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Ena, or, The Ancient Maori

Chapter XXI. The Witches' Prophecy

page 139

Chapter XXI. The Witches' Prophecy.

"They heard the half-formed words,
And dimly beheld the times to come."

A small whare built of reeds and totara bark stood in a secluded corner of the hill fort, at a place where the palisades topped the crest of an inaccessible crag that overhung the base by several feet: below, the stones were loose and partly covered with harsh-stemmed, stunted ferns and spear-grass, grey lichens grew in patches on the rocks, where occasionally rested sea-fowl. The evening was stealing over the land, the stars came out in the sky, the pah was silent: Mahora stood by the low door of the brown hut, whence she anxiously looked over the landscape, scanning the darkening sky, and mentally measuring the expanse of ocean which bounded her vision on one point of view, until, overcome by the superstitious and real page 140fears of her lonely position, she entered the dwelling just as she observed three figures approach her whare. These were three women, aged, decrepit, but still in that peculiar vigour of old age, gaunt, wiry, and coldly persevering. All entered the hut, where smoke had grimed the inside of the one-roomed abode with a layer of soot, which had dissolved and formed a thick coating of glistering bistre all over the rude framework of the building. The very few articles of furniture the whare contained were also redolent of smoke and sooty grime. The door was closed, the small window was shut, a dull, soft red light filled the apartment; all without was still, all within was calm. Mahora and her guests sat around the embers on the low hearth: their conversation was of their absent people, the misfortunes of the hapu, and the hopes and chances of victory. As the night wore on, the wind rose in blasts which occasionally whistled on the roof of the hut; and these sounds were welcomed by the crones. Their talk, that had hitherto flagged and lacked energy and material for excitement, suddenly became animated. Mahora, having predicted a sweeping defeat to the enemy, was thwarted by the quiet remarks of the smallest and oldest crone of the group. This was a little old woman with a singular past to recall. She had been a captive in her page 141youth among the Ngatiraukawa. Her beauty was of the most winning kind, gentle and retiring; and her charms had attracted the attentions of a chieftain of that nation, who restored to her her freedom, and made her his wife: yet for long years she cherished the hope of returning to her own tribe; and as soon as the chance came, she availed herself of it When the tide of rapine and war turned in the direction of the Tarau naki people, she accompanied the invaders; and as soon as they entered the districts that were familiar to her in childhood, she stole away from the people among whom she had lived so long. She was welcomed back to her tribe; but few could recognize, in the war-worn and blasted features of her wintery age, a single remnant of the once glowing charms of the unfortunate Pani. Now, when the meshes of the necromantic net were encircling her companions in the funereal light of the gloomy whare, she alone remained outside its seductive folds: in a voice tremulous with age and suffering she persistently attributed the reverses of her people to far other causes than those admitted by Mahora. She told them of the almost incredible audacity of the enemy, their skill in securing plunder; of the ability of Waiki, who, as their leader, was without an equal in devising and executing surprises; together with the page 142continual flow of success that followed him, his extreme caution and fiendish cruelty: the bravery and the craft of the allies, the Waikatos, was also intelligently urged by the old creature, who believed, she averred, that the misfortunes of the hapu were the fault of their own indolence and pride. Their young men were not trained to the use of arms as those of the enemy were, their leaders were unreflective and wavering; they had allowed themselves to be driven out from their ancestral homes, and were now scattered and suffering. The warnings or upbraiding words of Pani were not destitute of effect on the minds of the crones who listened. But Mahora's dignity would be lowered and her reputation injured by appearing to yield; so, taking a shell, she scooped out a hole in the floor of the hut, close by the hearth, and, muttering a few sentences of incantation by way of a spell, immediately a thin, bluish green light of a phosphoric nature flitted across the aperture in the floor. The wind piped over the hut, the owl hooted under the low eaves, a scream of a disturbed sea-bird was heard above the cliff, and the audible, but unintelligible chatterings of a voice passed through the hut, completely subduing the overawed circle of crones, as the midnight stars shone in the sky of that eventful summer night.

page 143

At dawn of the following morning, Pani mysteriously disappeared: she had quietly left the pah, and her reputed profession shielded her memory from either the slander or the prurient curiosity of the people; and she was very soon forgotten by all save Mahora, who alone knew why Pani had so suddenly vanished.