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The Web of the Spider

Chapter XI. In the White Fog

page 147

Chapter XI. In the White Fog.

Time had rushed past when Palliser came to himself and struggled upon his feet. The infernal swamp obtruded on his soul a thousand nauseous horrors, and he reeled in his feverish, desire to be gone. He was caked from head to foot in flaky, greasy mud, which was now stiffening upon him, encasing his joints so that their movements were without his control. Falling, rather than leaping, upon the open, he lumbered across the flat through the scattered corpses. The bodies swayed and danced in his vision as he stumbled among them, grey and shining in the misty moonlight. He had the sense of ploughing through the slime upon them, and as he ran, staggering like a drunkard, was haunted by a fear of tripping over a disjected limb into the horrible bog.

Some minutes later, Foster, pacing restlessly upon the outskirts of the swamp, descried a wild figure beating its way towards him.

"Good God, old man!" he cried, as it floundered up and fell clutching at him. "What's happened?"

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"Give me air!" gasped Palliser. "Give me air!"

Foster, whistling low for Matuku, put him gently to the ground, from which he was struggling.

"Hold on," he said; "you're better there. You want a rest. Gosh! what's this? Bog, infernal bog—pure, unadulterated, damnable bog!"

Bending over the prostrate man, he passed his hand tenderly along the rigid limbs.

"I'm chilled to the bone," murmured Palliser.

"That's about it. Here; a swig of this'll help you a bit. Lucky I didn't finish it off."

He drew a small flask from his pocket and put it to Palliser's lips. Matuku came noiselessly up.

"Be silent," he whispered; "Ngatiawas are near. There is a party searching in the swamps."

"Give me another nip of that rum," said Palliser; "it makes a lot of difference. We must be going. Which way do they come, O son of the rat?" he asked of Matuku.

"Hold your peace!" said the Maori. "This way."

"They've come after their friends," said Foster.

"We must hide."

"No; we must go," exclaimed Palliser; "we've lost too much time already. How long have I been away?"

"Well, I should put it at an hour."

"An hour!—it seems a month. More rum. Now I'm fit for another stage. Give me your arm. That's right. Hush!—gently across the flat. The mist's rising. Lord! I'll show you strange sights;" and, under the influence of the rank and fiery spirit, Palliser page 149laughed softly and blundered out upon the way by which he had come.

The dead lay in a wavering, cadaverous light upon the field, and Palliser, stopping in their midst, leaned heavily upon Foster.

"Look, Matuku," said he; "who are these? They have fought in the darkness till none was left. Tell me your word of them."

Matuku, putting his nose to the ground, ran round the bodies stealthily.

"Ngatiawa—Ngatiawa!" he called, in a throaty whisper, and stopped, and ran on again, and stopped again.

"What is it, friend?" asked Palliser.

"There are many things, Pariha," returned the Maori, "that a man may not discover, even if he be cunning. I know a Ngatiawa when I see him; I know also Waikato. But why should the Waikato be at war with the Ngatiawa?"

"Waikato!" said Palliser in astonishment.

"I have said. There are Waikatos and there are Ngatiawas. Why is this thing?"

"The Waikatos were old enemies of the Ngatiawas," said Palliser thoughtfully. "They drove them out of Taranaki."

"That is true; but it was long ago. The Waikatos and the Ngatiawas are friends now."

Palliser stood for a moment in reflection, and then," shrugging his shoulders, "My wits are too dense," he said; "let us go on. I'll thank you for your flask again," and he turned to Foster.

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It was a tedious journey through the flax, for not only were they obliged to proceed with great caution, but they were also uncertain as to the direction in which the manuka-track lay. But in time they came to the spot where Miss Caryll had been dropped. Here, Foster, calling softly, bent across to the flax-bush, and parted the leaves. The girl was gone.

A search in the neighbouring bushes proved vain, and though they moved up and down the track, calling gently to her, there was no response. No relic of her presence was apparent.

Palliser, at length, lay down upon the causeway and rested, his hands clasped under his head. Matuku, bending over him, began to scrape thick layers of mud from the daubed body, and Foster, seeming depressed and uneasy for the first time, stood stroking his beard, with an elbow in the hollow of his other hand.

"All useless," he said presently, without his familiar oath. "This is a pretty business. And the other gel," he went on—"I'd clean forgot her. She's gone, too."

"She'll be found somewhere," murmured Palliser, whose eyes were closed beneath the patient offices of the Maniapoto.

"Think so? But how about my little gel?"

A faint smile flickered round the corners of Palliser's eyes at this proprietary assumption.

"That reminds me," he said, "I haven't seen your little girl's face vet. It was dark when I seized her, and I hadn't time to 'size' her. She ran well, though. Gad, how she did run! and clung, too!" He seemed page 151to reflect a moment, and then murmured, "The rape of Caryll's daughter," and laughed mildly.

"You're getting better," said Foster.

"Yes; it's your gorgeous rum in my head. Lord, it's burnt holes in ray tongue. Scrape away, my faithful henchman."

"This is all right, but what about my gel?" broke in Foster.

"What about your gel?" mimicked Palliser. "I'll arrange that. But first hand me over that flask."

"Ain't you had about enough?" replied Foster undecidedly; "your head ain't particularly right."

"Confound you!" said Palliser angrily; "can't I manage my own business. How do you expect a man to live on water after an hour in the bog?"

The ranger handed him the flask without a word.

"That's right. Now I'll trouble you for one of your revolvers, and the necessary adjuncts; mine are useless. Good again." He took a nip of the spirit. "And now for your little gel. Matuku, sweet minister to a man diseased, get up. Ask him, Foster, in your best Maori, how far from here the real manuka-track turns off,"

Foster obeyed without comment, being perplexed at this change in the self-contained Palliser. Matuku made some answer which he could not quite interpret.

"You hear," proceeded Palliser, "though you probably don't understand, that it's about twenty paces down. Moreover, if you'd had eyes you would have seen that as we came up. In your ignorance you probably don't know that sometimes there are two branches to a page 152swamp-road, one of which is intended as a blind. We took the blind. Well, the real's just below."

"Ha!" said Foster, seeing he paused as though, for a remark. "Well, you see I ain't well acquainted with the Maoris."

"Genteelly, 'I am not acquainted'; 'ain't' is an unmerited Colonial contraction. But let that pass. The track's my work; yours is different. You see, this 'gel' of yours, it stands to reason, is either in the swamp, or out of it; and, moreover, she's either in the hands of the Ngatiawas or out of 'em, and if she's in the one she's out of the other. D'you follow? Those we used to call mutually exclusive alternatives. You and Matuku have got to get her if she's in the possession of the enemy, and out of the swamp, while I've got to arrange the job if she's in the swamp and out of the enemy. Twig?"

"I see what you mean," responded the ranger thoughtfully. "Then we've got to go back to the flat about the old pah."

"Precisely, my blackbeard. You take me wonderfully, and the sooner the better for your 'gel.'"

"But, look here—will you he safe by yourself after this?" and Foster pointed to Palliser'g clothes, meaning to indicate his recent immersion in the swamp.

If Palliser did not really misunderstand him, he feigned to do so.

"Damn your insolence!" he returned; "you're not going to get your flask," and laughed in a strange soft way.

"He! he!" came from Matuku—a note of alarm.

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"Here they are. Make tracks," said Palliser, and he himself slid off down the manuka into the darkness.

Reaching the point at which, as he had said, the wooden causeway branched, he turned leftwards and hopped noiselessly along the bundles. In a little he paused and listened, and then, assured he was not being followed, took a more leisurely pace. There was a certain heat in his blood that set him in an active spirit, now dominating his legs and now his head. But at this moment having the fate of the poor captive in his thoughts, he pushed on, calling softly into the swamp, and humming Foster's air, "Down among the dead men," very sedately. Nothing answered him, and he could hear no sound, so, drinking again from his flask, he broke into a run once more, bounding heavily over the loose faggots between the flax-walls. He whistled and called as he ran, stopping at intervals to listen, if perchance there should be any signal in response. As he went on, drinking further of the rum, his voice grew louder, his intentions more uncertain; he sang old snatches of songs, and uttered inconsequent invocations of the lost girl.

"O sister Ida," he called, "hearken ere I die!" and "Star of the dismal swamp, appear!" But all his efforts brought no return from the melancholy night, and he had already been the better part of an hour upon this task. The track had led down into the lower part of the valley, which was now filling steadily with mist, and he soon was scarce able to see beyond a few yards from him. Plodding in this hopeless fashion, he was page 154suddenly arrested by noises in the mist upon his right. Recognising Maori voices, he at once jumped into the flax and crept from bush to bush towards them. He had scarcely considered the use of this course, but acted more on impulse, so that when he came presently into the neighbourhood of the voices he stood still and reflected. A voluminous mist rolled through the dark night, out of which the huge sheaves of the flax obtruded dimly, backward, to right and to left, but in front nothing was visible. Putting a foot cautiously down he touched hard earth, and, groping farther, found himself upon a level grassy ridge, running as a rib through the swamp. It was but two feet across, and straddling over it, he waited for some movement on the part of the unseen Maoris. They were a dozen or twenty paces away, and when the fog thinned, as it did at intervals, darker shadows loomed up, which he took for the opaque forms of the enemy. The damp hung round him most chilly, and he sat shivering in fits, till at last the Maoris stirred, and the sounds of them dropped away into the distance. Rising quickly, he drained the flask of rum, and started after them, revolver in hand. The fire ran at once to his brain, and induced in him a pleasant fervour, so that, not finding himself gain upon the departed troop, he started into a jog-trot. It was a rash performance, for the ridge was a poor footway, and at any moment he might fly off into the bog; but he ran on briskly, till of a sudden, tripping, he fell forward and rolled to the verge of the slime with some considerable noise. At once the silent air filled page 155with the sound of guns, and, picking himself up with, an oath, he was sensible of footsteps rushing back upon him. Without more ado, he presented his pistol to the darkness and ran down the path against them, firing at each step. Someone closed with him, but he pulled the trigger, and the nest moment, striding over a body, dashed upon a group of Maoris beyond. He threw up the barrel of his weapon sharply into the face of one, drove his fist full into the body of another, and roughly throwing a third aside, fled down the ridge at top speed. By reason of the fog, the narrowness of the path, and his own uncertain direction, he came near tripping and falling a dozen times at least, but at last scrambled to a safe distance from the Maoris, whom he could hear shouting and calling in his rear. Slackening speed a trifle, he sped along the track without definite aim. The way was tortuous, but he could form no idea in which direction it was twisting. For some twenty minutes he had been upon this ignorant excursion, when suddenly he trod upon something soft and yielding, which he immediately conceived to be a dead body. Stumbling off it, he ran upon another, which he had no sooner quitted than he slipped over a third, and then the identity of this place flashed upon him—these were the dead Maoris of the open; he was back upon the scene of the battle, and hard by the site of his own terrible adventure. He spurned the corpse with his foot, and turning away with a shudder, crept round the fringe of flax to grope for the way by which he had come. After a search of page 156ten minutes he lighted upon a narrow lane in the flax, and entering it, pushed on for another quarter of an hour, following; the windings in blind trustfulness, enveloped in mist, realising at last that an exit from the swamp, not the discovery of the girl, had become his foremost clearest duty. A little later he was again stumbling among the dead bodies.

This second return to a spot of such fearful memories staggered and sobered Palliser. With an imprecation of disgust he flew from it over the open, and came, as by instinct, once more upon the grassy ridge. By this he continued more carefully, groping his way where he was uncertain, feeling for cross tracks, lest one should take him back again to the fatal field; withal, plodding steadily as one newly come to his senses. In this gait and mood he was fetched up sharply by a sudden sound before him, and paused in the nick of time to avoid falling up against a dark figure which strode out of the darkness on one side of the track into the darkness on the other. Other figures followed. Holding his breath, he watched the shadows pass. One—two—three—four, he counted; no more. As quick as thought he whipped into line with them and strutted after the fourth into the mist. But no sooner was this done than he was aware that there were others behind who had dragged in the march and were now closing up; and the knowledge that he was himself one in a file of hostile Maoris went through him in a thrill. The detachment held complete silence, and Palliser strode out with them boldly, keeping his revolver ready against an emer-page 157gency. They turned and twisted through the swamp for what seemed to him a long time. Now and then he heard the footsteps of the Maori behind, drawing nearer, and listened to his heavy breathing with a constant expectation of discovery. But he marched unheeded, and by-and-by perceived that they had left the grass and were upon the manuka-bridge once more. About this time he noticed that the mist was beginning to clear. In the lower swamp it had been heavy and homogeneous, but here it seemed thinner; now with darker strata and now rather drift than fog, swirling and wreathing about his body. It was plainly low-lying too, for in places where the fleece was rarest the clear sky, with its shining stars, would open for an instant above his head, and then close and cloud over again. These intervals of light became more frequent, and indicated that the mist was dispersing. By twisting his head he could see, too, the figure of the Maori behind, appearing and dissolving in the vapour, while the moist bare flesh of the man after whom he trod closely was often visible. He decided that it was time to leave a company which might prove dangerous; and so, waiting till the next obscuration, he dropped gently under the flax by the causeway and lay level with the surface. His immediate follower passed in the gloom, and other footsteps approached. Two more filed by, and as the last passed, a wind from the gorges caught the mist and blew a deep chasm in it. He saw the thin line of Maoris moving as in a ghostly defile; white cumulus masses rolled over on either side, menacing the page 158passage, wearing a hundred shapes of distortion; and then the wind fell, and the fog tumbled into the gap noiselessly.

Palliser rose and slipped after the retreating figures; hovering just within earshot of the hindermost. Now that he was quit of the cares of his own misadventure, he grew anxious again to discover, if possible, whether the girl was in the hands of the Maoris. Presently the burly form of the nearest in the string loomed up from the mist, and he saw that those in the rear, at least, were stationary. Moreover, he heard voices; and while he was wondering as to the cause of the stoppage, the fog lifted. A little distance away ran the creek which was here spanned between the manuka by a heavy log. He hid himself in the flax while the Maoris passed over, and though they were lost to his sight on the further side, he could still hear them talking, and knew they were lingering by the stream. Then there came a splash, and a creaking of the manuka, and, after a little, silence. Creeping from his retreat he stole down to the verge of the track, where the water ran deep and strong beneath it. It was now obvious to him what had occupied the Ngatiawas; for the log had been drawn up to the other side to prevent access from this. This showed him also that the Maoris had not abandoned the search for the fugitives, as this removal must have been with the purpose of confining them to the hither portion of the swamp. It now appeared to Palliser that nothing was left but to rejoin his fellows and see what fortune had befallen them. Had they not page 159chanced upon the girl her case seemed hopeless. The mist was still hanging over the water when he jumped into the flax upon this expedition, and moved slowly up the creek, calling softly to the night. A few minutes later he thought he heard a rustle in the bushes, but so slight was the sound that he was in doubt as to the precision of his hearing. Then suddenly again the mist cleared, and the moonlight sparkled on the water.

What he saw now startled him. The creek was twenty paces across, lying open to the sky and its lights; and in the midstream, full of this glimmering radiance, swaying to and fro upon the surface, was a woman's body, clad in a light clinging vesture. The ripples, stirred by the wind, washed over it in long slow undulations, and it was rising and falling with the flow. With amazement he noted that the long white arms, stretching out of the stream, curved backwards over the head, which was hidden between them, and seemed to be clutching a stunted islet of flax, which thrust its dwarf proportions from the centre of the creek. He saw too (or thought he saw) the bosom, which had fallen open, and gleamed like silver in a vivid moonbeam, heaving softly, as the burden moved upon the water. Instantaneously he recovered his surprise, and with a flash of intelligence darted into a nearer bush.

"Miss Caryll," he called softly.

The white arms moved, and the body dipped under: and there was the girl sitting upon the islet, staring in the direction of his voice.

"Hist!" he cried; and at that moment a sharp page 160crack resounded from the flax across the creek. Palliser bent over the water's edge, till he was level with the islet.

"Listen," he whispered tensely. "You can't stay there—you'll be seen. Put your feet towards me, and thrust out with all your might."

There was the sound of someone approaching through the flax, on the farther side. The girl slipped silently into the water again, and stretched herself crosswise upon, the level. There was a slight gurgle as she launched herself; but no other sound, save the rustling in the flax. Palliser, reaching from the waist out over the stream, saw two bare feet twinkling in the swift current before his eyes. Shooting out an arm, he seized fast hold of an ankle, and, swinging upon this hinge, the girl flowed downstream. Then he drew her noiselessly towards him, and took her into the shelter of the flax.

"Hush!" he whispered, seeing her gasp as though for speech, pushing her dripping hair from her face.

Then a quiet voice came across the stillness.

"Pariha, do not shoot. It is I."

"Thank Heaven," muttered Palliser; "no more shooting. It's a friend of mine, Miss Caryll." Then he called to Aotea, "Follow up the creek to the old pah."

They heard her moving off by the flax; and Palliser turned to his companion, who was leaning half against the bush, and half in his arms.

"This is a pretty business," he said, with a laugh; and his gaze dropped upon her dress. He could only see her face indistinctly; but her eyes gleamed visibly, page 161and she drew herself away from him and began arranging her loosened bodice.

"I haven't heard your voice yet," he said, presently; watching her wringing her wet skirts.

"I've so little breath," she panted.

"Can I help you in that?" he asked, with a benignant smile.

Pausing, she looked up at him, and her eyes seemed to flash again; but it might have been the light in their humid depths.

Palliser passed a hand over his eyes, and turned away.

"Excuse me," he said; "if you've no objection I'll bathe my head."

"Have you a headache?" she asked suddenly.

Palliser shrugged his shoulders. "No," he said; then paused, and went on, "I'm a little dirty."

He ladled the water over his forehead, while, squeezing the moisture from her dress, she watched him.

"It's a wonder," he said, "that you realised I was a Pakeha. I'm as black as my hat."

"You've not—"

"Yes—been in the bog. You'll catch, cold if you sit there. Hadn't you better move?"

"It's very kind of you," she began hesitantly. "I hardly have come to my senses yet. Where are we?—I mean—I haven't any idea who you are."

Palliser laughed, "I suppose you know I've got a man named Foster with me?"

"Yes; I heard his voice; but I've not been, able to realise yet. Did you come to rescue me?"

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"That was our notion. But once more, hadn't you better move? And by the way, how about those feet of yours?"

A little diffidence was plain in her reply.

"I lost my boots in the mud."

"Stockings, too?" he queried, in amusement.

She shook her head, but made no answer.

"Well, I daresay it will be difficult for you to get along. But may I ask what you were doing here, and why yon didn't do as I told you, and wait in the flax?"

"I left," she said, as Palliser fancied with some defiance, "because you were so long, and I heard so many shots."

"And thought we were killed, eh?—well?"

"So I wandered down the pathway, and then through The flax, where I lost my boots; and then I got here, and I heard you coming, and thought it was the Maoris. So I thought I'd be safer in the creek. I got across to the flax in the middle, and, as I felt hot, I got into the water, and then the mist lifted suddenly, and you saw me, I suppose."

"I suppose I did. Well, shall I jump you across? It was naughty of you. What, you won't take my hand? Oh, well, I was going to save your pretty bare feet."

She turned away from him, and leapt over the gap. He followed, and thus they made up the creek to the verge of the swamp. Stepping out upon the tussock-flat, Palliser drew her arm in his.

"Keep close to me," he said; "we don't know yet page 163what's going to happen. We shall have to crawl. Down, child, down!"

On hands and knees they crept along by the water's edge to the outskirts of the old pah, where, bidding the girl await him, he went forward among the ruined whares. Presently he returned, walking.

"Come," he whispered; "but don't make a noise. "We are highly favoured. No one has come to a bad end."