there a stretch of shining white sand and shingle beach, on which the surf and heavy ocean rollers broke with an endless boom, like the roll of muffled drums.

Further inland was a partially-cleared expanse of bush land, in which was located a small settlement, consisting of a few rudely-constructed buildings, built for the most part of fern tree stems, and thatched with raupo. Prominent among these, and standing not far from the coast-line, was a rather extensive range of framed buildings of heavy timber, pierced on all sides for the purposes of musketry. Over its main gateway, which faced the sea, drooped and flapped lazily in the faint wind the British Ensign, with its field of bright blue and its gaudy broad cross-bars of red and white. This was the block house, and the head-quarters of the English and colonial forces.

These consisted of a detachment of one of Her Majesty's line regiments, a battery of two field guns, a regiment of colonial infantry, and a company of Ogilvie's horse, in all, with sailors, a force of 1100 men, under the command of General Champion; and were stationed at a spot in the fertile country near Waitotara, about 78 miles from Taranaki, 20 from Patea, and 24 from Wanganui; their object being the reduction of the Wereroa pah, which was held by a strong body of disaffected Maoris.

Behind the building spoken of, the white tents of the troops who formed the encampment were placed in rows with as much regard for order as the nature of the ground would allow; and in rear of all lay an upward sloping forest, which stretched away until hidden in the hazy distance, for the sun had not yet dispersed the white mist which rises rapidly from the vast lagoons and swamps that lie inland of the coast of that surpassingly lovely, but ever moist, territory.

Looking from the land that fine summer morning was to be seen, about a couple of miles from the shore, a small squadron of vessels, embracing one line of battle ship, and one large and two smaller page 53 steamers employed as transports for troops, and for the conveyance of their necessary stores and war material.

Even as the sun shot up above the ranges, and as the bugles rang out reveille in the sleeping camp, a puff of smoke issued from the lofty black side of the Repulse, the flag-ship, followed by the thunder of a large gun, which reverberated over the roadstead and died out in echo after echo among the distant hills, waking into noise and activity thousands of brilliant-hued birds in the thick forest behind the encampment.

The signal-gun was followed by three little balls run rapidly up to the main truck, breaking into flags, displaying the signal for the commander of the land forces and his staff to repair aboard to a council-of-war. In response to the call, soon was to be seen the general-in-command, with his brilliant staff, being rowed down the river and out into the offing, to attend the council.

With what transpired there we have nothing to do at present, further than to say that the conference lasted several hours, and that the discussion was heated and acrimonious, the chief military officer declining to attack the pah with the force he had available, and asking for not less than 2000 men, although, it may be remarked, en passant, that the place was afterwards carried and captured by Sir G. White with 473 men.

Reports of all kinds were rife in camp as to what was about to be done, although, of course, and as usual, those who talked loudest, perhaps, knew least about it. Wearied with inaction, and exasperated by the close proximity of their savage foes, whose taunts, cries of derision and yells of defiance rang in their ears almost without intermission, the troops would only have been too glad to advance to the attack; but this, whether wisely or not, the officer in charge absolutely refused to permit, believing, as he did, that it would be a useless sacrifice of the lives of his men.

Breakfast over, and the ordinary daily routine of morning duty being finished, there was nothing for the men to do beyond lounge about the encampment, smoke, play cards, and converse. It was truly a waste of time, a waste of energy, and, so far, a sad waste of material, for, although strict discipline was kept up, these days of enforced idleness could not but have the effect of, in some measure, disorganising and disheartening the military.

With the sailors it was different. Accustomed to being cooped up within the narrow limits of a ship, these hardy sons of Neptune looked upon the whole affair as a holiday, and enjoyed their unwonted freedom as they would a prolonged picnic, to be made the most of while it lasted. Nevertheless, while they sang, and laughed, and skylarked to their hearts' content, they chafed at the delay, and eagerly wished for the chance, as they put it, to have a slap at the brown-skinned beggars.

As was their wont, the troops, naval and military, had after parade, broken off into small knots and coteries, wandering listlessly page 54 within the lines, or seated in groups, under such shade as could be obtained, engaged in smoking, cleaning their accoutrements, and, as it is called, “yarning.”

“Confound their politics,” said Larry Byrne, a merry-eyed, redheaded Irishman, and a corporal in the colonial regiment; “what the divel do they mane by keeping us here like a parcel of more-porks in a cage?”

“More-porks be hanged!” growled Billy Bent, the privileged Jeremiah of his company;“I only wish we did have more pork, and better of its quality. It's little enough we get, and that not fit for a decent Christian to eat.”

“Never mind, Billy, my boy,” said another; “when we get into the pah yonder, you shall have a nice, fat, tender Maori to your own cheek. I'm told they're not half bad eating, boiled—”

“Hoot awa', mon,” interjected Andy MacPhail, a grizzled old veteran of the regulars; “it's mair like thae Maori deevils will eat yersel', an' a tough morsel ye'd be, forbye I dinna think they'd mind that.”

“Well, I only wish we could give'em the chance. It'll be a stiffish job taking the pah, I fancy, and a good many of us are likely to lose the number of our mess before it's over. But all's one for that if they'd only let us try it. I'm sick of this eternal delay, and wouldn't mind making one to have a slap at it on our own hook.”

“Ay, and get shot for insubordination even if ye succeeded. Ye're a sensible kin' o' laddie, I maun admit.”

“Shiver my toplights! if I wouldn't make another, just for the fun of the thing, and chance the ducks,” exclaimed Jack Hinds, a rollicking seaman from the Repulse. “If I had my way—”

“Don't you think you'd better change the subject?” interposed Serjeant Lee, drily. “I do; I fancy this is rather a ticklish kind of talk. It might do very well for the barrack-room; but here, in the open field, in time of war, and before the enemy, it might get some of you into trouble, don't you see?”

“Sorra wan o' me cares,” ejaculated Larry Byrne; “anything for a change, as the fellah said when he left off fellin' threes and played at diggin' wells.”

“Yes, a nice change, out of the frying pan into the fire. But come, some of you fellows, give us a song, can't you? or spin us a yarn. There's Jim Lloyd there, he's good for a yarn, I know, if he likes.”

“A yarn? Well, I don't know,” responded the individual referred to; “what sort of a yarn?”

“Oh, any sort. Let's have something funny if you can. I declare I'm getting blue mouldy for want of a good laugh.”

“Well, I'll do my best, mates. I do remember something rather curious a few years since, when I was on the diggings in Queensland, and I'll give you that if you like.”

There was a general chorus of “Hear! hear!” A few of the loiterers near gathered round, and Jim Lloyd gave his story of—