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The Greenstone Door

Chapter V Cave and River

page 58

Chapter V Cave and River

The portal was some ten feet in width at the base, narrowing as it extended upwards until, at twenty feet above the ledge, it became a mere crack. A yard or so above this was an opening, more or less round in outline, over which no creepers grew. It was plainly visible inside, resembling the rose window of a cathedral and illuminating the cavern, which must else, owing to the thick curtain of greenery, have remained in total darkness. Though I have often, from various points on the river and its banks, endeavoured to catch a view of the window in the cliff, I never succeeded, and I doubt if, in fact, it would be possible to do so.

Had Nature intended at once to reveal and conceal the wondrous work with which she had amused herself for thousands and even tens of thousands of years, she could not have selected a better spot than that in which she had placed the opening, whereby the glories of the cavern were displayed to our awed and enchanted vision. From the impenetrable obscurity of the roof, far overhead, huge stalactites flashed into the light, while beneath them, like sheeted ghosts, the stalagmites rose from the cavern floor. Of all sizes and the most fantastic shapes, they gleamed around us, as though the spirits of the dead, summoned from their long sleep, were bursting the chrysalis of the tomb. Here the curve of an arm seemed to develop and thrust aside its covering even as we gazed, Here a shadowy page 59face was on the point of breaking through some distorting veil. The suggestion of something human in the figures was everywhere. The spacious cavern might have been the workroom of a sculptor who had dimly conceived humanity and sought to fashion from a knowledge of human history the physical characteristics of a being his eyes had never seen. Pain and passion and adoration, sin that writhed and horror that transfixed, the tragedy—yes, and the comedy of humanity struggled for expression in the glittering stone. Nor did the perception of this aspect of the cavern make a heavy call on the imagination. Vanishing on minute examination of the isolated growths, it blazed forth in astonishing strength as the eye swept the scene and took in the solitary figures, the singular groups, gaining in force as they receded into the distance where the light failed.

It was, then, to me no matter for surprise when Rangiora, after taking a few steps forward, stood rooted to the floor, looking around him with perplexed and fearful eyes. "Kehua (ghosts)," he muttered under his breath.

Puhi-Huia, in whom use had inspired confidence, was moving calmly forward, when the young chief caught her by the arm. "Wait, Curly One," he whispered. "These are things of evil. It is well that we disarm them by an offering of cooked food. Stay you behind, and the Little Finger and I will undertake the matter."

"They are but stones," said I doubtfully, for his air of confident knowledge, and the distrust he showed, impressed me in spite of the better information I possessed. "Water drips from the roof and builds up the stone."

"How shall water build up stone, foolish one?" he replied. "Rather will it wear it away till the rock becomes but sand. These are kehua, though of a form unknown to our wizards. Let us, then, offer them cooked food, and they will disappear." As he spoke, he drew from his page 60girdle a small carved box containing kao, a sweetmeat prepared from the kumara, and, advancing cautiously towards the nearest stalagmite, thrust it forward to the full length of his arm. Nothing happened, and he proceeded to the next and the next, until some half-dozen or more had received an offer of the dainty.

"The stone is in the water," said I, with restored confidence in the explanation my father had given me. "The water dries away but the stone remains."

"Truly it is strange," said he; "yet now I remember to have heard the wise men say that there are places in the country of the Arawa where the clear water builds terraces of stone, yet the water is hot; and that is a thing conceivable. Maybe these kehua are but slaves, and have no power against the descendant of the gods"; and as this explanation occurred to him, he restored the box to his belt and looked proudly round upon the sheeted shapes.

By this time we had advanced well into the cave and come in sight of the most singular object—or rather, assemblage of objects—it contained. As Rangiora gazed about him with a new-born contempt in his gaze, I saw his eyes rest on this and the perplexity return to them. We had come to a spot where, between us and the walls of the cavern, hung a curtain of stone, here depending in opaque folds, and here a fretwork so delicate that the eye penetrated, as through a veil of mist, to that which lay beyond. There were times when, owing to the position of the sun in the heavens, the scene portrayed on that mysterious stage stood forth as under the rays of limelight; there were others when it was peopled with uncertain shadows, yielding nothing definite to the vision, and others again when beyond the curtain all was indecipherable darkness. What scene was it that was being enacted there continually in the changing lights? What meant the crowded, struggling figures, the kneeling girl, the empty gourd? Even as we page 61turned our eyes upon it a shaft of sunlight struck the window in the rock and fell, not through the curtain, but behind it.

I heard Rangiora draw a sharp breath, and my eyes followed the direction of his outstretched finger. "Puhi- Huia!" he exclaimed.

It was true. Though I had never before noticed it, there was in the kneeling figure, with the long curls flowing round its drooping head, a suggestion of my foster-sister come to womanhood. At her knees, and plainly the object of her regard and the source of her despair, was a shapeless thing, more than half shrouded from view by the heavy folds of the curtain. In her hand was an empty gourd. So much was clear and unmistakable; it needed no pointing out; it was there as surely as if the sculptor bad begun a representation of those very objects. But the rest was enigmatic, changing its meaning with the shifting shadows, and capable of numerous interpretations.

"The war-party is engaged," said Rangiora, in a musing voice and as though speaking to himself. "See how one side sways back and the braves are hurled over the hill. One by one their spirits seek Te Reinga."1

"True," said I, "and yonder is the war-chief. His wounds are many, and a fierce thirst consumes him."

"Why dost thou not give him water?" Rangiora asked softly, turning his gaze on my foster-sister.

Puhi-Huia's eyes were bent on the mimic stage, and it was evident that her imagination had responded to the drama we created. "The gourd is empty," she said dreamily, "and there is no water in the pa."

Rangiora bent his head in agreement. "Stubborn has been the fight," he said; "water and food are gone, and the long night approaches. Behold, it is here."

As he spoke, the ray of sunlight, which had passed im-

1 See note, p. 400.

page 62perceptibly
downwards from the head of the girl to the shapeless thing at her feet, vanished as suddenly as it had appeared.

Even after the lapse of nearly seventy years that scene remains undimmed. But now I see not only that mysterious play in stone slowly unfolding itself to our imagination, I see also, as a not less vital part of the drama, the three children who gazed. Puhi-Huia, her eyes full of strange dreams; Rangiora, resting on his spear, his face half sad, half exultant; and myself, observant of all, my mind shifting rapidly from the light of knowledge to the twilight of superstition. There was to come a time, many years afterwards, when the recollection of our words on that day should rise to startle and confound me. Was it merely by blind chance that we blundered on the Hour That Was To Be? Or can it be that the curtain was really rent to our childish vision? Even to this hour I can offer no opinion. The thing must remain for ever inexplicable. For an hour or more we remained in the cave, exploring its wonders to the last limits of the light. Beyond this we did not venture. I noticed, as we wandered farther and farther from the opening, that Rangiora, despite his suggestion of the slavish origin of the kehua, got out his little box, and once, when he happened to bump against a stalagmite, the offering was presented with such celerity that I could not forbear from laughter.

"Wait, pakeha," he said severely. "We may yet come on the chief at whose obsequies all these slaves were sacrificed."

Hitherto we had spoken in whispers, but now, probably because his pride was offended by my mirth, and he wished to lend emphasis to his reproof, he spoke aloud. Ere his words died away, a sound of fiendish laughter broke crackling overhead and, a moment later, such a rumble of sounds, having in them the articulateness of speech, shook page 63the heavy air, that, startled beyond measure, we caught Puhi-Huia between us and rushed frantically for the light; nor did we pause until we had gained the sunlit ledge without.

"Now, Little Finger," cried Rangiora breathlessly, and with a note of triumph in his voice, "what say you of your stones? Do stones, then, speak with voices which shake the earth? And as regards the kao, I have remembered that no fire has touched it, being dried by the heat of the sun alone. Had it been truly cooked food, you would have seen your stones vanish away."

But I had had time to recover from my panic, and an explanation of the sounds occurred to me by no means in accordance with this view of their supernatural origin. "It was but the echo of our voices," I said; "for, if you notice, my laughter was repeated first, and the sound of your words followed in proper order."

I could see he was convinced of the truth of my explanation as soon as he heard it, but none the less he affected to treat the solution with contempt. "When I come here again," he said, "it shall be with cooked food in my hands, and so shall we clear the cave of the evil things that inhabit it. But, alas! I must go. Should my attendants return to the Great One and report that I am lost, then, of a certainty, he will kill them, and though that is not in itself an undesirable thing, still I doubt not that others, and perhaps worse, would be appointed in their place."

I too was reminded of the object of our journey, which in the excitement of our new companionship had escaped me, and together we made the ascent of the stairway. On the way Rangiora chattered of his scheme for exorcising the cave ghosts, though I am convinced he had by this time as little belief in the supernatural character of the stalagmites as I had myself, and merely sought a convenient pretext for a repetition of the delights of the morning page 64However, we arranged a time for the expedition and a form of signal to be scratched on the ground at the tunnel entrance, which would indicate the previous passage of either of us.

"Farewell, Puhi-Huia," he said, as we stood again on the spot where we had first encountered. "To you I give my box of kao. For you, Little Finger," he continued, turning to me, "I have at this time no gift. But wait. Rangiora does not forget. E!" he drew a deep breath into his lungs. "Sweet have you made my hour of freedom."

As I write, the little carved box lies on the desk before me. But where are he who gave and she who received? Can it be that it is given to this inanimate thing to stand the test of time, while those beauteous spirits perish for ever from the universe? Surely it is but the blindness of our senses that withholds their future from our vision. If death ends all, it is because it transcends all.

We heard his voice calling shrilly on his attendants far away in the bush before we ourselves resumed our journey, and as presently it was responded to by answering cries, it was evident that the men had continued the search and not returned with direful news to Te Huata.

Except for the events of one day, I need only speak generally of our visits to the cavern at this time. Our father's frequent absences made for great irregularity in the hours devoted to study, for naturally Roma could not in any way be looked upon as a substitute. The mere gabble of our voices, repeating such lessons as had to be committed to memory, appeared to stun her, and her manner was never more fearfully humble than when the air of the cabin reeled from a broadside of conjugations or the like, discharged point-blank from the grammarian's guns. But though the lessons themselves were irregular— often, indeed, springing on me unawares in some such fashion page 65as, "It will be well for you, Cedric, to really understand the reason why Orion is visible in the summer time and not in the winter. Always examine yourself for loose knowledge, my boy, and tighten the nuts. Now we will suppose, etc., etc."—yet there were fixed hours for preparation, and our freedom at other times depended on a proper observance of them.

On the days when father was at home and we were allowed to enter the store and assist in the unpacking and shelving of goods, neither Puhi-Huia nor myself cared to be absent from home. Omitting altogether the delight of being with him, there was always something new and strange in the packages, the use of which had to be explained and exemplified. But there was hardly a day of the others that did not find us, in company with Rangiora, in the cave of the stalagmites. The young chief, after alarming his attendants again and again, had ended up by making a compact with them, the which they were the more ready to enter into for the reason that the manner of his disappearances remained to them inexplicable. On their part they agreed, for so much tobacco paid and delivered—I am afraid it was purloined from the stores of Tuku-tuku, the Spider's Web, who was a great smoker— to grant him liberty for a period, not exceeding a certain number of hours; he on his part agreeing to supply such tobacco and to surrender his person to their guardianship on or before the time stated.

How many and merry were the hours we spent together in the cave and its approaches, and later on—when, after much labour, we discovered a practicable route—on the banks of the river beneath. Usually Puhi-Huia was with us, but not always, ror as time went by there grew up in her a desire to help her mother, which was only slightly deterred from its purpose by the obstacles the humility of the lady put in the way of her doing so. The charm page 66of the cooked food was duly tried on the stalagmites, needless to say without effect, and Rangiora had eventually to admit that, however improbable my theory of their origin, his was at least as much so.

It was many months before we came to a complete understanding of one another, and, despite the fact that we liked to be together and were continually plotting towards that end, there were occasions when only the presence of Puhi-Huia saved us from coming to blows. He had never, since the hour of our first encounter, cast a slight on the birth or standing of either of us. To Puhi-Huia he was uniformly gentle and courteous, watching her footsteps with a care that sometimes seemed to me unnecessary, and to savour of a feminine weakness of character. Of our parents also he always spoke with respect, and, however he might choose to conceal it, his admiration of the great trader evidently knew no bounds. But on the general question of the two races we were often at variance. Often have I heard him repeat his threat that the Great One would drive the white men into the sea.

"He couldn't," said I, on one occasion. "No man could. It is too late."

"The Great One is the greatest chief in the Land of the Long Light.1 What he says will be done."

"There is a greater than he," I rejoined. "Captain Hobson is greater."

"I speak not of white men," he replied coldly. "The white men are but the subjects of the Great One."

"That is not so," said I, hotly. "This is the country of the white men, and all in it are alike subjects of the Great Queen."

"Who made them her subjects? Is she of the blood of the Maori gods? Away with such foolishness! Shall one possess that one has never seen?"

1 "Land of the Long Light" = New Zealand.

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"Why not?" I retorted. "Sovereignty was granted to her by the chiefs themselves. They ceded the country to her in the treaty of Waitangi, and so it is written."

"That cannot be," he said, though I noticed a gleam of uneasiness in his eyes. "Even the chiefs dare not give away the country of the race."

But I was full of detail, for it was but an affair of yesterday, and only the night before my father had explained to me the whole business. "But it is true," I added, "that the Great One has not signed. He alone, of all the chiefs of New Zealand, refuses to confirm the deed."

"Said I not so?" he exclaimed triumphantly. "And by what right should the pakeha claim sovereignty over this country? Have they fought with and defeated the tribes? Nay, that were a task beyond their strength. What have these recreant chiefs received for bowing their necks to the White Queen?" There was real curiosity in his tones, yet I could see that the matter was not so new to him as he attempted to make out. "Have they bartered the lands of their ancestors for iron and tobacco?"

"It is not the land," I explained, somewhat repenting myself of the spitefulness of my previous mood. "All that the Maori possess remains their own. It is but the mana1 which has passed from many equal chiefs, who now make war upon and destroy one another, to the White Queen of the English, who will hold the land in peace. As there are many tribes of the Maori, so are there also of the pakeha. To my tribe, that of the English, the chiefs have given the right to hold the country against the others, that else might come here in thousands and put your race to the sword. It is for the protection of their people against such inroads that the chiefs have ceded the sovereignty of the country to the English."

1 This word includes not merely authority, but the recognition of it.

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"It is well, Little Finger" replied Rangiora, with fine irony, "but who will protect us from you English? Truly there may come a day when the people shall cry to the Great One, 'Wise wert thou, and foolish were we. Rise up now and drive these, our protectors, into the sea.' And on that day I shall stand at his side, the war-girdle about my loins, and great shall be the fight and long, and many shall pass to Te Reinga before the end is accomplished and Maori or pakeha possess the land in peace."

Well do I remember the manner in which these bickerings were brought to an end.

It was a grey morning in the late autumn or early winter. The crops were safely harvested, and though the fear of raids was fading from men's minds by reason of many years' immunity, the stockades had received their usual annual overhauling. The year's work was at an end. Rangiora and I had discovered a spot in the river where eels abounded and could be easily secured. With a supply of fish-hooks and lines, and a tin of freshly dug worms for bait, we descended from the ledge to the river bank. Hitherto Puhi- Huia, in spite of continual pleadings, had not been allowed to make the perilous descent, but this was so great an occasion that we yielded to her importunities, and down she went, clinging to the vines and dropping from point to point with such agility, sure-footedness, and self-confidence, that the glow of pleasure with which she had received our permission had not faded from her eyes when she stood safe and sound on the margin of the river.

We were soon established at the spot we had chosen and had our lines cast out in the water. There were unexpected difficulties, however, in the way of successful sport, and the greatest of these were the weeds and snags with which the river bed was encumbered.

Twice I had succeeded in drawing in my line only after long-continued effort, and on the third throw it became so page 69firmly entangled in the growth that there was nothing for it but to follow the hooks in person under the water. We were all expert swimmers and divers—what child who is given the opportunity to become so is not?—and no remark was made as I threw off my maro and slipped down into the water. I found that the line itself was caught, as well as the hooks, and by the time I had freed this from the black, splintered branch round which it was looped, I had to return to the surface for breath.

Again I dived, and, finding the original cause of the trouble, quickly set matters to rights. To do so I had crouched down, thus throwing my weight on the hinder part of my feet, and I was dimly conscious of one foot sinking through the weeds and mud and pressing tightly against some hard object on the river floor. I say I had only a dim consciousness of this, attaching no importance to the fact; what, then, was my horror when I rose to find that my heel was securely wedged in some cleft of a submerged tree, and that by no effort could I dislodge it. I have been near to death before and since, but that stands out as the moment of my life when the Grim Spectre drew nearest.

What ages seemed to elapse before the water above me lightened in a sudden flash and Rangiora sank down beside me! And yet it must have been brief indeed, for I had not yet discharged the breath with which I had filled my lungs on descending. He looked at me with eyes that bulged, fish-like, made a futile effort to release me, and, to my dismay, vanished upwards I could endure no more: my head seemed swollen to bursting-point, and, with an explosive cough, a long train of diminishing bubbles burst from my lips. It seemed but a dream after this to find him again beside me, to feel his arm close round my waist and wrench at me—he had in fact but returned to the surface to fill his lungs for the effort—to know that at last he had page 70torn me free from the grip of death. I remember my foster-sister's white face and horror-stricken eyes, and I remember being dragged above the reach of the water; and then, for a time, I remember no more.

Rangiora broke his compact with his attendants that day, and no doubt an extra supply of Tuku-tuku's tobacco was required to set matters right between them, for it was some hours before I was sufficiently restored to venture on the climb to the ledge. He was very silent on the return journey, scarcely taking his eyes from me; offering his aid with a sort of shy embarrassment at the difficult spots, and plainly rejoicing when I accepted it. As for Puhi- Huia, she clung to my hand, starting now and again as from a dream, and looking wildly into my face. When we had parted from Rangiora and had entered on the bush track, she put her arms round my neck and shed a few rare tears.

"How kind and brave is Rangiora!" she said.

"Kind and brave," I answered, gulping down some obstruction in my throat.

"If he be not truly descended from the gods," she continued, "at least he acts as if he were."

I fear I had sometimes thrown doubt on Rangiora's theory of his origin, but I was completely silent now.

It was three or four days before I saw him again. In his eyes was still that intentness of reflective regard with which he had last looked at me. He was very silent and quiet in his manner, and for a while we sat on the ledge outside the cave without exchanging a word. For my part, I was seeking to overcome the shamefacedness of boyhood, which prevented me uttering my thanks in words, and at last I so far got the better of it as to mutter in a voice half sullen, half shy: "I shall never forget it, Rangiora."

"Nor I," he answered.

"I mean what you did."

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He said nothing to that.

For a while we talked aimlessly of various matters, touching at length accidentally on something that suggested the old quarrel of the races. Suddenly he stopped in what he had been on the point of saying, and turned towards me.

"Little Finger," he said softly, "let that talk die between us for ever. In the hour that I found you in the water my eyes were opened, and I saw how deep the plant of friendship had rooted itself in my heart. Had you died then, to me also death had been welcome. So it is with me. I pray that it may be so with you also." His musical voice had taken on a bewitching charm, and for a moment my eyes were dim, so that I could scarcely see him. "Let us forget that we are of two races," he continued, "and remember that we are also of one—the race of mankind. Never shall my hand be raised against you and yours. Let not your hand be lifted against me and mine. Let us rather make between us the compact of the Tatau Pounamu,1 and if in the years to come one of us should reopen that which is shut, on his head be the loss and the shame. Behold, the Greenstone Door is closed."

"It is closed," said I.

Ah me!

1 See note, p. 400.