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

Chapter XIV. — Warning

Chapter XIV.

“Be jabers! Jim Lloyd,” said Corporal Larry Byrne to the recognised raconteur of the camp, when the story of the little Maori boys had gone round among the men, “there's a yarn licks all yours into fits, more betoken its thrue, and that same is not what can be said of all you spin, me lad.”

“It's not a bad yarn as it stands, I'll allow,” replied the veracious James, pragmatically, “and when I've just dressed it up a bit, put in a touch here and there, as it were, I flatter myself—”

“Ye flatter yersel'? Deil fly awa' wi' me if ye dae ought else but flatter yersel' ! Set ye up for a conceitit gowk, wha thinks no pie can be good unless ye've had a hond in the makkin' o't. Ye'd pit in a touch, ye wad. Ye're just one o' thae improvers wha'd improve natur hersel', until ye'd improved iverything o' the face o' the earth,” interrupted Andy Macphail, tartly.

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“Begorra, Mac, me bhoy; ye hit him hard that time and no mistake. Jim's just the bhoy to paint the lily and adorn the rose, as the pet sings,” said Larry Byrne. “But what's in the wind now, I wondher? Here comes Jack Hall, and he ginerally has something to tell us worth hearin'”.

The individual referred to sauntered slowly up to the little group of soldiery, who greeted him with effusion as being one who could relieve the monotony of existence by giving them the latest news. In reply to their questioning, he said—

“Well, there are two bits of news that may or may not be interesting. First and foremost, I'm told that Captain Rogers has taken the eldest of those Maori children on his own ship—adopted him in a manner. Rather young for a powder-monkey, I fancy, but he's a plucky little chap for all that. The other two are to be sent to Auckland, I'm told. The second is that I've an idea those Maoris in the pah out yonder mean mischief. I was out in that direction this morning, and I not only heard them dancing the Tutungarau, but singing the Ngeri, and that means something serious, or I'm mistaken.”

“And what may those hard words mean, if you'd be so kind?” asked Jack Hinds, the sailor.

“They mean,” replied the scout, sententiously, “war, hard fighting, and plenty of it. They mean that which, if you ever see or hear, you'll never forget. They mean the war-dance, and the war-song, and that means trouble, I know.”

“The war-dance!” was echoed from all sides.

“Yes, the war-dance, and, what's worse, the war-song. I'm told by a fellow I have in my pay, and under my thumb, that they're preparing for something, only he can't find out what. I have my suspicions, however. I've given the colonel the hint, but he doesn't seem to have taken much notice of it. I only hope he's right—but I've told him, and it's no further concern of nine.”

“But you never think the beggars would attempt to attack us here?” queried Billy Bent.

“Shouldn't wonder if they did—there's no telling.”

There was a general laugh at this astounding proposition. The idea of a rabble rout of ill-armed Maoris presuming to dream of attacking numerous and well-intrenched disciplined troops was too absurd for their gravity, and was one which could only be treated as a subject for contemptuous mirth.

“‘The raven himself is hoarse that croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan under my battlements,’” laughed the corporal, who was apt at quotation.

The scout's countenance did not move a muscle.

“Very well,” he replied; “those who live longest will see most. It's a very bad rule in war to hold your enemies too cheap.”

“But, hoot awa', mon,” cried Macphail, “what makes ye think o'siecan a thing? Surely ye're no' in richt doon airnest?”

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“Maybe not. Maybe I'm a fool and dreamt it. Maybe I fancy the Maoris in Wereroa yonder are just about as tired of being cooped up in the pah as you are of lying here doing nothing, and want a change. Don't you take old Aparima for a fool. He knows, just as well as you do, that Captain Smith is away with two hundred men to aid the Ngaurahoe friendlies, and that Sergeant Lee is with him. A mistake that. Lee should never have left the camp. He knows more about the Maoris and their deviltries than any half dozen men in the force. You mark me, and don't you forget it, either Aparima intends to cut and run, and get clear off to join the main body of Han-Haus, or he intends to make a fight of it.”

“But, guid Lord, mon,” argued the old Scotchman, “what are ye thinkin' o'? Why, if they come within range o' oor airtillery we'd sweep 'em fro’ the face o' the airth.”

“Maybe, maybe. You don't know much about Maori bush fighting yet, it seems to me. Because you've had a few skirmishes with parties of half-armed natives, and driven them off, you look on them with contempt. But your general doesn't, and he's right. Wait till you come to close quarters with a couple of thousand painted warriors—warriors, mind you, mad with rage and pain from the preparation, and then see what you'll think of it. I tell you, and I know, there isn't a braver or more desperate being on the face of the globe than a Maori warrior thoroughly prepared for war. And don't you make any mistake about it.”

So saying, Jack Hall turned on his heel, and abruptly quitted the group, leaving them silently watching his tall form until it was hidden by the thick growth of fern and forestry that bounded the view in the direction he had taken.

A dim foreboding of evil, a gloomy premonition of impending ill, soon hovered over the camp, as his warning words, with such additions and embellishments as the speakers chose to make, were whispered from mouth to mouth. Even the colonel, although he had affected to treat the warning lightly, was impressed by it, as was evident by his placing double sentries, and sending out videttes to scour the bush and watch the pah.

But the enemy made no sign. They were, in fact, quieter than usual, and their very silence was felt to be ominous. General Champion was less inclined than ever to force the fighting, for his troops were materially weakened by the absence of two hundred men sent in hopeless pursuit of Te Kooti. Thus matters stood at this juncture, the opposing parties each sullenly awaiting some demonstration on the part of the other. It was the lowering calm before a thunderstorm, the dull, heavy quiet before a tempest, the smouldering spark before a blaze.

It was true that the terrible Tutungarau had been danced, that the rage-inspiring Ngeri had been sung, and that Aparima the Rangitira in the beleaguered pah knew of the departure of so large a body of the enemies' troops.

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There is scarcely anything more appalling than to witness a Maori war-dance, to hear a Maori war-song. They are so utterly savage, so utterly bizarre in their character, that it is almost impossible to describe them.

Many writers have tried, and all have failed.

It is one of those things that must be seen to be realised, and even then there is no language that can afford an adequate description of this, one of the most remarkable outcomes of pure savagery grafted on what may be called an innate idea of wild and partially tutored religion.

I will attempt—although I know before I commence that the attempt will be weak, and cannot possibly give any fair idea of the force, the mesmeric power which is brought to bear, and which does bear, on the proceedings—still, I will, I say, attempt to describe a Maori Tutungarau, or war-dance.

To begin with, the whole of the fighting men of the tribe, which includes all of adult years (except those who are tapu), are congregated by means of the striking of a wooden gong into an open space set apart for that purpose, either within the pah, or within the Kainga. There they are harangued by the chiefs and Arikis, who incite them by all the words in their power to perform deeds of bravery.

The war parties throw off their mats, daub their faces and bodies with red ochre and charcoal, twist their long hair into lumps or knots, adorn themselves with feathers, and then proceed to execute the war dance.

As thus: The whole army of warriors start in a body, and, after running about twenty yards in a straight line, arrange themselves into lines, five, ten, twenty, or forty feet deep, when they all squat on their haunches.

At a signal given by the leader they all spring to their feet, holding their weapons, guns, meres, spears, or clubs, in their right hands. For a moment they stand perfectly still, and then, at another signal, the dance begins.

Each man elevates his right leg and the right side of his body. Then his left. Then, like a flash of lightning, and all at once, they leap about two feet into the air, at the same time brandishing their weapons, and cleaving the air with them as though they were cutting down imaginary foes. At each successive movement they yell a chorus, which terminates in a long-drawn, deep, oppressive sigh, a sound it is quite impossible to place on paper, but which is not unlike the outward snort of a wild boar, as thus, Nga.

All this is accompanied with gaping mouths, inflated nostrils, distorted faces, out-hanging tongues, and fixed, starting eyes, in which nothing can be seen but the dark pupil surrounded with white.

Such a pitch of excitement have they been wrought into that every muscle in the body quivers. Again and again is this performance gone through, until those taking part in it fall exhausted, or until the priests bid it to cease.

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While it lasts, time is strictly marked by the performers slapping their thighs with their open hands, and by a number of old women of the tribe, who, stark naked, but overdaubed with red ochre, act, so to speak, as fuglemen.

The Ngeri or war-song is, for the most part, sung by an improvisatore of the tribes, each line or pause being repeated by the others as a kind of chorus. It is supposed to be launched at the opposing enemy, and is always of a taunting, challenging, or threatening character. The following is almost a literal translation of one of these Ngeri, sung by a West Coast tribe during the late Maori war:—

When will your valor begin to rage?
When will your valor be strong?
Ah! when the tide murmurs.
Ah! when the tide roars.
Bid farewell
To your children,
For what else can you do?
You see how the brave,
Like the lofty exulting peaks of the mountain,
Are coming on.
They yield. They yield. O fame!