It was all a straightforward business for an old soldier and all forged ahead over smooth water. I had need of no more than the raupo hut while construction gathered apace on the larger barn which was to serve as our trading store. Indeed most of the settlers here make do with rude huts fashioned by the natives. We had a fresh water stream nearby and fish aplenty for the taking. The old man was expert in netting fish and eel. He coveted a collection of finely carved fish hooks which he hid somewhere in case someone should ever think of secreting them away. It was not till I learnt more about their superstitions that I understood why.
Through trade with the natives we had a constant supply of sweet potato and vegetable – they appear to have no fruit apart from forest berries – the old man with Rewa would spend hours digging out fern root, mussels from the seashore and the soft hearts of plants. The British schooners and French corvettes soon learnt to heave-ho in our little bay, and we traded victuals, timber and fresh water for rum, nails, flour, tools or weapons. Anything these destitute and fatigued Mariners brought ashore was fair game, and after months in that churning sea, they were well softened for some hard bargaining. All went steady over the winter months till summer approached and the big barn was taking on a grand shape.
It was that damnable Frenchman who brought on our bad luck. Nothing but consternation from the moment his ship hove to. Capitaine Perrault, as he finely called himself, so damnably insistent on replacement spars for his storm-damaged masts. I had pressed upon the little gentleman for a simple wedding ceremony for my woman and I, which he conducted with due accord and in his beautiful French language. Placing both hands on his bible Rewa and I exchanged vows, she in her language and me in mine. Taipata, adorned in fine red feathers stood proudly bemused to give her away, with Te Kahu, uncomfortable in borrowed shirt and trousers, serving stoutly as First Mate. What a party we made and the rum flowed freely afterwards amongst the French mariners. We all feasted this merriest of occasions including Tolley and his little family who were appreciative of the entertainment the whole affair provided.
Caitaine Perrault wanted no payment for his services other than we accompany him to find suitable timber for new spars. Without my knowledge however and against all good council, once on board, he had brought us up the neck of a southerly river and deep into slack water – territory outside the jurisdiction of our Chiefs. I must admit I wonder how these Johnnies will pompously insist that agreement with any old native must somehow serve their needs throughout the entire islands. Each tribe in this district is something of a separate republic with its own laws. Foolishly, we had accompanied him to the place where two rivers meet – for Rewa, Te Kahu and I were there, knee deep in the tide loading on water kegs. Darkness had fallen and with it dropped a bare sense of foreboding that left us all uneasy and expectant.
I had heard a noise away in the trees and looked up to spy a perching owl looking down upon us with wide open eyes. As if he had some urgent message to impart, now that dusk and shadow was swiftly falling.
‘Wai-o-tapu!’, Rewa had hissed from on shore, her hands cupped about her mouth, and I knew something was not right here. This was to do with their queer beliefs no doubt. It was now that I noticed the red ochred statues of wide-eyed little men that had been placed either side of the stream we were attending.
‘Sacred water here Kapi – no good, no good….’, joined in Te Kahu, pushing the red scarf he had wrapped around his head out of his vision.
‘No good boss, we go home. No good ‘dis place….’
Alas, it was all too late now. Two tears slid down from the heavens and popped against my sunburnt forehead. Sky, land and sea clapped together in a sharp crack of thunder. A lightening-toothed storm slid across the bay, blocking out light so that skies grew darker than the water beneath them. The sea around us seemed to rise in great shadow and agitation.
All about, the sea and land were dark movement, my good brother. Out from the gloom they sprang, swift and obscure before we could realise their true form. I made out the dark silhouettes of war canoes in behind the little Corvette – raised paddles stabbing water till they disappeared into the mist behind her hull. Here was danger indeed! When I turned shoreward to shout for Te Kahu, there was already a large figure behind Rewa, a hand clapped over her mouth, and her black hair pulled tightly downward. And her wailing. Three warriors were already about Te Kahu with hatchets poised, ready to strike the poor fellow down – when abruptly this tall tyrant at the head of their pack intervened and bade them in their cur’s language to leave him be. The boy’s wrists were bound, a knife to his neck and he was flung to the sand with a thump. The giant one-eyed native stood guard over us, fierce and resilient to all protest. I would call him the Lieutenant.
There was no more to be done. We were too late, too slow to defend ourselves – this was already a deed. Te Kahu and I were roughly manhandled, made to squat low in the dark sand, our hands tightly bound together, back to back. I can only suggest the fear I now felt, possessed with the knowledge that these would be our final moments. I was angry at that little French Captain, fearing that by now his head had been parted away from his shoulders. I despaired of my existence and the cosy life we three had fashioned together, the nights before a warm fire with my pretty wife and my new brother in law, whom I had begun to view as something of a son. This life in a distant country, a new beginning I did not think possible, since the black pestilence I have been loathe to speak of, when I lost my dear first wife and child, as brother you well know.
Rewa’s cries rang out clearly as she was dragged up into the dark, impervious bush. That was the last I saw of her. When I looked her way, I was clubbed roughly about the ears. Blood gushed from my brow; from the little French corvette came the hideous howling of wounded men. We heard the sharp report of French muskets, yet with no time to man the swivels this was never enough to save them; soon came heavy splashes from off the thwarts, mixed with the woeful screaming of the Mariners and the cut and clump of axe and war club. The flutter of an owl’s wings. These savages will kill a soul by a single blow to the temple. Once they are closed in there is little to be done. Some of the French mariners retreated below deck, yet now the dreadful silence told a sullen tale.
I must spare you the truth of what occurred next. Let me only say that bodies were brought ashore – severed heads were smoked and then impaled atop poles speared into the grey sand. A dreadful feasting took place. Other Frenchmen were brought to kneel aside us – some eight or so still alive but scared and timid, for we all now knew our fate. All the while Te Kahu and I, bound back to back, thinking only of Rewa and her plaintiff cries of fear.
You know I have fought in the red, and I have seen men aplenty cut down and killed. I have seen soldiers die bravely and I have seen soldiers plead as children calling for their mothers. None of that can be compared to this dreadful eating of men by these tattooed heathen. The eating of tongues before the live victims. The stench, my brother, the awful stench of burning skin and hair, that burns away at the eye sockets and makes a man wretch out his gut. Any observation was now a risky business, for each time our Cyclops spied us stealing an upwards glance he would strike us about the neck with his long baton. The brute delighted in spitting and shouting at us as we crouched like a frightened herd of beasts ready for the slaughter house.
The giant warrior I call the Lieutenant banished us to a nearby cave, where we waited as startled lambs.
In the darkness, Te Kahu whispered to me, ‘Don’t look Kapi… don’t look the eye. Head down….’
One Mariner did escape out of the cave’s entrance and scampered up into the dark bush. Alas, he was taken up with, and I cannot bear to describe his fate. Suffice to say that he suffered a squirming death which no man should deserve to bear, whatever his misdeeds. Cowered before us he viewed his demise deliberately at the hands of a sullen giant until plucked eyes could view it no more. He was crushed like an insect caught in the jaws of a mighty lizard.
No need to die and then descend – for purgatory was now up here and upon us. No need to broach the waters of some distant Hades – no need to feel the searing, hot flame touch our skin. We had already waded through those waters and even now felt the fire and stench of burning souls. The memories and their screams as this Titan glared down menacingly at our huddled group, glaring so in a ghastly manner. I wished only for my quick despatch, fearing all the while that the boy and his young bones would be made to unduly suffer. Just kill us quickly, I wished, despatch us with that sudden blow of your wooden taiaha. I regretted my every sentiment in visiting these dark lands, a territory that had promised so much from the safety of Port Jackson.
We had broken some rule yet I understood little of what was transpiring. And I admit I did weep my brother, quietly, for the fate of the girl and more for the fate of this solid, handsome and hard-working lad, the boy I thought of as my son.
I knew Rewa would survive, her young beauty would be taken, but she was strong enough to have suffered these indignities before. She would live on. I had twice before faced death and twice before surfaced from the smoky cannons of hell. Now, on this, a final journey, I had little to lose. I feared death not one jot, and only felt the pain of an old soldier ready to meet his maker, but I felt guilt for leading this mere slip of a lad to an early, undeserved fate.
Curse that damnable Frenchman!
To be continued