Hine-Ra, or The Maori Scout: A Romance of the New Zealand War.
Chapter XIX. — A Taste of Soldiering
A Taste of Soldiering.
The heavy dew yet lay bright and unexhaled on every herb and flower, on bush and liane, on belt of fern and carpet of moss in one of the wild forest glades between the south-eastern spurs that serve as buttresses to the mighty snow-clad cone of Maunga Taranaki.
The morning wind was crisp and keen, and carried with it the thousand and one fresh and exhilarating odors that sweep across the New Zealand bush, and bear with them so fresh, so faintly pungent, and, withal, so life-giving an aroma.
The sun, the harbinger of day, had barely risen, although the warm and rosy light was tinging the fleecy clouds that floated, like the fairy isles of an enchanted sea, seen only in the dream of the lotus eater, over the azure depths beyond.
Birds of rich plumage flitted, meteor-like, amongst the thick boscage of their sequestered haunts, as yet unopened to the untiring and insatiate avarice of Europeans.
The solemn verdure of the mighty woods, thick set with giant trees, the fruit-bearing karamea, the kauri, the kohekohe, the purple-flowered kotukutuku, the kowhai, the tipau, the matai, the totara, and the glowing rata, mingled with the light and feathery fronds of the ferns, and the fan-like heads of the tall palms, while thousands of parasites hung from their branches, formed an almost impenetrable network, a barrier rendered still more difficult to overcome by the dense undergrowth of tutu, papai, fern and flax.
On such a scene the sweet dawn was breaking when two men, emerging from their rude couches of fern leaves under a thick veronica bush, which grew near a crystal rivulet, shook the dew from their hair and beards, and proceeded to heap fresh fuel on the camp-fire which smouldered low hard by.
Their first care was, of course, for the morning meal. This was easily prepared. With the aid of a loop of flax on the end of a koratti, a couple of wekas were easily snared, and these roasted, with the accompaniment of a handful of the edible pulp of the mamuka, made a plentiful and wholesome breakfast.
The two men ate their food in silence, never exchanging a word until they had finished, when the elder, biting off a piece of tobacco from a chunk he carried, emitted a low grunt by way of query.
They were, as will have been guessed, Jack Hall, the Maori scout, page 86 and Frank Burnett. Led by the guide, the latter, in accordance with his promise, had kept tryst, and now waited, with some curiosity, to hear what this strange being, of whom so many wonderful tales were told, might have to say to him. It had been quite midnight the previous day when he had reached the appointed spot, and the scout, after the customary “Tenakoe,” had bade him at once lie down and sleep before the fire, as they would have a long day's march the following day.
For a while the two men sat silent, Jack Hall apparently buried in deep thought, and Frank waiting for him to speak. At last the latter opened the conversation.
“You sent for me,” he said; “I am here. What is it you require?”
“Much,” was the reply; “wait a little while until I think it out, and I will tell you. But come, let us be going forward. We can talk as well walking as sitting still.”
“Going forward?—yes, but whither?”
“For the present, to the first stage in the journey you have undertaken—to the head-quarters of the British troops at New Plymouth.”
Frank started in surprise. How could this man know of his errand? The guide had not told him, even if he knew, for, after bringing them together, he had departed without a word, carrying back with him Matariki's rifle which the scout had found in and carried away from the Patea whare.
“How did you know that I was going there?” asked Frank. “Is it possible that you are indeed the sorcerer they say you are, and that you can read the secrets of men's thoughts?”
“I know many things,” replied the scout with a grim smile. “As for my power, perhaps I have the gift that these ignorant Maoris call Makutu, perhaps not. Perhaps I possess a power far beyond what they ever dreamt of. Bah! why should I hide aught from you? My future is woven up with yours, I know not how at present, but I know that so it is. As for these benighted Maoris, they think I practice what they understand as magic, spells, incantations, sorcery—what you will. Why let them so think. But no, my divination comes from a far higher source. I am of the Romany race, the oldest people under the sun. I am the seventh son of a seventh son, and of the wise woman of my tribe. What I know is told me by the stars. What they tell me is fixed, immutable from bygone ages. Mine is the science of peoples now swept away, of peoples of whom the very language is forgotten, of the ancient Egyptians, the Chaldeans, the peoples of India, who built and excavated those prehistoric temples and caves that are yet the wonders of the world. But it is not divination that told me of your errand to-day. It is merely the exercise of common-sense.”
“As how?” asked Frank, wonderfully impressed by the strange language of the scoutpage 87
“As thus. I knew the contents of the letter I gave your father, and I guessed the rest. I knew you would tell Hine-Ra and your friend, Matariki, and I knew also what they would say.”
“Hine-Ra?” said Frank, with a slight blush.
“Even Hine-Ra, the beautiful Hine-Ra,” returned the scout with a little laugh. “Think you I am so blind as not to see what even old Matutira could not fail to see. Well, she is a beautiful girl, and as good as she is beautiful. For her sake it was—hers and yours—that I interfered to save that brother of hers—who was fool enough to put his head into the lion's mouth—from the torture. But enough of this. You ask me what I require of you. That I will tell you at the proper time. At present I wish to show you something. Look round, and tell me if you know where you are.”
“I know that I am amongst the lower spurs of the Taranaki,” replied Frank, after a careful look round him. “I know the sea is over yonder, in the west, Opunake is there, and away to the north is New Plymouth, whither I am bound.”
“Yes; anything more?”
“Nothing more. The place is quite unfamiliar.”
“And yet you were here, almost on this very spot, a very few days since.”
“That I emerged from that terrible cave in the bowels of the earth somewhere in these mountains I know, but I have no idea of the spot. Is it near here?”
“It is close by, and it is that place I want to show you, and so to impress it on your memory that when the time comes—and that time will come—you may find it at once, and without fail. Now mark. Is there anything you can see hereabouts out of the common?”
“No; I do not think so.”
“See you yon huge tree with the bright red blossoms, on the summit of that ridge?”
“I do. It is a Pohutukawa.”
“Well, what do you make of that?”
“I am afraid you are not so observant as you might be. Do you know that the Phutukawa grows only by the sea-shore, while this—”
“Is growing in the mountains. Yes, that is strange, I admit.”
“It is the only one of its kind in all these ranges, and is there-fore a prominent object. Now, mark what I say, and remember. From this track, which you cannot miss, get that tree in an exact line with the vast moraine you see rifted in the cone of the mountain, as I do now.”
“Now strike for the tree. Follow me.”
“Yes,” said Frank when the gigantic myrtle was reached; “what next?”page 88
“Keep your eyes on the right, and step forward, counting your steps. Good. Now stop. How many steps?”
“Forty-seven; do not forget. You perceive opposite you a little rugged gorge or gully that runs off to your left. Look up it. You observe the—one, two, three—the third flax bush?”
“Behind that flax bush, and hidden in a maze of piti-piti, is the opening to that mysterious underground road by which you escaped from the cave of the witch, Matutira. Come and see.”
In truth it was the very spot, and Frank shuddered with awe and terror as he gazed into its yawning and dismal depths, and thought of the fearful peril he had passed through in his passage along its terrible solitudes.
From the spot where they stood it was about twenty-five miles to New Plymouth, the place of their destination, and they therefore lost no time in regaining the track and speeding on the journey. It was rough travelling over those steep spurs and rugged gullies, but they were both excellent bushmen and made little of the difficulty. Besides, Jack Hall knew every twist and turn of the road, every bypath, every ford, and every short cut, so that, starting as they had done in the early morning, it was not yet late in the day when they reached the settlement.
There the news was sufficiently startling. As Jack Hall had warned the forces under General Champion they were likely to do the Maoris in the Wereroa pah had made a sortie, hoping to take the British by a sudden surprise. The latter, however, were prepared, and a short but sanguinary conflict had taken place, the Maoris being driven back into their stronghold. Both sides claimed the victory, but who gained it was not clear. Certainly the Maoris were repulsed, but as General Champion withdrew from the siege, being called away to suppress the rebellion at other points, it would scarcely be fair to look upon the British as conquerors.
In other places, however, the British arms were victorious. Colonel Boston had dislodged a large body of natives from a strong position on a hill at Kohéroa. These had been sent from Ngarua-wahia to attack Auckland, but the rout was so decided that they had to escape by swimming the Maramarua creek or by ascending the Waikato river in canoes.
A thousand of them were also driven from a strong entrenchment at Mere-Mere. These, too, evacuated their pah and escaped in canoes along the flooded creeks.
At Rangiriri the Maoris concentrated their forces in a strong pah, which was attacked several times, with but little effect, all one afternoon and night, though in the morning the natives made an unconditional surrender, 185 prisoners and 175 stand of arms being taken. There were also several brushes at Te Awumutu and Rangiawhia, where the British arms were again victorious. As a page 89 matter of fact, all these conflicts were conducted on the part of the whites by General Champion.
But the most stirring event of the war in this part of the island was the capture of Orakau, a strong pah lying about five miles south-east of Te Awumutu. Here three hundred of the fierce Uriweras were entrenched under the Ngatimanipoto leader, Rewi. The place was besieged by Brigadier General Rarey with a force of a thousand men, and, after several vain attempts had been made to carry it by storm, it was determined to take it by sap. The siege continued for three days.
Knowing there were women and children in the pah, Rarey sent an offer under a flag of truce that, if the besieged would surrender, their lives would be spared. The reply was not a little heroic—“This is the word of the Maori: Ka whawhai tonu! ake, ake, ake!” (We will fight for ever, and ever, and ever!) Rarey then urged them at least to send out the women and children. The answer was Spartan in its simplicity—“The women will fight as well as we.”
On the third day, however, having exhausted their food and water, the Maoris abandoned the pah, and, although many escaped through the British lines, very many were slain by a company of the Forest Rangers who intercepted them in their flight.
On his arrival at head-quarters, Frank Burnett was most kindly and cordially received by the officers in command, not only on account of the influence his father was known to possess with the powerful Te Nama tribe, but also on his own account, as one who, having been brought up among the Maoris, knew not only their language, but their habits, customs, prejudices, and bush tactics.
He was at once placed under the necessary drill as a cadet, and took part in many of the engagements and skirmishes which were going on from day to day; and when General Champion, with his force of nearly two thousand men, was despatched to quell the insurrection which had spread to the East Coast, he was for a time retained on the head-quarters staff as interpreter, an office, aided as he was by Jack Hall, he filled to the great satisfaction of his superiors.
By a kind of tacit understanding between them, the two, although frequent companions, never referred to what had occurred either in the cave or on the shoulder of Taranaki, or, if Frank did in advertently mention the matter, Jack immediately became reticent or changed the subject. The most he could be induced to say was, “All in good time, my lad; you'll know all about it at the proper moment.”
Meanwhile the time went on, and Frank rapidly picked up the details of his new profession. From his father and his friends of Te Nama he heard occasionally, and never without a message from Hine-Ra and Matariki. The tribe, however, remained strictly neutral, for Marutuahua, with the caution of his race, could not be induced, in the unsettled state of affairs, to declare for one side or the other.page 90
At length the young cadet was considered fit for active service, and bad news having reached head-quarters from the East Coast, Frank and Jack Hall were hastily sent with despatches, the former being ordered to place himself under the command of General Champion.
Habited as Maoris, they plunged into the bush to traverse the wild mountain, river, and forest country between New Plymouth and Tauranga, a country infested by bands of disaffected savages, trusting to their knowledge of the New Zealand bush and their mother-wit to keep clear of danger. The road, or rather no road, was very long, about one hundred and fifty miles as the crow flies, and therefore much longer from the many detours they were obliged to make; but Jack Hall, the Maori scout, was an admirable companion, and did much to beguile the tedium of the way by his stories and reminiscences of his free gipsy life, and his diverting experiences as a travelling conjuror in the old country, and his adventures and and hairbreadth escapes in the new.
Camped by a stream in the heart of the thick forest, the log fire blazing merrily at their feet, and the blue smoke curling upward to the star-sprent sky, he would wile away the after supper hours by relating these stories, of which he seemed to have an inexhaustible fund, and never wearied of telling.