― 61 ―

Point Despair: A Memory of the Great Massacre

A GENERATION has slipped away since the Great Massacre, and even in this district in which I live, scarcely a hundred miles from the theatre of that abominable tragedy, the facts are almost forgotten, at least blurred to a fading patch of colour. It is remarkable how swiftly time passes; and what was yesterday a fear, to-morrow will become a reminiscence somewhat agreeable to talk over. Yet upon my mind are scored deeply the recollections of that horrible scene.

In the year of the Great Massacre I was in my eighth year, pretty sharp for a child, though somewhat undersized. My escape came about in this way. I had left Point Despair about eleven in the morning in the company of a lad, somewhat over my own age, who was returning to his people at Murimuru, some twelve miles distant. The road was plain and easy, running for some miles along the coast ; moreover, living alone with my uncle, I maintained a certain licence in my expeditions. Consequently I asked no leave to slip

  ― 62 ―
forth and accompany this playmate a certain part of his journey. It was a bright, warm day; we had some sandwiches in our pockets, and there was the sea smiling with a thousand lures at our feet. The suggestion was irresistible; we stripped to the skin, half way to Murimuru, and idled most of the afternoon in the water. It was not until my companion was suddenly pricked by his tardy conscience, and marched off, declaring he must make Murimuru with all speed, that I turned to retrace my way to Point Despair. The road, as it reached the point, dipped into a sparse piece of bush, through which it twisted irregularly for a mile or more, and ere I had issued from its shadows the dusk had fallen

It was not at once that I was struck by the singular quiet which ruled the flat, for I was occupied at the moment with lively fears about my length of absence; but half way to the post-house some uneasy appreciation of the stillness brought me up, and almost simultaneously I noticed a column of thin smoke rising at the back of Willis's lean-to. With that the significance of the silence went out of my mind; there was plainly a fire forward, a most unusual event in our small settlement; and, my anxiety forgotten, I broke into a run, thrilling under the stimulus of a new sensation. I had barely passed the lean-to in the dull twilight when I stumbled and went sprawling over something in the pathway. The thing gave under me, shifting a little aslant, and I cannot tell you my sensations when I perceived it to be a dead body. The light was still sufficient to see by, and ere I withdrew with a pant of alarm and terror I recognised the face, which was now staring up at me, as that of

  ― 63 ―
Willis himself. The spectacle was horrible. I carry it still in my memory, as vivid and as ghastly as on that evening thirty years back. God knows how barbarously the wretch had been done to death, or perhaps the innumerable and dreadful wounds had been inflicted after the release of that poor spirit. My mouth fell open, and my eyes watched the dead man's fearfully, drawn with a nameless attraction. It was the first time I had ever encountered death, and I had no power of motion in my limbs. My legs shook, I stood transfixed; the stare of those dead eyes held and terrified me. But presently the tide of reflection returned; I took my gaze from the corpse and let it go round the vicinity. I was alive now, on wires of fear, ready to jump off at an instant's sound. But no noise came save the low, persistent murmur of the sea upon the shingle. Even then I had not conceived the fate which had fallen on the settlement. The horror had been so extreme that it had dulled my nerves, but as the blood flowed anew from my heart a certain reaction set in, and I was able to gather my wits together. I supposed that this Willis, who had never been popular with me for a sourness of temper, had met with an abominable accident, and that I was the first to come upon the tragedy. The news, shocking as it was in all the horrid circumstances of its presentment, roused in me an alacrity, and I hurried to be off. I turned from the still and stupid body, which as it lay had somehow a look of obscene importance, and I scuttled towards my home with all speed.

As I did so the dark and moving shadows of the column of smoke saluted my eyes once more. Vague

  ― 64 ―
and distant in my mind was a restless wonder of this appearance. I had a momentary presage of a wider fear, unintelligible but colossal, and then I was running for life with the terror of that defiled body at my heels.

The house in which I kept my uncle company was little more than a shanty, and lay about the middle of the four-and-twenty houses which constituted the township of Point Despair. The settlement held no street; it had not reached the dignity of order, and few of the plots were enclosed. A kitchen-garden, containing a handful of gooseberry-bushes, a few currant-bushes, and rows on rows of cabbages and potatoes, for the most part surrounded each dwelling-place. Macfarlane's house alone had the luxury of a verandah, and was, in addition, fenced with posts and rails, against which grew a hedge of pinus insignis. Here it was that I stopped for the third time. For the front door, flung wide, was squeaking in the breeze, and a figure in a woman's dress lay in a heap on the verandah.

The sight sunk me back into my abject fears. I would have fled past it on the feet of panic, had not a horrible fascination mingled with my terror. I had come direct from one corpse upon another. The bare fact of this sequence appalled and benumbed me, and yet once more I was drawn insensibly to inspect this second horror.

It was not so dark but I could make out every particular of that mangled heap. I remember that I pored over it stupidly, noting every ghastly detail, but comprehending little. My imagination suffered under a surfeit of the earlier horrors, and could digest

  ― 65 ―
no more. She lay with an arm clutching at her side; it may be she kept some secret in that final moment, or perhaps it was merely by an instinct of defence. I could peer at the body so, but I should have shrieked out to have touched it with a finger-tip. When I left the verandah I had no proper sensations and no settled thoughts save a desire to get home. So incapable was I of further impressions that the body of a child in the pathway conveyed no meaning to me, though I was conscious that its name had been Sally. I merely accepted it as a natural part of this strange and rather terrible condition. I stepped over the child, backed away from it cautiously, keeping my eyes upon it, and then swiftly resumed my former gait. It might perhaps have leaped upon me. I knew not what would happen.

The smoke was rising from the ruins of the store, which stood only a few paces from my uncle's cottage. The flames had not worked much harm, as the fire had been unskilfully kindled, for the roof alone had been consumed, and the walls were still solid, but smouldering. Even the windows, though they were broken, showed still a few packages of grocery. The sight of the store, filled, as I pictured it, with innumerable sweets and treasures, struck me with more interest than the dead bodies, and for a moment I awoke to a thrill of excitement. But it was only mechanical, and I hardly paused to wonder as I dashed through the patch of cabbages to the door of my home. I had no thought of finding my uncle also dead, but the image of the woman returned persistently, and I glanced involuntarily about to see if perchance the body lay here also. As I entered by

  ― 66 ―
the door, which stood open, and my feet resounded familiarly upon the wooden flooring, something of comfort warmed me suddenly, and yet something of trouble too. I went clattering through the rooms, calling upon my uncle, a quaver in my tones.

The sound of my voice, solitary in the dusk, alarmed me further. No uncle answered me: there was no reassurance from the falling night. Indeed, the only noise that reached me came from the shore a mile away, where the waves of the Pacific moaned by day and night perpetually. It inspired me now with fresh terror to hear this melancholy sound, of which as a rule, I passed unconscious, save on nights of storm. Inside the house it was more obscure than in the open road, but in two rooms I could swear that there was no sign of my uncle. One corner of the third was wrapped in deeper darkness, and upon this I stared with dilating eyes. I dared not enter and inquire there. Somehow the conviction grew in me firmly that there sat my uncle in the evil blackness of that corner with a grin upon his face, and on his body all the gross marks of those dead creatures I had seen.

I had ceased calling, and the silence frightened me even more than my lonely voice. Terror crept over me, at first gently, and then with a rush. It held my face blanched and fixed towards the darkness, lest something should spring from it upon me. The rickety table by which I stood shook under my trembling hands, and the harsh grating and creaking completed my horror. I yelled like a cat, and like a cat fleeing from the room dashed out of the house, down the garden and into the road.

I ran on heedless of my direction until my wind

  ― 67 ―
was spent, and then, the original impulse of fear being lost in breathless fatigue, I stopped, and found that I was on the sandhills that filled the mile between the sea and the houses of the Point. The air was warm, and I was now all a-sweat from my running. I could hear the water roaring louder than before upon the beach. Inwards, where the bush lay black, in the rear of the houses, was a dreadful quiet. Somewhere across the dunes a weka called and was silent. The moon came out and shone faintly, for the night had already fallen as it is used to fall suddenly from southern skies. I was alive in a graveyard.

It was some time ere I was able to drag myself back to the houses. Indeed, I think nothing short of a new terror would have made me return. As I lay crouching in the “scrub” of the dunes my ears and eyes were preternaturally alert. The sand was covered with thin, rough tussock-grass, which shook and sighed in the wind. These sounds again discomfited me, and more particularly as the wind grew. A first breath of trouble, as it seemed to me, stirred through the long culms and set them gently whispering, as it had been the lamentation of a little child. Then with a slowly growing volume of wailing the reeds rocked and swayed in anguish, and it was as if the groans of that whole company of dead were expressed in my ears. The horrible tragedy, as I now conceived it, was enacted before me in these noises. As the wind rose I heard the shrieks of the poor women barbarously handled, and the screams and prayers of the dying returned to me; and as it fell so I conceived again a silence to fall upon the settlement, which was the final stillness of death.

  ― 68 ―
This impression made such a mark upon me that the beats of my heart quickened to a galop, and I began to see life start from the inanimate bushes and creepers about me. What nameless things I imagined were haunting those trembling and invisible bushes I have now no notion, nor indeed had I at the time. The dunes were alive with crying ghosts, and I was alone with them. I was stung once more into action, and with despair in my heart I crept from the open seaward space into the settlement again.

I took up my post now as distant from the houses as I could manage to be, without being actually beyond the precincts of the township. A space, still unoccupied, and the common playground of children, spread out before the store, and upon a slope in this, where the ground rolled up against a patch of bush, I sat in a heap of furze and watched the night. Some sparks of fire lingered in the beams of the store, and broke out into flame from time to time, revealing thick clouds of smoke that still rolled upwards to the moon. I took a certain comfort in this companionship, and after a time my terrors had so nearly subsided that I began to feel hungry; for I had eaten no food since midday. Though my spirit was returning, and my fancies were gone, I still lacked the courage to approach my uncle's cottage, or even to explore the store, in which I was sure to find some food. I endured the pangs with fortitude rather than face the unknown terrors across the threshold. But presently I remembered the wild fuchsia-tree which grew in the bush at my back, and with some of the kanini berries I stayed my appetite. The scene was so peaceful, and my refuge among the ferns was so warm

  ― 69 ―
that I grew even cheerful, and was soon whistling softly to myself; and when at last my extreme thirst compelled me to make a journey to the creek, two hundred yards away, I set out upon the expedition with scarcely any reluctance.

A house with a garden which in our wilderness had always been held quite magnificent, stood upon the verge of the creek. I had made the distance swiftly and in a respectful silence, but having taken my drink without accident I resumed something of my normal ease and security, and strolled back more leisurely, whistling the catch of a song. But at the gate of the house I was brought suddenly to a halt, my heart stood for a moment still, and I was rooted to the earth with the fear of what I saw. Something was moving under the white light in the rude track before the gate, crawling and crawling, as it seemed, towards me. It was not until the clouds streamed from the moon and the light grew clearer that I realised the cause of my stupefaction. It was the body of a woman, stirring feebly, and as soon as I had perceived this my fright left me and I drew closer and looked down upon it. I recognised her at once as Mrs. Stainton, a young woman of comely appearance, who since her advent to Point Despair three months before, with her newly-married husband, had shown me much kindness. She was still alive, and as I stood over her, not knowing what to do, she groaned and opened her eyes upon me. She lifted her hand and beckoned to me feebly; but I was reluctant to approach, and eyed her from a yard or two away. I saw her part her lips and struggle for speech. Her body writhed, and her features were contorted with her efforts. Her uplifted arm shook and fell.

  ― 70 ―

But still I held aloof. In truth, I feared to approach lest she should take hold of me. She made a little upward motion of her head three times, as though she were striving to rise upon her elbow; but if it were so, the attempt was vain; her body quivered and her head sank back, and with a tiny sigh she was still. I waited a moment and then bent over her.

“Mrs. Stainton!” I called, “Mrs. Stainton!”

She returned no sign, and with alarm I perceived that her eyes were still open and were staring at me. I got up and ran away from the spot hastily.

Once in my lair among the bracken I felt safe and comfortable. The repugnance of the dead bodies did not pursue me thither. I was covered up from the eye of heaven in the long ferns, and in my warm seclusion sheltered from the wind by the patch of bush at my back. I soon began to nod. The walk of the afternoon had tired me and the mental disturbance of the last two hours had added to my weariness. I do not think I should have attached any importance to the very presence of the murderers at their work, if the tragedy had been re-enacted before me. Curled up, with my knees to my chin, I passed gently to sleep.

I awoke some hours later with a dismal squalling in my ears. I sat up with a start in that sudden panic that seizes on the dreamer while yet he is half-way to his senses. My heart thumped and my eyes strained through the cloud of darkness. Presently I recognised the sound as the mewling of a cat hard by. It came from the pines behind me, and drew gradually nearer; so that in a little while it had approached quite close to my refuge, where it stood, as I could see now in

  ― 71 ―
the twilight of the dawn, crying desolately. I jumped to my feet and put out my hand.

“Puss! Puss!” I called softly.

The cat darted away, limping on three legs, and I heard the sound of something trailing through the grass. I followed still calling on it.

“Puss! Puss! Poor Puss!” I said in a condoling whisper. It stopped forlornly before a heavy log of wood which barred its way, and threw a scared glance at me. I made a little rush forward, but the creature spat passionately at me, and gathering itself together, with an angry growl scrambled up the log, dragging a broken leg. It vanished with a screech of pain into the undergrowth.

I groped my way back towards the bracken disconsolately. My nest was difficult to discover, for I was still drowsy, and I wandered for some minutes ere I lighted upon it. I had scarce found the bush by which it was marked when my foot stumbled upon something, and being very stiff and sore from my hard bed, I fell forward rather heavily. I put out my hands to save myself, and they touched the cold flesh of a dead body. I screamed and fled blindly, escaping into my hiding-place, where I lay trembling. Those terrible things had followed me even there; there was no escape for me. I listened for the footsteps. Would it approach? The chill of something worse than death struck to my heart as I heard a slight movement in the grasses beyond the bush. I would have torn open the earth with my hands to bury myself. I cried out, calling on my uncle, who lay dead somewhere himself. Then there came a swishing sound; a cracking followed; and then with a sibilation of the tussock

  ― 72 ―
the Thing slipped out of the detaining grasses, and rolling with a soft thud from spot to spot, went down the little slope. I heard it pause in the hollow below, and silence once again prevailed.

The sun was far gone in the sky when I awoke with the noise of horse-hoofs clattering in my ears. From the rise I could command a view of the road from the point where it ran into the bush; and along this a horseman was cantering leisurely towards me. Save for the wounded cat and the last few moments of that flickering spirit the night before, this was the first live thing I had set eyes upon since my return; and, once assured that it was no marauding Maori returning to his terrible work, I jumped to my feet, and scampered to meet the rider. The body in the hollow caused me a little gasp of fright as I passed it, all but treading on it again in the long grass. But even this reminder of my fears availed nothing against my sudden burst of joy. I ran down the road and met the horseman ere he turned the corner by the first cottage.

“Mr. Stainton! Mr. Stainton!” I called in excitement.

He threw a nod at me, but did not draw rein.

“That you, Johnny?” he said. “What brings you up early like this?”

Even as he spoke and passed by, without waiting for an answer, a nameless and delicate fear came over me. I saw him now heading his horse for that house; and outside that house I saw what was waiting for him, beckoning me again with crooked fingers. For a moment I stood paralysed behind him, and then,

  ― 73 ―
a deeper instinct moving in my boyish mind, I ran at the heels of his horse, shouting in a treble:

“Mr. Stainton! Mr. Stainton!”

He must not, I felt dimly, be suffered to come wholly unprepared upon the remains of that tragedy. But my cries were ineffectual; he waved his ridingwhip as in greeting, without looking back, and cantered on. I stood for a space of time, not knowing what to do, whether to go forward or to retreat. Then, broken by my doubts and the dreadful thing my instinct scented, I took the latter course, and hid in the bushes again. It must have been a quarter of an hour later that I perceived Mr. Stainton coming back from the creek. He was riding fast, and his horse shied before the house with the verandah at something in the path. When he came abreast of me I rushed out, calling to him again:

“Mr. Stainton! Mr. Stainton!”

He turned his face towards me, and I saw that it was stricken ghastly white. His fingers shook on his bridle, and he stared at me; paying me no heed.

“Mr. Stainton, take me with you,” I moaned. “Take me with you.”

It was as if he saw me not. He went by like a flash, unheeding, with his grey face evil with terror; and down the road I ran, sobbing and crying after him, till he had vanished into the bush and I was all alone again.

Yet this desperate and unavailing act had accomplished one thing. I had passed in my flight the limit of the township, and was now beyond the graveyard. Recognising this at last, I dashed into the bush, and that lamentable flat became lost to my sight.

Cætera desunt.