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The Tapu Tree by A. Ferguson

 

"The fish is just about cooked," announced Fred Elliot, peering into the big "billy" slung over their camp fire. "Now, if Dick would only hurry up with the water for the tea, I'd have supper ready in no time."

"I wish supper were over and we well on our way to the surveyor's camp at the other side of the lake," was the impatient rejoinder of Hugh Jervois, Dick's big brother. "This place isn't healthy for us after what happened to-day." And he applied himself still more vigorously to his task of putting into marching order the tent and various other accessories of their holiday "camping out" beside a remote and rarely visited New Zealand lake.

"But surely that Maori Johnny wouldn't dare to do any of us a mischief in cold blood?" cried Fred.

"The police aren't exactly within coo-ee in these wilds, and you must remember that your Maori Johnny happens to be Horoeka the tohunga (tohunga = wizard priest), who has got the Aohanga Maoris at his beck and call. The surveyors say he is stirring up his tribe to make trouble over the survey of the Ngotu block, and they had some hair-raising stories to tell me of his superstitious cruelty. He is really half-crazed with fanaticism, they say, and if you bump up against any of his rotten notions, he'll stick at nothing in the way of vengeance. As you saw yourself, he'd have killed Dick this afternoon hadn't we two been there to chip in."

"There's no doubt about that," allowed Fred. "It was no end unlucky that he should have caught Dick in the very act."

"Oh, if I had only come in time to prevent the youngster hacking out his name on that tree of all trees in the bush," groaned Hugh. "The most tremendously tapu (tapu = sacred) thing in all New Zealand, in the Aohanga Maoris' eyes!"

"But how was Dick to know?" urged Fred. "It just looked like any other tree; and who was to guess the meaning of the rubbishy bits of sticks and stones lying at the bottom of it? Oh, it's just too beastly that for such a trifle we've got to skip out of this jolly place! And there are those monster trout in the bay below almost fighting to be first on one's hook! And there's——"

"I say, what on earth can be keeping Dick?" broke in Hugh with startling abruptness. "Suppose that Maori ruffian——" and a sudden fear sent him racing down the bush-covered slope with Fred Elliot at his heels.

"Dick! Coo-ee! Dick!" Their voices woke echoes in the silent bush, but no answer came to them. And there was no Dick at the little spring trickling into the lake.

But the boy's hat lay on the ground beside his upturned "billy," and the fern about the spring looked as if it had been much trampled upon.

"There has been a struggle here," said Hugh Jervois, his face showing white beneath its tan. Stooping, he picked up a scrap of dyed flax and held it out to Fred Elliot.

"It's a bit of the fringe of the mat Horoeka was wearing this afternoon," he said quietly. "The Maori must have stolen on Dick while he was filling his 'billy,' and carried him off. A thirteen-year-old boy would be a mere baby in the hands of that big, strong savage, and he could easily stifle his cries."

"He would not dare to harm Dick!" cried Fred passionately.

Dick's brother said nothing, but his eyes eagerly searched the trampled ground and the undergrowth about the spring.

"Look! There is where the scoundrel has gone back into the bush with Dick," he cried. "The trail is distinct." And he dashed forward into the dense undergrowth, followed by Fred.

The trail was of the shortest and landed them on a well-beaten Maori track leading up through the bush.

The two young men, following this track at a run, found that it brought them, at the end of a mile or so, to the chief kainga, or village, of the Aohanga Maoris.

"It looks as if we had run our fox to earth," cried Fred exultingly, as they made for the gateway of the high wooden stockade—relic of the old fighting days—which surrounded the kainga.

The Maoris within the kainga met them with sullen looks, for their soreness of feeling over the Government surveys now going on in their district had made them unfriendly to white faces. But it was impossible to doubt that they were speaking truth when, in answer to Hugh's anxious questioning, they declared that no pakeha (white man) had been near the kainga, and that they had seen nothing of Horoeka, their tohunga, since noon that day. They suggested indifferently that the white boy must have lost himself in the bush, and, at the same time, gave a sullen refusal to assist in searching for him.

Before the two young men wrathfully turned their backs on the kainga, Hugh, who had a very fair knowledge of the Maori tongue, warned the natives that the pakeha law would punish them severely if they knowingly allowed his young brother to be harmed. But they only replied with insolent laughter.

For the next two hours Hugh and Fred desperately scoured the bush, shouting aloud at intervals on the off-chance that Dick might hear and be able to send them some guiding cry in answer. But the only result of their labours was that they nearly got "bushed" themselves, and at last the fall of night made the absurdity of further search clear to them.

Groping their way back to their broken-up camp, they lighted the lantern and got together a meal of sorts. But Hugh Jervois could not eat while racked by the horrible uncertainty of his brother's fate, and he waited impatiently for the moon to rise to let him renew his apparently hopeless quest.

Then, while Fred Elliot was speeding on a seven miles' tramp round the shore of the lake to the surveyors' camp to invoke the aid of the only other white men in that remote part of the country, Hugh Jervois had made his way to the Maori kainga. "It's my best chance of finding Dick," he had said to Fred. "Horoeka is sure to have returned to the kainga by this time, and, by cunning or by force, I'll get out of that crazy ruffian what he has done with my brother."

Reconnoitring the kainga in the light of the risen moon Hugh stealthily approached the palisade surrounding it. This was very old and broken in many places, and, peering through a hole in it, the young man saw a group of women and children lounging about the cooking-place in the centre of the marae or open space around which the wharés (huts) were ranged. From the biggest of those wharés came the sound of men's voices, one at a time, in loud and eager talk. At once Hugh realised that a council was being held in the wharé-runanga, the assembly-hall of the village, and he instinctively divined that the subjects under discussion were poor little Dick's "crime" and his punishment, past or to come.

Noiselessly skirting the palisade, Hugh came to a gap big enough to let him squeeze through. Then he crept along between the palisade and the backs of the scattered wharés—very cautiously, for he dreaded being seen by the group about the fire—until at last he stood behind the big wharé-runanga. With his ear glued to its wall he listened to the excited speeches being delivered within, and to sounds indicating that drinking was also going on—whisky supplied from some illicit still, doubtless.

To his unspeakable thankfulness the young man gathered from the chance remarks of one of the speakers that Dick, alive and uninjured, had been brought by Horoeka into the kainga at nightfall, and was now shut up in one of the wharés. But a fierce speech of Horoeka's presently told the painfully interested eavesdropper that nothing less than death, attended by heathenish and gruesome ceremonies, would expiate the boy's outrage on the tapu-tree, in the tohunga's opinion.

The other Maori speakers would evidently have been satisfied to seek satisfaction in the shape of a money-compensation from the offender's family, or the paternally minded New Zealand Government. But, half-mad though he was, Horoeka's influence with his fellow-tribesmen was very great. The rude eloquence with which he painted the terrible evils that would certainly fall on them and theirs if the violation of so mighty a tapu was not avenged in blood, very soon had its effect on his superstitious hearers.

When he went on to assure them that the pakehas would be unable to prove that the boy had not lost himself and perished in the bush, they withdrew all opposition to Horoeka's bloodthirsty demands, though these were rather dictated by his own crack-brained fancy than by Maori custom and tradition. Presently, indeed, it became evident to Hugh that, what with drink and their tohunga's wild oratory, the men were working themselves up into a fanatical frenzy that must speedily find vent in horrible action.

If Dick's life were to be saved he must be rescued at once! No time now to await Fred Elliot's return with the surveyors and their men! Hugh must save his brother single-handed. But how was he to do it? For him, unarmed and unbacked by an authoritative show of numbers, to attempt an open rescue would merely mean, in the natives' present state of mind, the death of both brothers.

"If the worst comes, I won't let Dick die alone," Hugh Jervois avowed. "But the worst shan't come. I must save Dick somehow."

He cast desperate glances around. They showed him that the marae was completely deserted now, the group about the cooking-place having retired into the wharés for the night. If he only knew which of those silent wharés held Dick, a rescue was possible. To blunder on the wrong wharé would only serve to arouse the kainga.

"Oh, if I only knew which! If I only knew which!" Hugh groaned in agony of mind. "And any moment those fiends may come and drag him out to his death."

Just then, as if in answer to his unspoken prayer, an unexpected sound arose. Poor little Dick, in sore straits, was striving to keep up his courage by whistling "Soldiers of Our Queen!"

Hugh's heart leaped within him. The quavering boyish whistle came from the third wharé on his left, and, in an instant, he had reached the hut and was gently tapping on the door. Dick might not be alone, but that chance had to be risked, for time was very precious.

"It's Hugh, Dick," he whispered.

"Hugh! Oh, Hugh!" and in that choking cry Hugh could read the measure of his young brother's mental sufferings since he had last seen him.

In a moment he had severed the flax fastening of the door, and burst in to find Dick, securely tied hand and foot to a post in the centre of the wharé. Again Hugh's pocket-knife came into play, and Dick, freed of his bonds, fell, sobbing and crying, into his brother's arms.

"Hush, Dick! No crying now!" whispered Hugh imperatively. "You've got to play the man a little longer yet. Follow me."

And the youngster, making a brave effort, pulled himself together and noiselessly stole out of the wharé after his brother.

But evil chance chose that moment for the breaking up of the excited council in the wharé-runanga. Horoeka, stepping out into the marae to fetch his victim to the sacrifice, was just in time to see that victim disappearing round the corner of his prison-house. With a yell of rage and surprise he gave chase, his colleagues running and shouting at his heels.

Hugh Jervois, hearing them coming, abandoned hope for one instant. The next, he took heart again, for there beside him was the hole in the palisade through which he had crept into the kainga an hour before. In a twinkling he had pushed Dick through and followed himself. And as they crouched unseen outside, they heard the pursuit go wildly rushing past inside, heedless of the low gap in the stockade which had been the brothers' salvation.

"They'll be out upon us in a moment," cried Hugh. "Run, Dick! Run!"

Hand in hand they raced down the slope and plunged into the cover of the bush. Only just in time, however, for the next instant the moonlit slope beneath the kainga was alive with Maoris—men, women, and children—shouting and rushing about in a state of tremendous excitement. It was for Dick alone they hunted, not knowing he had a companion, and they were evidently mystified by the boy's swift disappearance.

Presently the brothers, lying low in a dense tangle of ferns and creepers, saw a number of the younger men, headed by Horoeka, streaming down the track leading to the lake. But after a little time they returned, somewhat sobered and crestfallen, and rejoined the others, who had meanwhile gone inside the kainga.

Then, feeling sure that the coast was clear, the brothers ventured to steal cautiously out of earshot of the enemy and make their way down through the bush to the shores of the lake. There they were greeted with the welcome sound of oars, and, shooting swiftly towards them through the moonlit waters, they saw the surveyors' boat, with Fred Elliot and half a dozen others in her.


"You see they are trying to carry off the thing just in the way I told you they'd do," said the head surveyor to Hugh Jervois after their denunciatory visit to the kainga in the early morning. "Horoeka, the arch-offender, has disappeared into remoter wilds, and the others lay the blame of it all on Horoeka."

"Yes," responded Hugh, "and even then the beggars have the impudence to swear, in the teeth of their talk last night in their wharé-runanga, that Horoeka only meant to give the pakeha boy a good fright because he had done a mischief to the very tapu-tree in which lives the spirit of the tribe's great ancestor."

"Well," said the surveyor, "we've managed to give the tribe's young men and elders a good fright to-day, anyhow. My word! but their faces were a picture as we lovingly dwelt on the pains and penalties awaiting them for their share in their tohunga's outrage on your brother. I'll tell you what it is, Jervois. Horoeka has to keep in hiding for his own sake, and these beggars will have their hands so full, with a nice little charge like this to meet, that they won't care to make trouble for us when we come to the survey of the Ngotu block."

"It's an ill wind that blows nobody good," laughed Hugh. "But, all the same, Dick may be excused for thinking that your unobstructed survey has been dearly bought with the most horrid experience he is likely ever to have in his life."