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Ena, or, The Ancient Maori

Chapter IV. Warriors in Conclave

page 21

Chapter IV. Warriors in Conclave.

"As rushes forth the blast on the bosom of whitening waves,
So careless shall my course be through ocean,
To the dwelling of foes.
I have seen the dead."

In the centre of the mountain-fort stood a large runanga, or meeting-house: in it was assembled, on the same night as that on which the events detailed in the foregoing chapter took place, the greater part of the hapu or tribe inhabiting the fortress. Door and windows were closed; the remains of a large fire glowed on the earthen floor, and around it the attentive warriors squatted, sat, or reclined: the heat was intense, and the red glare of the embers lit up the features of the assembly with a bold and uniform tone of warm colour. The walls were low, and divided into compartments: the minor spaces were filled with the page 22yellow reed of the toi-toi grass laid in perpendicular rows; the major divisions were composed of boldly carved pilasters, adorned with gigantically contorted representations of the human figure; the features of the face were the particular care of the native woodcarver, and in every instance the representations of the mouth were hideous and barbarous in the extreme, the teeth being shown in shark-like dimension and proportion. These figures dimly shadowed a vague relationship to the carvings of the rude nations of antiquity, and bore many distinguishing traits with the work of the modern Hindoo artist. Hideousness was the leading characteristic of the collection. Circular pieces of the pawa shell were inlaid in the carvings to represent eyes, and these reflected the firelight with sparkling brilliancy, adding ghastliness to the grotesque. Each of the carvings represented a departed chieftain, and was known to the hapu by separate and distinguishing names. Here, as the people met from time to time to deliberate on matters affecting their common welfare, the dead heroes of the tribe were supposed to be present, and to lend the lustre of their ancient glory to their hereditary representatives.

In the midst of his assembled tribemen sat the chieftain's son Raukawa: the young man had been in page 23the mountains on a visit to Hahaki the tohunga, or priest, for the last few days, and returned that evening; first seeking his sister Ena, and next apprising the warriors of the pah with news of alarming import. All eyes were turned on the young warrior as he rose to his feet and stood in the open space allotted to the use of those who were to address the meeting: the firelight showed his fine form and muscular proportions to great advantage; he was six feet in height, taller than the generality of his tribe; he held in his hand a spear, ornamented with a carved top, from which hung a tassel of red and black feathers and white hair: round his loins he wore a flax mat, which reached half-way down his thighs; his legs and feet were bare, and his face was tattoed with the appropriate markings of his tribe and his rank: in his hair, which was profuse and black, he wore a comb curiously carved, an heirloom in his family. The expression of his countenance varied with the emotions of the moment, but in general his features were calm and benignant.

Hahaki, the old tohunga, had given Raukawa a charge to deliver to the warriors of the fort; and now the youth, gracefully waving his spear as a signal to enforce silence, gave the message as follows:—

"From the eastward Aurora spreads her fiery page 24plume; her fingers reach the hills, and the restless ones there are crying to the blast.

"Wariwari rolls up from the west, his canoe is broken by the winds of the sky; a white Pepe flutters on the black rocks.

"Whike wails over the forest: her tears fall on the paths, her voice echoes from every tree."

When Raukawa ended he sat down. A low murmur indicative of terror rose from the assembly, when an aged warrior stood up, and, leaning on his spear, tottered to the space preserved for the speakers; walking from end to end of the opening, he raised his head, and, straightening himself as well as he could, balanced his spear and grasped it as in the act of throwing, then exclaimed in the tremulous voice of old age:—

"Wise are the words of Hahaki; never yet has he given us wrong counsel. Let us give earnest heed to his dark divinations: soon will events make all clear, though disaster lie in wait for us on the hills, and the shadows of blood darken our thresholds."

A warrior in the vigour of manhood next stood up; his features were scarred with the cicatrices of wounds which divided the once clear and correct lines of the tattoo, and now gave him an expression of inexplicable facial confusion: he looked the demon of page 25the assemblage, the Te-whiro of the Maori Hades. His name was Atapo. He was dreaded for his passionate and fiend-like disposition: of a daring courage and a dauntless spirit, his rising to speak was almost regarded in the light of an evil omen, and the aged portion of the audience hung their heads on their breasts as Atapo spoke as follows:—

"Give me your attention; if the Ngatiraukawa from the rivers approach, shall their advent be peaceful? shall not the steam of our ovens ascend? shall our terrors destroy our might? shall not our tribe war-whoop be heard? shall we welcome them to the feast, and give our women to their arms? do we intend to lay down the spear and the meri at their feet? No, no! none are so craven as to abandon this temporary home of the people, to forsake the hill-fort of the warrior, to give our children into the hands of the enemy as slaves. Atapo heeds not the fiery skirts or the burning fingers of Aurora: on the elfin-blasted peak he will stand at midnight, when the black night wanders over the lichened crag; when the sea-god bellows on the bleak stone of the deep, he will crush the stranger beneath his heel; to the towering forest tree he will fix the fiercely-climbing tongue of fire, to lap up the feeble tears of the puerile Whiki. No longer shall her cries disturb the priest in his cavern, page 26the sentinel on his post, the warrior at the feast, or the fisher at anchor near the spectre-haunted shore."

During the delivery of this harangue, the gesticulations of the speaker aided his oratory. His gaunt and bony frame was muscular, and of gigantic dimensions. He had but one eye, the socket of the other being concealed beneath a lock of dun hair; his breast was scarred and seamed with old wounds received in battle, or self-inflicted in seasons of lamentation for the dead. The muscles of his arms twined and overlapped each other as he brought them into action whilst wielding the greenstone meri, or poising the slender spear, which during his address he held up, one in either hand. His words imparted an air of composure and assurance to the warriors.

Raukawa again rose and said, "Hahaki promises to meet us to-morrow night to assist in our deliberations and give us all the assistance in his power." This ended the business of the night, and as Raukawa waved his hand, the meeting dispersed, each warrior seeking his own whare within the silent mountain war-pah.