Poenamo Book the Third - Chapter VII.
Steeped in Tapu
The two chiefs who had
experimented with the new flint over the keg of gunpowder with so fatal a
result to the poor slave-boy, and with so scorching an effect upon
themselves, continued in my tent under my medical treatment. As for the
slave-boy, lie was never mentioned; lie had been killed : what of that?
Perhaps some old woman did a. quiet tangi over his grave, but no semicircle
of mourners performed funeral rites over his remains. The poor mangled body
had been huddled into a hole anyhow; who could think of him when Ngntai lay
in state, and To Rite and To Pirete lay burnt in the Pakcha's tent?
Was the poor slave-boy any
worse off amongst his fellow savage brethren in this far-off land than the
poor —not slave, but free—man amongst his civilised fellow-men in the "old
country?" Not one whit— I rather imagine infinitely better off. The slave of
the Maori was only one in name; he or she of course had to do more work, but
generally fared just as well as the master. They did no cruel work, and
certainly, as a rule, much less hard work than the labourer at home. The
latter had certainly one advantage over the Maori slave, for he was not
occasionally cooked and eaten. But then when alive the slave had always
plenty to eat; he could never starve as the poor at home do. Again, he could
always build himself a comfortable whare, and of fuel have as munch as he
chose to cut and revel in. He has had good shelter and warmth and plenty to
eat and drink. Happy slave!
What though no one cried over his grave when he
was split in two by time keg of gunpowder, still he was decently buried,
though huddled into mother earth in a hurry. Not so always the deserted and
forsaken poor at home; sometimes the minister to science on students'
dissecting-table before the disjointed members are huddled into a coffin and
buried within a given time, according to Act. of Parliament. What is the
value of a life - what the manner of a burial—even according to the country
we live in, and the current of ideas that prevail? Have I never told you
what happened to me once when driving through a narrow thoroughfare with
Captain -- in his buggy in Calcutta?
Suddenly a little child rushed across the narrow
street, and before we could pull up we were over it. Captain ---- was about
to stop to see what had happened, but the Syce had no idea of doing such a
thing, and he exclaimed, "Jeldi jou—jeldi jou" Go on quickly. "But perhaps
we have killed the child." "Well, never mind; if they can buy wood to burn
it they will burn it, and if they can't they will put it into the Ganges."
At the worst the sacred waters of that river would bear it away as it bears
away countless of the poor who cannot afford cremation.
But I diverge; let me go back to my legitimate
narrative. It was ten years later before I visited, as a traveller, the City
chiefs, whose burns, as I have stated, were very superficial, were getting
on famously; they were enjoying the quiet comfort of the little tent,
relieved by judicious visits of gossiping, not tangi-ing, friends, and I
fully expected to dismiss both my patients sound and whole again before
however, were doomed to a great disappointment. Native superstition was
about to step in and play a curious drama by laying hold of one of my
patients and making him enact one of the strangest of tragedies.
One morning, before setting out for our daily
forest work, and while I was dressing Te Pirete's skin-deep wounds—much more
slight than those of his brother chief—I was informed that during the night
the spirit of dead Nffatai had appeared to him, upbraiding him for lying in
the same tent as Te Rite, who was a so much greater chief, and telling him
that he ought to have known it was against all proper "tapu" observances for
him to be under the same roof with a superior chief when sick, and he
must—to use a slang expression—"get out." You will gather from what I have
just said that the sickness of a chief forthwith made his house tapu against
all intruders, save of the same or superior rank. To break such a tapu, even
unwittingly, was to bring down on the offender's head te makutu bewitchment,
of which, ten to one, he would die.
As I soon saw what a hold Ngatai's
spirit-warning had taken of Te Pirete, and as there was no reason why he
should not remove himself from the dangerous lapu roof-tree under which he
now slept, I told him he might take himself off whenever he liked, and that
I would come and visit him in his new hut. So he forthwith did take himself
from under the dangerous tapu, and did not break it even for one other
night—in fact, I had no sooner turned my back on the tent than he was
of Ngatai! why ate you not your kumeras in your native paradise in contented
happiness with those around you? Was the coveted pipe of tobacco not a pipe
of peace, and why did ye wander back among the living of your tribe?
"He came to me again last night," said Te Pirete
to me a few mornings afterwards when I was paying him my daily visit en
route to the forest; "he came to me last night, and said I must come and
wait upon him in the land of spirits, and so you see I must go—quickly go."
Imagine how wide I opened my eyes on hearing
this announcement made so calmly—in fact, I was very nearly bursting into a
fit of laughter; but fortunately, looking more intently at his face, I saw a
stricken gravity written thereon which convinced me it was anything but a
change which had already taken place was startling, and I beheld it with
wonder. His bodily health appeared to be all right, and his burns were
healing rapidly, but I there and then became convinced I had a new and
unknown enemy to grapple with—one which brought home to me the words,
"Who can minister to a mind diseased?"
On feeling his pulse, lo! it was evident that
already Ngatai's spirit had begun to do its work, for the current of poor Te
Pirete's blood flowed in too fast a stream, and pulsated in too quick a
"Oh, nonsense!" I
said to myself, "the man has had an exciting dream—passed a restless
night—it is only a nervous fit—and after a good sleep he will be all right
I went away
firmly believing so, and thought no more about it whilst digging away at our
But Pama did not
look upon it in this way when I told my story at our evening meal. He shook
his head and gravely said, "he did not much like the looks of it, but
to-morrow would settle it one way or the other."
"To-morrow settle it one way or the other! What
in the name of wonder do you mean?' Do you mean to say that to-morrow Te
Pirete is either to be all right, or, as you would say, a gone 'coon?"
"Well, sir, he may not be dead, but," added Pama,
as if talking of a most ordinary circumstance, "he may be just as good as
dead, for these Maories, sir, can die off in a couple of shakes just
whenever they have taken it into their heads that they ought to die off."
I could not help thinking that Pama had got a
good touch himself of poor Te Pirete's complaint, and that he too was
But as I
recalled that strange, mysterious look which had fallen upon Te Pirete's
face a lurking uneasiness arose within me, and so I slipped away when our
meal was finished to Pirete's hut wondering whether a good sleep and a good
meal, and probably a nice smoke, would have made my patient all right again,
or whether Pama's forebodings were to be realised.
Alas! I found Te Pirete's bronze cheeks warmed
with a feverish glow which could not be overlooked.
Oh! young ∆sculapius, to whom shall the victory
be given? To thy art, to save, or to the spirit of Ngatai to destroy?"
It was thus I mentally questioned myself as I
passed slowly home with grave misgivings.
And as I so passed from the chief's hut to
Pama's whare I did conclude that there were a great many more things than I
had ever dreamt of in my verdant philosophy.
"There is no mistake about it," said I to Pama
on getting home, "Te Pirete has got a touch of fever."
"Oh, he has, has he? then I'll tell you what we
may as well do, sir. You were helping me to get out stuff enough to make
Ngatai's coffin, and it will just save a good bit of trouble to get out the
stuff for two, for I can tell you, as sure as you are standing there, a pair
of coffins will be wanted, for Te Pirete is a gone 'coon."
And Pama sat himself down to smoke his pipe, and
as he puffed away he continued speaking to us through the open doorway in
the partition which divided our end of the where from his :-
"That is always the way, sirs, with these
strange people—they can die off whenever they take it into their head's.
When I was in the North, before coming down here, I killed off a young woman
in the most innocent way possible before I knew what I was about, all
through this 'tapu' of theirs. I was travelling from Te Horaki to Okailian,
and was taking a rest at an old palt, when I saw this girl, one of our
party, eating a kumera, for you know they eat rather nice raw on warm day,
and it was such a fine-looking one, I said, 'Where did you get that fine
kumera?' When she told me I stupidly said 'Don't you know that is a wahi
tapu (sacred ground), and the great Te Rewi was buried there?' Lord! sirs,
the kumera dropped from her hand as if she had been shot. She would have
screamed, but she was just dead terrified beyond screaming. She had no voice
to scream with, a what is more, she never got it again, sirs. She just went
and lay down in an old whare, and she was a gone 'coon in eight-and-forty
hours. Now mark my word, sirs, you'll see that Te Pirete will die himself
off just the same way as sure as I am sitting here—you'll see if he don't,
that's all. It's not fright that will kill him off but just that Ngatai's
atua (spirit) has come to him, and he has got it into his head he must go to
Ngatai, and by the Lord Harry! see if he don't."
And the next morning, as we came home from our
work and visited Te Pirete, and saw the marvellously sudden change that had
come over him, we agreed with Parna in thinking that the summons of Ngatai
was one which was going to be obeyed, and. that Te Pirete had fully made up
his mind to "die himself from off the face of the earth," as Pama had put
But we certainly
were not prepared for the suddenness with which this was accomplished.
Only one more day had passed when Te Pirete's
face became still more marvellously changed, though it was but three days
since he had received the midnight summons.
And when midnight came again the deathward broke
upon the stillness of the night, rending the air. And the wail was caught
up, and we heard it in faint and fainter sounds as it was repeated away up
the length and breadth of the Wraiomu valley.
"Did you hear that?" shouted out Pama from his
bed; "that's Te Pirete that's dead. He's been and done it—knew he would
quite well—they always will, sirs, when they once fairly take it into their
heads—such a queer people, sirs."
Erangi, who, on the first death-wail awakening
her, had jumped out of bed and rushed off in the direction of Tw Pireto's
whare, Soon made her reappearance.
It. was little use for her to go to Te Pirete's
whare—his death had already been telegraphed by the voice from one cud of
the valley to the other.
Alas! poor old Kanini! More tapu is your
doom—more of the lugubrious nose-rubbing to be done over again with all
colliers, crouching by Te Pirete lying in state—steeped in tapu, feeding
with hands behind your back from a provision platform.
Yes, his brother-chiefs enjoined upon him a long
and strict tapu to propitiate the evil gods and avert their wrath from the
chiefs of the Ngatitamnateras.
And now we saw all the funereal ceremonies done
over again. Those who had tangied over Ngatai had to come and tanqi over Te
Pirete. The throats of even the old women waxed hoarse; they had barely an
unscarified square nick of skin left upon when to operate with the
sharp-edged shell— at least, if they had, it was not visible, and must have
been searched for under the short waist-toknee mat vincii adorned their
persons. One thing was certain, if the mourners wailed and scarified well,
so did they eat. They displayed wonderful energy in the feasting line—went
at it tooth-and-nail, and never gave in. But the provisions of the tribe
nearly did; they were as nearly as possible eaten out of house and home,
they had hardly a kit of even seed-potatoes left; as for kurneras, that was
a vegetable of the past, and of the future after the next season's crop came
in, for they would have never another kit of them until the next crop was
As I have already
stated, poor old Kanini was steeped in tapu all over, and consigned to a
hermit's life; he was so awfully tapu that hardly any one dared go near him.
I, too, had become tapu on account of having handled the two sick chiefs, so
I could go and see the old man, sit beside him, and even go into his whare
and under the sacred rooftree. We were both in the same boat, and so could
pull together. And many were the long evenings I spent with the poor be-tapied
hermit. Pama, too, was tapu all over—hideously tapu—for had he not helped
the old chief in putting both Ngatai and Te Pirete into those two coffins we
had made? for we had scraped together "stuff" enough to make the pair of
them which he had predicted would be wanted. My tapu proved a most happy
thing, and came in most opportunely during the deluge of Maories which
flooded Waiomu, for had it not been for my tapu we should not have been able
to keep our whae our own. Happily it also became tapit because I was kipu,
and only Kanini dared enter it.
An amusing incident occurred one day which gave
us a grand haul for dinner. Some pots or food, most capacious pots—were
boiling away in front of our door. We had just returned after our day's work
in the forest and I was sharply peckish, and ready to do full justice to
Eranii's supper. I knew the kumeras were fast running out, and a most
tempting one was just beginning to show high and dry in the pot I saw
boiling, and I could not resist appropriating it. As I stretched out my hand
to take it a chorus of yells from all the women superintending the cooking
met my ear—such awfully diabolical yells that I nearly let my prize drop out
of my hand.
late the warning; before I understood its meaning I had touched the food,
and had wittingly appropriated not only that tempting kumera, but the whole
contents of the huge pot—yes, the whole blessed contents—for the sole use of
the inmates of Puma house!
What native dare eat of food which had been
touched by a tapu hand? That night a supper fell to our share a dozen times
larger than we could eat.
Nor could I console the bereaved ones who had
lost their supper (and who had to wait with what patience they could until a
fresh supply was ready) by giving them a peace-offering in the shape of a
pipe of tobacco to smoke, for everything in the whare was tapu. To smoke a
pipe filled with tobacco out of that uzpu whare would almost have been as
bad as eating a kume'a grown in a wahi tapu.
The great concourse of natives which the double
death in the tribe had brought to mourn and feast at Waiomu gave us the
opportunity of becoming acquainted with the Maori aristocracy of the
neighbourhood, but, what was of much more interest and importance, enabled
us to acquire a complete insight into the manners and customs of the race.
At the end of three weeks, during which time
this wake of wakes lasted, and which proved to us the Maori capacity for
stowing away pork and potatoes, and especially kumeras, Te Rite had so far
recovered that he was able to go to his own village, a couple of miles down
shall narrate the return that was made to me for doctoring him. Ere we
quitted Waiomu his tribe rendered the two Bangatera Pakehas an essential
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