Chapter 48 | Ngati’s Disguise | The Adventures of Don Lavington

Chapter Forty Eight.

The return journey proved to be less perilous than the descent. The awful chaos of water was beneath them, but invisible, the darkness being so intense that everything was hidden but the mass of rock over and by which they climbed. In addition, the exertion and busy action after the long waiting seemed to keep them from thinking of anything but the task on which they were engaged. So that, to Don’s surprise, he found himself on the outer side of the dangerous corner, with the gulf left behind, and then clambering on and on by the side of the torrent chasm, past the other perilous parts, and before he could realise the fact, they were all together on the shelf, crouching down. Here Ngati slowly raised his head, to stand gazing over the edge at the level above, watching for a long time before stooping again, and uttering a low grunt.

He mounted directly, bent down and extended a hand to each in turn, and then taking the lead, went cautiously onward to get out of the deep rift, and find a place that would enable them to reach the higher ground.

It was still dark, but not so dense but that they could pick their way, and they passed on till they reached the hot spring, a little beyond which Ngati believed that they could strike up to the left, and cross the mountain to reach the plains beyond.

Another half-hour was devoted to retracing their steps, when Don stopped short, his ear being the first to detect danger.

They were passing the mud spring, whose gurgling had startled them in coming, and for a moment Don thought that a sound which he had heard came from the thin greyish-black mud; but it was repeated, and was evidently the laugh of some one not far away.

Ngati pressed their arms; and signing to them to lie down and wait, he crept onward, to be absent about a quarter of an hour, when he returned to say a few words in his native tongue, and then squat down and bury his face in his hands, as if in thought.

“They’re just in front, Mas’ Don. I keep hearing of ’em,” whispered Jem. “Sometimes I hear ’em one way, sometimes the other.”

“That is through the echoes, Jem. How are we to manage now?”

Ngati answered the question in silence, for, rising quickly, after being deep in thought, he silently picked some grass and moss, rolled it into a pear shape, and bound it on the end of his spear. Then holding the weapon up high, he bent his body in a peculiar way, and stalked off slowly, turning and gazing here and there, and from time to time lowering his spear, till, as he moved about in the shadowy light, he had all the appearance of some huge ostrich slowly feeding its way along the mountain slope.

“Moa! Moa!” he whispered, as he returned. “Jemmeree moa; my pakeha moa.”

“He wants us to imitate great birds, too, Jem,” said Don, eagerly. “Can you do that?”

“Can I do it?” said Jem. “O’ course; you shall see.”

Ngati seemed delighted that his plan was understood, and he rapidly fashioned rough balls to resemble birds’ heads for his companions’ spears, and made them turn up their trousers above the knee, when, but for their white appearance, they both looked bird-like. But this difficulty was got over by Ngati, who took it as a matter of course that they would not object, and rapidly smeared their hands, legs, and faces with the slimy mud from the volcanic pool.

“Well, of all the nasty smells!” whispered Jem. “Oh, Mas’ Don, are you going to stand this? He has filled my eyes with mud.”

“Hush, Jem!” whispered Don.

“But shall we come across any hot baths by-and-by?”

“Silence, Jem!”

“All right, Mas’ Don, you’re master, but this is—oh, bad eggs!”

Ngati held up his hand for silence, and then whispering the word “Moa” again, he imitated the movements of a gigantic bird, signing to them to do likewise.

Don obeyed, and in spite of the peril they were in, could hardly help laughing, especially when Jem kept up an incessant growling, like that of some angry animal.

Ngati was evidently satisfied, for he paused, and then pointing forward, strode slowly through the low bushes, with Don and Jem following and imitating his movements as nearly as they could.

As they walked on they could hear the murmur of voices, and this sound increased as Ngati went slowly forward, bearing off to the left.

It seemed to Don that they were going straight into danger, and his heart beat with excitement as the talking suddenly stopped, and there was a rustling sound, as if several men had sprung to their feet.

But Ngati did not swerve from his course, going slowly on, and raising the spear from time to time, while a low excited whispering went on.

“What will they do?” thought Don; “try to spear us, or surround and seize us?”

The Maoris did neither. Ngati knew the dread his fellow-countrymen possessed for anything approaching the supernatural, and in the belief that they would be startled at the sight of the huge birds known only to them by tradition, he had boldly adopted the disguise—one possible only in the darkness; and so far his plan was successful.

To have attempted to pass in their ordinary shape meant either capture or death; but there was the chance that they might succeed like this.

They went on in the most deliberate way, both Don and Jem following in Ngati’s steps, but at every whisper on their right Don felt as if he must start off in a run; and over and over again he heard Jem utter a peculiar sigh.

A harder test of their endurance it would have been difficult to find, as in momentary expectation of a rush, they stalked slowly on, till the whispering grew more distant, and finally died away.

All at once Ngati paused to let them come up, and then pointed in the direction he intended to go, keeping up the imitation of the bird hour after hour, but not letting it interfere with their speed, till, feeling toward morning that they were safe, he once more halted, and was in the act of signing to his companions to cease their clumsy imitation, when a faint sound behind put him on his guard once more.

The task had been in vain. They had passed the Maoris, and were making for the farther side of the mountains, but their enemies had been tracking them all the night, and the moment day broke, they would see through the cunning disguise, and dash upon them at once.

They all knew this, and hastened on, as much to gain time as from any hope of escape, till just at daybreak, when, panting and exhausted, they were crossing a patch of brush, they became aware that the Maoris had overcome their alarm at the sight of the gigantic birds, and were coming on.