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Ena, or, The Ancient Maori

Chapter XXII. The Night Sortie

page 144

Chapter XXII. The Night Sortie.

"They came with death, to the paths of the foe."

The Mauopoko encamped on the dry places on the borders of the swamp, and, thoroughly weary after their march and war-dance, they slept soundly among the reeds and coarse grasses. But the inmates of the pah did not retire to rest; though none were permitted to converse in a loud voice, fearing the eaves-dropping propensities of the tohungas, of whom it was well known that in similar circumstances they were always on the alert. A sortie was to be made from the pah, and the command of the party was to be given to Te Ori, the young Waikato chief, who had already tested the courage of the Mauopoko in the mountain defile; and the tactics of that warrior were now decisive and cautious.

The disposition of the belligerents was carefully page 145noted by Waiki. He saw where their weaknesses lay; as well points overguarded as those that were carelessly attended to; so, taking his allies into his counsels, he devised a plan of attack for young Te Ori's execution. As the Mauopoko were much dispersed in their several bivouacs on the driest places of the swamp, some of these isolated parties, it was evident, might easily be destroyed.

Taking the sea front as the face proper of the pah, one can easily determine its right, left, and rear faces. On the left of the pah, the investing tana seemed to be asleep to a man; on the remaining divisions the sentries were to be seen lazily and inertly creeping about at long intervals.

Fifty men, principally of the Waikato contingent, were quietly marshalled under Te Ori, to whom Waiki gave strict orders to follow their leader, and to attend to his commands. The manuka hurdles were put into requisition; willing hands laid them down over the swamp outside of the left face, and in perfect silence the work was done. The band issued from a low gate in the palisade, as their own seer, in silence and with impressive genuflexions, consulted by the starlight the omens of a circle of reeds placed in the sward, and the prognostications were those of success. Elated with the spirit of his art, the seer threw aside his scanty page 146clothing, and, bounding in air with arms extended, danced the wizard's midnight measure. A guard was then placed on the hurdles to prevent a surprise, in case of Te Ori's failure, or defeat. Stealthily as the beast of prey creeps toward its victim, so stole the Waikatos, preserving as compact an order of progress as was possible in passing through the tall flax and through the brown stagnant water and black mud, the habitat of colonies of eel, and the favourite feeding-places of numerous swamp birds, which occasionally uttered a loud cry as they were disturbed in their usually unmolested haunts. Following in the direction of a bright star, which Waiki pointed out to Te Ori ere the latter left the pah, the party crept on through the mud and water, their hands and feet benumbed with cold, and their courage somewhat abating. When at a considerable distance from their starting point, as Te Ori stopped to rest, the men "came up around him, he asked of those near if any among them knew exactly where they now were; but not one could determine with accuracy in what part of the swamp they then stood: the star that had hitherto served them for a guide had become obscured by clouds that overspread a portion of the sky. Te Ori becoming confused, some of his men wavered and asked to be led back to the pah, others clamoured to be led forward. page 147On they went as before, and soon the slight whisperings of the sea fell upon the ear of Te Ori, when he knew that he was approaching the coast: feeling a welcome relief on being extricated from the seemingly illimitable area of the wilderness of flax and mud, he hurried forward with increased speed. The obstructions became fewer, and the growth of flax and toi-toi became smaller as the party advanced, until at length the sand-dunes rose before them in tile uncertain flicker of the starlight. A continuous ridge of sand heaps ran before them parallel with their front; and, advancing in a mass, Te Ori and his men crossed the ridge, and when there, discovered too late a serious error, the foe proving to be behind and before them. Quick as terror they were enclosed; and the panic-stricken Waikatos threw down their arms, and flung themselves on the sand at the feet of their grim and silent captors. Hahaki stooped to the prostrate chief, and whispering in his ear in the tongue understood only by the priesthood (but which Te Ori partly comprehended, being himself a tohunga by descent and education), the warrior immediately rose to his feet, his men quietly following his example; they were soon bound two and two by Strong flax ropes, and then distributed throughout the lines of the enemy and marched off without delay, page 148goaded on by the spear-points of their escort, far from the vicinity of the swamp. Hence along the sea-shore they were hurried in frantic haste and gloomy silence.

As soon as Hahaki saw the prize depart for Wairauki, he arranged, in concert with Raukawa and Te Koturu, to seize, if possible, the entrance to the pah by which Te Ori had emerged: by observing the strictest silence, he hoped that they might be able to gain a footing under the pah, as the chances were that the enemy might mistake them, in the uncertain light, for Te Ori's returning party: and they must endeavour to confirm that illusion.

While the necessary preparations are in progress, Hahaki's clever manœuvre may be explained. Well did the priest understand the astuteness and bravery of the enemy; and when his own people were sunk in sleep, the wakeful schemer sallied out and awoke Raukawa and his friend: to these he disclosed his intended stratagem. They, with a strong force, were to advance toward the pah and watch. The men were soon in readiness and told off into separate companies, one to follow Hahaki, another to follow Te Koturu; while the others were to remain among the sand hills under Raukawa, so as to assist in case of need: to all Hahaki gave a signal by which they could distinguish each other in the darkness. Before sepa-page 149rating he laid imperative commands on the chiefs to preserve silence among the men, as upon it depended the successor the enterprise. Led off by the wily to-hunga, his division, followed by that under Te Koturu, was soon covered with the tenacious black mud. As they floundered on, a man was heard to utter a low ejaculation indicative of disgust, whereupon the men of the priest sank with a dull thud through the skull of the poor wretch: a shudder ran through the nerves of the men close to him, and produced a savagely salutary effect. As the party stealthily advanced, they were not long in suspense as to the movements of the enemy: the screaming of the disturbed birds not only attracted the attention, but also clearly indicated to the tohunga the exact nature of the proceedings of the foemen. Keeping well clear of the indicated route of Te Ori, Hahaki gained the information he so much desired, and by this means ascertained the direction in which the enemy were traversing the swamp: as soon, therefore, as they made their unconscious detour toward the sands, Hahaki led his party out of the swamp by the shortest route to the shore. The excitement of certainty, with precise knowledge of the locality and destination, gave Hahaki's and Te Koturu's men increased heart and speed, and they soon left behind the lagging and disheartened Waikatos. When Hahaki emerged from page 150the morass, sending on Raukawa over the sand hills to watch, he at once secreted his party and that of Te Koturu in a connecting line with Raukawa, and within whispering call of each other.

Te Ori and his men cleared the swamp and halted on the margin, after a short rest, during which their stragglers came up: all then crossed the sand ridge in front, and fell into the snare so artfully laid for them as before described.

The counter-movement was now in rapid progress. Hahaki's quick eye and practised judgment guided his men by the same route as that which Te Ori held over the morass; and after much toil and patient perseverance they came in sight of the pah, as the short summer night was giving way to the early dawn. The tall grey posts loomed against the star-hung canopy of the firmament, the kiwi cried on the wooded ranges that morn was leaving her chambers of the night, the forms of the weary sentries were discernible, as Hahaki, at the head of his party, came up with an air of confidence to the first line of the guards on the hurdles. The counterfeit was complete; onward, unchallenged, he passed up to the small gate of the pah. The opening was half unbarred, his party were on the hurdles, and his hands were on the bolts of the gate: quickly he drew them, and in another instant was inside the outer line of the fences. Striking down the page 151nearest sentinel, he gave the signal for blood to comence. The post was thus carried; but the descent of the tohunga's arm had been observed, and the alarm was instantly given. Waiki, at the head of his garrison, rushed to the gate: by this time Hahaki's men had made short work of the outside sentries; the main body, under Te Koturu and Raukawa, moved up to the support, and seized the hurdles. The pahu was now struck in the pah, and all its defenders were roused; the struggle at the gate and between the lines of the stockade was close, bloody, and determined. Slowly and painfully crept dawn over the sky, revealing to the combatants their individual features. From within the pah, and from without, loud and discordant cries of terror, mingled with imprecations and shouts of revenge, rent the air; the savage war-whoop and the impressively solemn death-chant thrilled through the bosoms of the warriors as the storm of battle raged around. Hahaki, selecting Waiki as an opponent, sprang upon that brawny warrior, and, clutching him in a spider-like grasp, completely pinioned him; but Waiki, by the strength of his legs and the massive weight of his body, swayed the lithe figure of his assailant, and, leaning over, bent the priest almost double on the ground beneath him. Still Hahaki clung to his antagonist, and, rolling over, both tugged at each page 152other's throat, while the fingers of the priest were buried in Waiki's neck, whose protruding tongue and glaring eyes told that, for him, suffocation must soon end the conflict. At length, with a desperate effort, Waiki tossed himself and Hahaki into the ditch at the foot of the outer palisades: in the fall the grip of the latter became slightly relaxed, and Waiki, taking prompt advantage, pounced upon the priest and bit off his left ear. As soon as the tohunga felt the blood stream from his wound, his courage failed, his strength forsook him, and he lay passive in the hands of his infuriate conqueror, who, grasping him by the hair of the head with his left hand, the right uplifting a small rude flint knife, drew a bloody circle through the brow and crown of Hahaki; then, seizing the quivering skin between his teeth, he drew off the reeking scalp. Leaving his victim to die in the ditch, Waiki sprang among his men, brandishing his men in one hand, whilst in the other he held aloft the trophy of his victory: his presence gave new vigour to his people, heaps of slain and wounded lay around. Raukawa and Te Koturu killed many with their own hands, and their men fought well; but when Waiki's voice was heard, Raukawa's spirit quailed; in the ghastly trophy he recognized the fate of his faithful councillor, and giving orders to his people to retreat, they turned and fled from the gateway of the pah: page 153Raukawa, supported by Te Koturu and a small band of chief men, covered the retreat and kept the forces of Waiki at bay. The Mauopoko were thus enabled to regain their bivouac without being pursued; but they lost many in the fray, and were unable to remove their dead and wounded, who remained in the hands of the enemy; no chieftain of theirs, however, fell save Hahaki, whose loss was sincerely bewailed. The defenders of the pah lost a few of their leaders, and their wounded were many; while the Waikato contingent suffered severely, as they were eager for blood, and to them was given the precedence in contesting with the foe at the entrance to the pah.

Whilst uproar and lamentations engrossed the attention of Waiki and his people, the dead and the wounded were allowed to remain unnoticed: Hahaki, waking from the swoon into which he had fallen, slowly raised himself on his elbow and looked around; weak and exhausted as he was from loss of blood, and suffering the most acute pain, he crawled on his hands and knees up the side of the ditch, and crept through a hole under the palisades of the outer fence, and thence into a clump of flax-bushes near: there hiding as best he might, he lay coiled up in his scanty mat, and awaited the course of events.