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The Web of the Spider

Chapter X. The Foul Swamp

page 132

Chapter X. The Foul Swamp.

The noises, hitherto sounding from all quarters of the flat, came of a sudden nearer, and the gunshots ceased. It was evident that the Maoris had hit upon the passage, and soon they could be heard stamping upon the manuka-bundles by the entrance. Palliser's party ran on without pause, lurching upon the rude footway, stumbling and catching in the faggots. Their pace was of necessity but moderate, and the darkness heightened the insecurity of their progress. The girl by Palliser tripped and staggered at every turn, but, recovering gallantly, ran on; to aid her he threw an arm about her and pulled her into a smarter step, but soon felt her panting hard; and at the same time the rush of the Maoris over the sticks drew nearer and nearer. He saw that they would be overtaken at this; they must drop their charge in some place of safety. Coming quickly to a stand, be whispered to her.

"We must hide you; they're catching up. You will be safe here. Quick! into this flax-bush! Wait here till we return. Don't move, whatever you see or hear."

She leapt daintily from the causeway into the heart page 133of the bush, which he parted for her, and then turned with one hand on the stiff rushes.

"I have to thank you," she said, "for my life——"

"Not yet," he broke in with haste. "For heaven's sake, Miss Caryll, not yet!"

He slid off with the rest into the dusk, and their tramp resounded on the crackling manuka. Behind them now were the running feet of the pursuers. There was no sign of Aotea.

"They're gaining," gasped Foster.

"Spurt!" said Palliser under his breath.

Matuku was a little in advance, brushing along the flax; the two panted after him. Foster opened his mouth as though for speech, but at that moment the Maniapoto disappeared with a slight cry. Palliser stopped sharp, and put a detaining hand upon Foster, peering over the black verge. The track came here to an abrupt conclusion, and the Maori had gone into the swamp. As quick as thought, Palliser leapt across the gap to a flax-bush, and, seizing the struggling man by the arm, wrenched him from the bog, black and miry.

"Come over," he called, in a hoarse whisper.

Foster struggled lamely across the marsh and was dragged into the recesses of the flax. In another second the Ngatiawas came down with a rush, and, ere they had realised it, a couple of their number swung out into the swamp. Having hauled them out, the party seemed to consider, talking in low tones.

"They are hiding near," said one.

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"They are concealed in the flax."

"Has anyone indeed seen them?" asked another.

"I saw nothing, but I heard sounds and someone rushing upon the manuka."

The three men lying close within their hiding-place watched them growing dimmer in the shadows. There were six or eight of them, and they stood so near the fugitives that Palliser feared their hard breathing would betray them. But presently the Ngatiawas moved off and there was silence for the space of ten minutes. The three did not stir from their position, for they suspected this to be merely a ruse to obtain knowledge of their whereabouts. Now the flax-bush in which they crouched, being somewhat small and narrow, cramped them severely, and Foster, doubled up into a knot, was leaning upon a thick flax-stick; so that, whether through the long strain or his inadvertent increase of pressure, suddenly his support, which was but brittle, snapped near the base, breaking the long silence with a sharp crack. In a moment they heard the voices of the Maoris, and the report of a gun, followed by the smack of a bullet on the flax.

"We can't stay here," muttered Palliser. "They will surround us. Shift into the next bush, and push across the swamp."

One by one, and with as Little noise as possible, they crossed into a further bush, while the Ngatiawas beat along the verge of the track, and, more or less at random, fired their guns into the swamp. But soon ceasing this ineffectual warfare upon an invisible foe, they were page 135silent again, and the rustling and creaking of the flax proved that they too had taken to the swamp. Meanwhile Palliser's party crept stealthily from bush to bush in the direction that lay farthest from the sounds; but, unhappily, the prevailing quietude served also to convey news of them to the Maoris, who pushed on with all speed towards them. Presently it became evident that the pursuers were gaining ground, and at last Palliser was startled by seeing a dark face peer out from a neighbouring bush, and a form prepare to spring into one still closer. Lifting his revolver, he fired, and the man fell in the act of jumping, and was swallowed by the black swamp. Immediately a volley rattled about them, and the flax was riddled in the thinner parts. The fugitives replied somewhat aimlessly, and retreated another step.

In this way a blind and straggling fight was maintained with little damage to either side. After the first few shots, indeed, the Englishmen retired, as it were, from the combat, for which in the circumstances they had little stomach, and confined themselves to an occasional discharge upon the appearance of a Ngatiawa more rash than his fellows. The Maoris, growing impatient, extended themselves in a crescent form under the cover of their fire, and now occupied the bushes on three sides of the party. It was so clearly their intention to encircle the Pakehas and drive them to bay, that Palliser resolved upon breaking across the chord of the crescent ere it was too late. Accordingly, he and his companions dispersed at a leap into several bushes, and page 136plunged pell-mell forward through the swamp, exposing themselves egregiously as they ran to the fire of the enemy, whose aim was luckily very indifferent. They landed finally upon a bush on the margin, of an open space, which they took for a stretch of swamp, and here their condition was serious enough. For the Ngatiawas were jumping after them, crowding from bush to bush with fierce shouts, and already the horns of the crescent had reached the verge of the open stretch. It seemed as if they were trapped, and must needs fight within their entrenchments. But at this moment Foster swore an oath of delight.

"It ain't swamp," he said, leaning out of the flax with one foot to the earth. "It's hard ground!"

"Good!" cried Palliser. "Then let us rush; the darkness will help us." Glancing back, he paused for a second; then—" We shall need all the gods on our side; drive on," he said, and, stepping to the earth, he rushed upon the open.

Foster bounded after him with big lobsided strides. Half a dozen guns snapped behind them, and the ranger, swerving in his course, half stopped and then ran on again. Two or three more shots followed, and the wind of a bullet whistled in Palliser's ears. Then all of a sudden, broke out a noise of many guns.

"They mean to have us," panted Foster, glancing over his shoulder. "Good Lord!" he cried, "what's this?"

Palliser turned round and beheld dim shadowy figures page 137on the flax verge struggling with each other. He stopped, and then—

"The Haunters!" he cried excitedly. "The mystery at last."

Matuku's eyes were wild with the delirium of battle.

"Let us join them, Pariha," he said.

"Mystery, is it?" said Foster. "All hell's awake, it seems. Come on, then!" He had drawn his heavy cutlass and was waving it in the air, when it suddenly dropped to his side and he staggered upon it. Palliser caught him.

"I can't call to mind the right note of their damned war-song," he said, "and these here bullets are gone to my head."

"Why, you're hit," exclaimed Palliser.

"Just so. I told you, it's like my luck. I never get off. I'll be as full of bullets as a barrel is of nails before I've done."

"Come, we can't afford the luxury of a fight, whoever our friends are," said Palliser. "We must hide in the flax again. They may be beaten."

"I can't say you ain't right, mate," returned Foster, with a laugh, "for they've tickled me somewhere in the ribs. But all serene, my cocky," he went on to Matuku; "you go in and let out for three."

From the farther side of the open the fighting shadows were indistinguishable, but the sounds of a conflict came to them—shouts and the intermittent report of guns. As the three passed into the flax the deep dusk had turned into night, and the silver rim page 138of the moon was peeping over Hine-te-ao eastward. When within the shelter of the flax, Palliser examined Foster's wound, which proved to be of slight account, though loss of blood had weakened him. They rested, therefore, in their dark covert, listening to the outrageous noises from the open and watching the rising moon slowly illumine the valley. But Palliser was loth to sit at ease while the mystery, so long a riddle to him, was now within his ken; so, after binding Foster's wound as well as might be, he bade Matuku keep watch by him, and set off through the swamp bordering the firm ground to the scene of conflict. He was determined to discover who these Haunters were that so persistently befriended him. In some way he could not help connecting their presence with the dead Caryll, though at best his thoughts were of the vaguest, and their beneficence engendered in him an indefinable misgiving which their patent enmity would not have produced. He could not but think that these assailants of the Ngatiawas were those that had perplexed him so often before, though as yet he had but seen them as shadows at war. Stealthily he crept from bush to bush round the circular field, till he drew near the spot where the fight was in progress. The din grew louder. There was now a gunshot but rarely, and the struggle seemed at close quarters. Clouds had veiled the moon, so that a thick darkness covered the flat when he came out by what he fancied must be the battlefield. He heard hoarse Maori shouts, and the scrap of a war-song, horrid gurglings, and loud groans; then the dull clatter of a page 139blade or spear upon some metal, and then a thud or a cry. Sometimes there was a hush upon the air, and then again noises broke out; at first strenuously, but in the end dying into hard breathings and strange snortings of the nostril. It was a hideous medley of abominable sounds that reached his ears, now rising high, now sinking into silence, but all in the darkness, meaningless and inhuman.

He lay some time in the swamp, not caring to venture out upon a blind errand, and as he listened the sounds grew fainter; there was suddenly the loud report of a gun, and then silence fell upon all. While he still kept his place, uncertain how to proceed, the moon broke from the clouds with a leap and flooded the valley. And now, for the first time, Palliser saw his position. He was upon the edge of the swamp, facing the open, upon which the light lay full and still, gleaming from the girdle, of flax. And lo, there was not a living soul to be seen, but the moonbeams whitened some ten or twelve motionless bodies stretched upon the grass. They must have fought to the bitter end, these men of war, and all perished utterly in the lust of battle. At the thought Palliser stepped out upon the level earth and drew nearer to the field of the dead. Stooping over the first body in his path, he found it stiff and lifeless; hard by another corpse reposed in the grim rigour of death, the brow scarred with the fire of hate and vengeance. Beyond a little was a figure twisted and doubled as in some agony, but still and silent, its face buried in the grass, as though to page 140cover its last hideous grimace of pain. To Palliser, who was no soldier, though of a hardy nature and a rough training, these sights were piteous, calling for some elementary change in the principles of life itself. The complete and unexpected disappearance of the enemy startled him. from his practical temper, and set him to wonder upon so horrible an event; and the suddenness of this despatch added to the tenderness of his mood no less than did the ghastliness of those bodies in the moonlight. And who were they that had so befriended him to their own destruction? Were there among these poor husks of mortality the champions of the evil Pakeha? Who were they, and why had they taken upon so readily the protection of an accursed race? The secret could not he revealed by the dead lips; It would seem, to have died with them; and a sense of awe in the presence of the unexplained was imposed upon the mingled feelings in Palliser's heart, leaving him unstrung, unsatisfied, and regretful, a man of fears and speculations, rather than one of an active front.

A sound made him glance up quickly; and he beheld, uprisen, tottering from the ground a dozen, paces away, a menacing figure between him and the moon. He stood up from his kneeling posture by the corpses and drew his revolver, retreating backwards to the swamp mechanically. The sudden apparition from among dead men unnerved him for the moment in his weak mood. It straightened itself, standing erect and terrible in the moonlight, the one thing of life in that page 141dismal place; and raising an arm in the air, brandished something of steel and stalked towards him. It came at a pace Palliser did not realise, at the latter end running and waving its arms, and, ere he knew, was upon him. The weapon it held aloft he now saw to be a broken bayonet, which it clasped by the haft like a dagger, glinting in the moonbeams. His finger was to the trigger of his weapon, when the figure suddenly swerved and staggered, and turned out of the shadow into the moonlight. The clear beams fell upon its face, and Palliser saw such a sight as made him lower his pistol. A tangle of hair and huia feather, daubed with blood and mire, clotted about its forehead; its arms were bare and bleeding, and the band which held the broken bayonet trembled; the trunk was naked, black and gaping, smeared, like the face, with blood and mire; and the whole body rocked upon its tremulous foundations. The eyes were glassy, fixed in a stare of passion, and the mouth worked convulsively, but no sound came. In the horror of this dreadful spectre, Palliser had no heart to defend himself with violence, so dropping his revolver, he dodged into the flax. But the gaping wretch bounded towards him without a word, and landing upon the bush by him, stood for a second upright with his lifted weapon; then swayed to and fro, and fell over the edge into the swamp beyond, striking Palliser in his passage. The latter, astounded by the terrible leap of a creature so near death, met the shock unawares, and could not extricate himself from beneath the burden. The flax itself offered a very insecure foot-page 142ing, and the weight of the falling Maori overbalanced him. He put out his hand and grasped at a support, but caught only the brittle flax-stick, which, cracked on the instant, and ere he had realised his predicament he, too, was in the swamp, the stick in his hand, sinking fast in the oozing slime.

The impetus of his fall had carried him out of reach of the bush, and as ill luck had it, the flax grew here at irregular intervals, and the other bushes were remoter. The moment he recovered his wits he tried to flounder through the slime toward that from which he had fallen, but the swamp was very watery, and his efforts but sank him deeper, till he was buried to the armpits. In another moment he would have gone entirely under, but that in his despair he seized again the one thing he could reach—the flax-stick which his weight had broken. Now this was eight or ten feet in length, and at the thicker end the breadth of a man's wrist, and it had fallen in such a way as to span the gap between one bush and another, resting between the two bases nigh three feet above the level of the marsh. The stick of the flax is so brittle that even at its thickest it will snap clean asunder with a slight jerk, yet with care it may bear a continuous strain. This meagre support prevented him from slipping any deeper, but it could not hold him long, and his case seemed hardly better than if he had sunk forthwith and been smothered in the swamp without any cruel delay. He strove at first to worm himself along the stick towards one of the bushes, but he was too far buried in the mire to move page 143by the precarious support, and in fear of breaking it he presently desisted without having altered his position one single inch. Resting with both hands above his head, and the watery slime sucking and oozing with every uneasy respiration, he turned over impossible projects with a coward heart. Through the gaps in the flax the moonlight gleamed on the liquid surface, turning its sordid blackness to a shining white, and he could see through the interstices the quiet bodies of the slain upon the battlefield. All was silent save the bubbling of the slime under his arms. To all mortal conjecture he was already as part of the foul swamp which lapped about him. He could feel his limbs growing into their loathsome mould, stiffening and chilling minute by minute. Noisome smells rose into his nostrils till the fumes poisoned him, and he felt his fingers loosen upon the stick; already he was being suffocated by malodorous vapours. His body grew rigid; he could not move or turn, and each effort to do so wriggled him a little further, deeper, down. He knew rather than saw that the stick was already bending under his weight, and would presently crack and leave him to sink to his doom.

Palliser was a brave man. His bravery, indeed, was of that type of which the highest distinction is fortitude, and often in the course of an irregular life had he been the neighbour of death. He was a man who calculated chances, and took them, where it was needful, with equanimity; he had long marched upon fate, without distress, limiting his purview to the immediate future, page 144not ignorant but regardless of ultimate contingencies. Famine and fire and sword, and the continuous war with nature, had worn him from an impulsive and generous youth into a something hard and impervious man. He had seen the coarsest and vilest aspects of life; he had lived in solitudes, where a man's swag is his only companion, and the predatory visit of an aboriginal is a welcome expression of humanity; and in crowded camps, where the company is so hideous that to be alone is an impossible heaven. From goldfield to bush, from atoll to island, he had beaten about a world full of death and failure for fifteen years, till he had come to regard life as a game which a man is bound to lose, though by skill a little and more by chance, he shall, maybe, carry it on a trifle longer than his fellows. And in this philosophy one incident was to him very much as another, though this should be the first of a chain to success, and that the final one of life. Yet there was something in this deliberate torture as he hung, slowly gravitating to his end, which moved all that was craven in him. His face was drawn and white, and his eyes sparkled with a feverish desire of life. He rolled them recklessly round and round in their sockets, skywards and earthwards and skywards again, twisting and straining in every direction; knowing, nevertheless, that in this dismal place could be nothing but silence, and that no change could come over the primeval stagnation. Still, the last hope that inhabits the stout citadel of the body fought on beleaguered; but weaker page 145now through the swimming of a giddy brain. How long he had hung he knew not; his pulse ticked out the hours, not time. The cold crept up his shoulders; he felt the chill steal along his arms and numb them; his neck grew frigid and impotent. And in his half-conscious state he was aware that he had sunk a little lower owing to the slacking of the flax-stick. Suddenly into his ears leapt a crack that echoed with the noise of many waters. It roused him from his lethargic torpor, and through his mind shot for an instant its dread import.

Surely, since the end had come, he should die awake and in arms, not submissive and asleep. Stirring, he felt the slime creep higher up his palsied back; his arms lay stretched upon the muddy plane dead and withered; and his eyes fastened upon them inertly as ruts formed under them and the black mud overflowed them. His pulse was beating in his head slowly, regularly; and what was this tune it thumped out?—

"Down among the dead men—down—down—down!"

Was it Foster's voice to which he was listening, and Foster's black face at which he was looking? Was it a black face, or black mud? There was a beating of music, a wavering as of dissolved souls in the air; and the cold was become fire shooting through the body—streaks of fire in the eyes and through the body.

"Down among the dead men—down—down—down!"

Something struck him, and the shock stayed him even at this gate of death. All this had passed in a flash, and page 146the ooze was licking about his neck. Yet there was an electrical sensation quivering in the limbs that had been numb. There was something underfoot!

Tills delirious thought set him aglow and galvanised his brain into action. He moved his feet painfully, and behold, they rested not upon the immaterial mire, but on something solid. He felt along it: it was rough, uneven, discontinuous. In a second he had realised what it was—the body of that piteous wretch that had preceded him into the swamp. Fathom deep it lay in the crawling slime, sunken by its own weight and impetus; and in God's providence surely a bridge for the struggling creature that should otherwise have been its fellow. "With newly-awakened powers of mind and limb, Palliser, balancing on this rude human foundation, breasted the mud and shoved gently towards the flax. Bit by bit, in degrees that were imperceptible, he pushed forward to his goal. He dared not make a bold movement for it lest the body beneath him should cease or slip, or wallow deeper still, and leave him. spluttering and breathing the foul swamp. Moreover, the medium was not easily penetrated, and he had to cut through with his arms and elbows. But little by little he won his way, and at last, reaching an arm that dripped mud into the air, he clutched the long, stiff, irrefragable flax-leaf, and, winding it round his wrists, dragged himself nearer—nearer—nearer—till he could grip the green bundles in his arms. And so he pulled himself slowly into the heart of the bush, where he fell in a heavy swoon.