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Ena, or, The Ancient Maori

Chapter XXVI. Escape of the Islanders

page 178

Chapter XXVI. Escape of the Islanders.

"The wind of the ocean was there,
And the parting beam of the moon."

The Ngatiraukawas finally resolved to invest the hill-pah; and, as a first step, they seized the large war-canoes which they found in a sheltered bay under some overshadowing karaka trees, whose large and umbrageous boughs completely hid the vessels from careless eyes. But the prowling enemy saw everything, and left no path, no rock, no cave unexplored or unguarded that tended in any way, however remote, to offer aid to their ravage: the forest gave them sufficient shelter, and the beaches supplied them with food: with all their women, children, and slaves, they came and built another temporary pah in the bush at the back of the fortress, from which they sent out parties to reconnoitre, and to murder when opportunity offered. A page 179few days were passed in this manner, and by that time the investment of the pah was complete. Wailri had established a cordon of sentries at the base of the hill, and, one evening, an unusual movement was observed to be afoot in the fortress: occasionally a decrepit old woman was seen to be roaming about outside the pah fences, and was closely watched by Waiki; and although her movements seemed to be without any meaning, the chieftain could plainly divine that the old creature was ascertaining the exact positions of his own men: not caring to having her driven from her survey, the chief took more than his usual precautions in posting his night-watch.

Since the Ngatiraukawas came to the neighbourhood of Wairauki, they had observed with increasing interest the island of Kapiti: seeing the smoke ascend in the early morning from the settlements in that isolated position, they had begun to surmise that a large number of people lived there in safety; but as they were only just possessed of the means of access to the island, it and its occupants engaged but little of their attentions for some time. Some of the young men, eager to go over to the island in search of adventure, were restrained from doing so by the wholesome fear of the Mauopoko, dreading that, perchance, in their absence the hill-men might page 180come down. So they were obliged to defer making the voyage until one enemy, at least, was disposed of.

The Mauopoko were now reduced to a pass of great perplexity. Hahaki and the leading men, at nightfall, assembled to hold consultation on their affairs: after a short time spent in discussing the probable fate of the prisoners, Ena and her comrades, it was decided that it was not practicable, in their present embarrassed state, to make the attempt of following them so far into an enemy's territory; mean-while, they must content themselves with allowing their anger to slumber, and patiently await the issues of war. Te Koturu learned with grief that the enemy had seized on and removed his canoes from their original hiding-place; but, thanks to her quick eye and sagacity, old Mahora had discovered a seemingly likely place in which the canoes might be found.

Te Koturu proposed to lead a party of four men down the left face of the cliff: his entire contingent were to follow at a distance, and thus endeavour to seize their own canoes, when found, and, embarking in them, sail homewards. In order that the store of provisions in the fortress might serve a longer time, he wished to leave the pah, and, when arrived at Kapiti, to send a canoe laden with provisions to the besieged. The vessel was to be in sight on page 181a given day, in charge of two men, who would, as soon as night fell, come in toward the shore, and, at a well-known cove, secretly deposit their cargo, whence the hill-men were to remove the stores at leisure and as opportunity served.

The night was advanced a little when Te Koturu and his followers descended the cliff, whereon grew a stunted vegetation, comprising the spear-grass and the toumaton, or "wild Irishman," clinging on the dry soil, and offering a serious impediment to quick progress over the ground: at the foot of the hill they had to encounter a few sentinels ere the way could be open to the small bay wherein they hoped to find the canoes moored and left unguarded and unharmed. To pass the sentries unobserved was a hopeless wish; so, relying on his agility and on that of a few chosen warriors who were proved by him in former dangers, and on whom he could now rely with perfect confidence, he had arranged, as a forlorn hope, to advance on the sentries and dispose of them in the quickest manner possible, leaving their men on the face of the cliff, hidden by projecting ledges of rock, and awaiting in silence the signal which was to be made to them by Te Koturu when the passage to the canoes was open.

Cautiously crawling down the precipices, from page 182stone to stone, the wily islanders spent more than an hour in the descent: at length, the band under Te Koturu crept to within earshot of a group of sentinels, who were seated in the shelter of a low crag close to the water's edge, where the washing of the restless tide was the only sound that broke the stillness of the night, save when at intervals a cry from the forest birds rose upon the air, and died away in the distance. The sentries on the left face of the hill had collected in this spot, there to spend the night, and had kindled a fire, which now guided Te Koturu upon them: they were five in number; two sat upright, and the others were lying rolled up in their mats upon improvised beds of reeds and fern. Te Koturu and his comrades saw at a glance the work that was before them; so, each man selecting his opponent, they crept up still closer, and with lizard-like motion slid from stone to stone, until they had completely surrounded the unwary sentinels; then, clutching each man his meri, they waited until the pre-arranged signal was heard from Te Koturu—a soft, low call, in imitation of that uttered by the night-owl: then sprang the islanders upon their unsuspecting prey. Three of the sentries fell instantly; but when the first moment passed, some confusion ensued among the islanders, as they feared that the blow page 183next intended for a foe might descend on a friend: thus they hesitated when thrown close upon each other, so that the two remaining sentinels, having no idea but that of flight and self-preservation, cleverly seized their individual opponents by the legs, and throwing them on the rocks, not only hurt the men severely, but at the same time made good their own escape. Te Koturu, seeing the folly of pursuit, gave the signal that all was clear; and, hurrying forward, he soon reached the cove wherein his own canoes were secreted: his followers came on after him in eager haste and in good order; and, quickly embarking, they were soon out of reach of pursuit.

The night, which in its early part had been calm and warm, with scarcely a breath of wind, suddenly under-went a change: from the north-west large masses of black cloud rolled up the sky, obliterating the star-light; the winds stretched out their pinions, and hollow and ominous noises reached the earth from the upper regions of the atmosphere, where it was evident that the north-wester was driving his myriad chariots in their aerial race over the resounding prairies that separate universe from universe; slowly and by measurable degrees the pinions of the wind drooped, until, with their anger-barbed tips, they swept the rolling earth.

page 184

The storm of wind was unaccompanied by rain, but its fury and its suddenness completely prevented Waiki from pursuit, when the sentries had reported how matters were. In the mean time, Te Koturu had barely time in which to rub his fire-sticks together in order to kindle a small flame, the signal to his friends in Wairauki that all was well; but at length the light flame burst out ere the gale broke: the flickering column shot up its signal, and shone reflected on the dark and still sleeping waters between the canoes and the fast receding shore: instantly, a hoarse yell of joyous triumph rang past the scudding vessels, followed by a broad sheet of fire that shot up into the black arms of night from the small glacis of the pah, where a single human figure stood before the lurid flame, which served as a background to the weird being, who danced with every appearance of joy at the successful termination of the enterprise. The dancer of the night was Hahaki.

The wind now came down and took possession of the scene: the pah and its beleaguers were comparatively safe; but what language can convey suitable impressions of the danger to which the islanders were exposed—what pen can describe the position in which Te Koturu and his company were placed?