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
"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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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."