The Web of the Spider
Chapter XII. The Flight in the Ravine
Chapter XII. The Flight in the Ravine.
Miss Caryll followed him, through the remnant of the stockade, to a roofless whare, by which some figures were crouching. As they came up she heard a voice, which she recognised as Foster's, say,
"Glad to see you again, little gel. I'd given up all hope of snatching you from those niggers."
One of the figures jumped up, and held out his hand, which she took, whispering, "Hush! I'll tell you how grateful I am afterwards. This gentleman will not let me speak."
"We can't discuss courtesies here," broke in Palliser sharply. "Let us make some sort of move. What have you to say?"
"One thing's pretty clear to me," returned Foster. "Those beggars are watching the swamp closely. A file of 'em is posted down the flat by the manuka, and there they're going to stick till morning, it seems."
"Oh," said Palliser. "And there's another lot across the creek, working back this way, I daresay; in which case we've got to be off. There's only one route obvious, and that is up the creek."
"To the gorge?"page 165
"Yes; we shall give them the slip that way, and can climb up the hills and strike the old Te Tauru track again."
"Right," responded Foster cheerfully. "Forward, old cuss," he muttered, stirring one of the other figures in the shadow of the hut. Miss Caryll perceived it to be a Maori, and was not a little surprised when the remaining bundle upon the ground struggled into the light, a full-grown Maori woman.
"Go gently," said Palliser to Matuku and Aotea. But the caution was scarcely needed, as all five were stealing slowly upward, each in a stoop, most circumspectly.
Their arduous flight was not intercepted, and plainly the remaining Ngatiawas were remote from this side of the flat. They must have reckoned upon the security of their fragmentary cordon. A wind had sprung up, and was roaring down the valley. In the sky a few wraiths lingered, fleeting westward across the stars. In a little the party struck into the outer scattered bush in the lower parts of the ravine, and felt now, for the first time, that they were beyond any probable danger. It Was, of course, just possible that they might be traced hither, but in so thick a jungle they were safe from discovery, and to conceive the worst, so brave a display should go far to protect them. They kept to the creek for some time, partly because by it the way was easier, and partly out of a pleasant sentiment of companionship; but soon, resolved that their precautions had been effectual, Palliser, who was feeling page 166exhausted, turned into the bush, and ordered a rest for the remainder of the night.
It was now, at a guess, about two in the dawn, but there were no signs of daylight, and the party betook itself to a rough fern bed with alacrity, for all, save Aotea, were worn out with the work and the strain, and she too, at least, with waiting. Dispersed about the base of a huge tree, they were soon sunk in slumber, and when the morning broke over a clear sky they were still sleeping, undisturbed by the réveille of the korimako and the parrakeet.
Palliser was the first astir and, leaving the others, he threaded his way back to the creek, where he cleansed his sordid garments and bathed in the roaring water. The sun was full over the ridge, and the valley in light. When he had done with his personal attentions, he made a series of reconnaissances to discover if the enemy had entered the ravine; but he could find no trace of them, though he made a circuit of a mile to the backward of the camp. Satisfied at this, he returned to his party, where he found Aotea crouched over a lighted fire, and Matuku cleaning his gun. Immersed in an animated conversation were Miss Caryll and Foster, who turned at the sound of his approach. The latter greeted him cheerily.
"You're a fine energetic chap. Been up, I s'pose, this hour. Well, you're looking all the better for the sleep, I can tell you. How d'ye feel?"
Palliser nodded in answer, and, drawing from his pocket the flask, handed it to the other.page 167
"Take your infernal stuff," said he.
Foster put his eye to the nozzle, and laughed.
"There ain't much to take," he answered. "You've made pretty good way with it. Lord, you were bad last night!"
Palliser made no reply; his eyes had fallen musingly upon the face of the girl, who was staring in some curiosity from one to the other.
"That's the little gel," explained Foster, with a certain manner of pride.
Palliser, whose thoughts had not run upon her, but the day's duties, came back to himself, and let his glance measure her.
"Ah!" he said. "Miss Caryll, good morning. So you've left your friends the Ngatiawas; but I hope you haven't fallen from the frying-pan into the fire. It seems," he said to Foster, who was standing by admiringly, with, a grin on his face, "that both I and this young lady made a close acquaintance with the swamp. What are you going to do for your boots?" he asked, looking down at the girl's feet, which were now encased in black stockings.
There was a slight colour in her cheeks as she replied, "I think I'll manage all right."
"Will you? You must remember the bush is pretty rough. Well, how did the Maoris treat you?"
"Pretty fair—pretty fair considering," put in Foster, "with a nod. "She ain't got over the killing business yet, she was telling me; but, bless you, she'll soon forget it now."page 168
"I didn't say I—I mean, of course, I didn't like it," said the girl, turning away.
"It's true," explained Foster confidentially. "She's no coward. Plenty of spirit there, I promise you. But a gel's a gel, after all, though she is sometimes a vixen."
"Of course," said Palliser carelessly. "But this damned feminine element is going to break us up, if we don't look out. Aotea's bad enough, but she's a Maori, and can be talked to. Now, this little girl—" He did not finish his sentence, but shrugged his shoulders, and pointing down the valley, added, "I think we're free of 'em at last. I haven't seen any signs of them."
"What I blame in you," said Foster critically, "is your mighty officiousness. You want to do too much. Why couldn't you have waked me to hawk round the valley? Last night, too, you had all the fun. Fact is," he continued, slapping his gun, "I ain't much good in an ambush or anything of that kind. What I like is an open field, and plenty of elbow-room. Then I clear the ground, or go under. That's my business."
Palliser smiled. "Who knows that you won't have a chance to walk in before we've done," said he, moving towards the fire, where Aotea was crying out that the food was ready, and the "billy" boiled.
Gathered about the fire, the party was incongruous and picturesque. A beam of the sun fell aslant the group, illuminating in its passage the two Maoris page 169haunched up together, and conversing in soft gutturals. It rested thereafter full upon the fair brown hair of the rescued girl, as she sat with her back against a tree, her stockinged feet and ankles thrust daintily from her blue serge gown into a further view than she was aware of. On the outskirts, as though holding guard over her, the tall ranger rested one shoulder against the trunk, as he slowly munched his damper-bread and gulped down hot draughts of tea. Between these two fragments of the party, and a little removed from either, sat Palliser, meditating over his food with the thoughtfulness of one upon whom the final responsibility is laid. Foster talked loudly, turning a jest to Palliser now and again, or interrupting himself to shout a broken sentence at the sombre Matuku; but his overtures were listlessly received by both, and for the more part he talked to the girl at his knees, who answered in softer tones, but seemed constrained and uneasy. But presently Palliser looked up from his thoughts, and in the growing contentment of his appetite, took a survey of his surroundings. Almost for the first time he noted the face and appearance of Caryll's daughter. She was above the middle height, of an active and eager aspect; her limbs were lithe and flexible; blue eyes looked out from a fair face of some irregularity but of great vivacity, upon which the charm of a surpassing innocence still lingered. She could not be more than eighteen or nineteen, thought Palliser, wondering upon Caryll's fate, and the strange incidents of his chase.
"Friend," said he to Matuku, "where in Te Tauru, page 170between the blazed track and the fork that came down into the valley, is there a spot in which a man might miss his friends?"
Matuku paused in his talk with Aotea.
"O Pariha, there are many places in Te Tauru where a man may perish. It is the house of death. But how shall you ask me then: 'Where can he miss his friend?' It is all darkness, and folly is the guide through it."
"You have a sad tale," responded Palliser thoughtfully, and fell to communing with himself.
"What do they say?" whispered Miss Caryll to Foster.
"I can't quite make it out," he returned. "Hush!"
"It is a game of fools we are playing," said Palliser again. "Why do we look for a dead man and a dead woman?"
Aotea gave a cry.
"It is the end," she muttered. "I have said Ihirua is dead. We shall find her murderer."
"Shall we find him in Te Tauru?" asked Palliser scornfully.
"If I do not slay him it is because his bones are already there," muttered Aotea.
"This is foolishness," broke in Matuku. "I have told the woman what is my opinion of this rashness. If a bird die and there is a hawk near, we know what the hawk has done. He will be shot. That is right. But if it die and there is no sign in the sky, what can the tribe do? Can they find the hawk in the moun-page 171tains? I say 'Peace.' This is a foolish thing. It is wrong to waste so much of our time."
"Perhaps there is a lover among the Maniapotos who will follow me," said Aotea, turning angrily upon him. "I have sworn, and I will go forward. What are the mountains to me? There is nothing I fear but Te Tauru."
"Peace," grumbled Matuku. "I, too, have sworn. This is the way of women. A man is mad to mix himself up with them. God has made a stupid world," and he fell to his pipe again. Shortly afterwards he rose and went into the bush.
"What's the gab about?" asked Foster, seeing there was a pause.
"I've been thinking," said Palliser reflectively, "that I've been a damned fool. I beg your pardon, Miss Caryll. I dropped into a bush habit, which I know isn't civilised. But it seems to me I've been nothing but that all my life." He paused, and after a time went on. "What in the name of all that's evil is to be made of those Waikato warriors, and of the whole infernal expedition?"
"Well, if you don't know, I don't," said Foster jauntily; "but I should say they wanted a fight and they got it. Lord, it must have been a fight! I s'pose they're enemies, ain't they?"
"H'm," returned Palliser, "Your theory is about as—well, it's quite as good as any I can imagine, so I won't say anything. But you shouldn't take it for granted everyone is as anxious to fight as you are."page 172
"Don't you like fighting, Mr. Palliser?" asked the girl.
He looked at her with amusement. "I loathe it, Miss Caryll," said he. "I like nothing that endangers my existence as long as it's tolerable."
Foster broke into a loud laugh.
"You're a good' un," he said, chuckling. Miss Caryll looked from one to the other.
At this moment Matuku dashed through the underwood upon them, and Palliser sprang to his feet.
"Ngatiawas?" he asked.
The Maori nodded, being out of breath.
"Half a mile below—coming up. There are half a dozen, Pariha."
"Half a dozen. Then we must be off. Come, swing that swag on your shoulder and move, Foster. Steady, Miss Caryll; follow Aotea closely, and be careful of your feet. Hang the fire!" he cried, emptying the water in the billy upon the blaze. The flame dropped into the ashes, which hissed and spluttered.
Within thirty seconds they were filing through the bush up the ravine at a great rate, Foster leading and breaking the way with his strong arms and the butt of his gun. The two girls followed, and Palliser brought up the rear. Both he and Matuku kept an active lookout, but no alarm disturbed them, and in a couple of hours they considered themselves secure enough to rest for a short time. In the interval Matuku scouted on page 173the track they had made, but he returned without having seen anything of the Ngatiawas.
"Still," said Palliser, "we can't trust our position yet. They may be following right away back, and in a forced march could reach us. We've got to hurry on as hard as we can, unless we want a skirmish."
"What are you making for?" asked Foster.
"Nothing. Safety, that's all. We shall be all right, I suppose, when we get over the ridge, and then we can take counsel."
This was but an hour's climbing, yet so steep was the ascent, and so dense the forest, that the weaker members of the party were exhausted at the finish; and, now they had come into an obvious security, Palliser decided to halt and revolve future plans.
"My idea is to get upon the Te Tauru track," he explained; "after which we can go back towards Matipihi if we like. But the first thing is to get out of this bush on to that track. Now, if you recollect, there was a branch upwards where we left for the valley, following those beasts down below. That's what we must strike somehow. Matuku," he said, turning to the Maniapoto, "where does the upper track from the fork lead?"
Matuku shook his head.
"It comes out of Te Tauru, and I have never been through Te Tauru till now. How can I say where it goes? Perhaps into Te Tauru again."
"This Te Tauru nonsense is about as much as I can stand," said Palliser to Foster, "but he doesn't know page 174where it goes, so we've got to keep on till we find it. Bear to the left—that's the moral of it."
"We'll find it at that," said Foster cheerfully.
"Shall we?" said the other grimly. "Don't make too sure of it. "When you've lived in the bush as much as I have you'll never be sure of anything in the bush. Can you say now in what direction we've been going this last hour?"
Foster looked up through the vast and gloomy forest, but the sun was completely shut from his view.
"I don't know that I could offhand," said he, "but it would be easy enough to climb a tree and find where the sun fetched up."
"Not particularly easy, either. "When you got to the top ten to one you'd find your tree in a valley between mountains, or overtopped by other trees. It's a black business is the bush, I give you warning. And I've half a mind to venture down into the valley and face the niggers."
When they resumed their march Palliser noticed that Miss Caryll walked more easily, and at their first stoppage he saw she had provided herself with a substitute for boots. She had strapped about her feet thick flat pieces of bark with strips of flax and ribbonwood, so that a pair of rough sandals now protected her from the rude pathway.
"That's very neat," he said approvingly. "I see you're equal to the bush."
"Quite equal," she returned quickly.
He smiled at her intonation, and scrutinised her a page 175little closely. She glanced at him covertly, but, finding his eyes upon her, turned and regarded the bush.
All through the afternoon they beat their way through the heavy forest, in thick, oppressive shadows. The tall trees, interweaving closely overhead, blocked out the sunlight, and the dense undergrowth, reaching half-way up the trunks, heightened the darkness. At times such a blackness encompassed them that they stumbled over unseen boulders and snags, and the rear of the file lost sight of the van. Then they groped among the bushes, and called to each other for guidance; now crawling up a ledge which loomed out of the gloom forbiddingly, now slipping into the infernal blackness of a gut. There were no sounds in that bush save those of their making; neither bird nor animal stirred in the thickets. Only here and there a lizard wriggled over the path, or a huge spider rushed up the stem of a pine. By the judgment of the leaders it was five in the evening when they came to a halt for the night, spent with the serious efforts of the march.
Palliser took Foster aside, while Matuku lit a fire, and Miss Caryll helped Aotea to prepare a meal.
"Look here," said he; "if we're going right, and I think we are—mind you, I can't say for certain—if we're going right, we ought to strike that track tomorrow morning."
"Well, I suppose that'll do," said Foster.
"We can afford to rest to-night," went on Palliser; "in fact, we've got to rest. If we were alone I should say we ought to push on, but this infernal woman page 176element makes it necessary to stop. I see that little girl panting in the march, and stumbling, too, and it's a sure warning to stop when you can't place your feet properly. The whole thing's abominably awkward," he said, gnawing his moustache.
"Well, the rest'll set her up," said Foster cheerfully; "and we've done enough to-day. To-morrow we'll be all right on that track."
"But, you fool," returned the other roughly, "you don't seem to use your wits. Where do you suppose shall we be if we don't strike it to-morrow?"
"Don't you see it's food, food, food? Hang it, man, don't I know what the bush means? what live thing is there in this desolate hole? Did you see a bird or anything but leaves as we came along? I tell you, the last of our provisions go to-night, and there's howling starvation behind."
Foster whistled, and looked thoughtfully at the ground. "Well, we've got to strike the track, that's all," he said, presently, with cheerfulness; "and if we don't, I fancy I'll do some foraging. I've seen a bit of the bush, too, you know."
"Very well," said Palliser, turning away abruptly; "we'll test you to-morrow;" and there was something of a sneer in his voice.
He returned to the camping-place, where the fire was blazing, and the black shadows were leaping on the trees. Miss Caryll was standing by, her sleeves folded at the elbows above soft rounded arms; her hands flaky page 177with paste. Behind her was an empty flour-bag; and, twisted on sticks that sloped towards the fire, were long coils of bread, baking slowly in the heat.
"More bush-life," said he.
"Do you know, Mr. Palliser," said the girl, "there's no more flour in this bag."
"Whose swag does that come from?" he asked.
"From Mr. Foster's."
"Oh, well, there's some in mine you'd better use. But we've had about enough of bread diet, haven't we? We shall have to feed you on pig and parrot. How will you like that?"
"I don't know about parrot. I've never tasted it; but I can stand pig," she said, with a smile, as she stooped and turned one of the bread-sticks.
"I see you're not quite proficient," said Palliser; "you should never bake bread-sticks before flame. Wait till the ashes are hot. And I'm sorry to find fault with your housekeeping, but, really, if you use all this tea our nerves will suffer. There is some cocoa left, isn't there? Yes. Well, we'll have that to-morrow. But I adore weak tea. I hope you do, too. Let us have something in common."
She laughed sweetly. "Oh, I like it well enough. I suppose you're running short of it?"
"H'm-m! not altogether; still, you know, we ought to be alive to emergencies; and I'm quite sure a young lady who makes such excellent boots is a careful housewife."
After the sun had risen the forest lightened; but page 178long ere this they were once more upon the way, having drunk some cocoa, and eaten the remainder of the bread. No change came to them that day. Hour after hour they toiled across the bush; now mounting a ridge, now descending into a ravine, in a grey twilight; oppressed by heat, and worn beyond endurance by the arduous way. Yet they came upon no track. At midday (or what they took to be midday) they finished the remainder of the cocoa, and proceeded. Palliser's brows grew ominous with care, and resignation gathered upon the face of Matuku. Even Foster was looking anxious, and occasionally threw a glance over his shoulder at the girl, who struggled heroically after him. Late in the afternoon they determined to take a long rest.
"They must have it," said Palliser to his comrade; "we've got to march all night, or die."
Foster looked apprehensively at Miss Caryll.
"The little gel's fagged," he said simply. "Can't we put up to-night, and make bigger tracks to-morrow?"
"No," said Palliser shortly; "we've no food."
"By gum!" cried the other—"I'll search creation for tucker to-night. Give me your gun—it's better than mine."
"Take it and go. Matuku will go with you. I've got other work to do. And remember, if you come home empty, there's fern-root to sup on."
"Fern-root be blowed!" said Foster, stalking off among the trees.
Palliser, left to himself, fell upon the earth and began scrawling directions and compasses in the dirt. He had page 179been at this the better part of an hour when a voice woke him from his thoughts.
"Well?" He looked up sharply, and saw Miss Caryll standing by him, with excited eyes.
"What are you doing, Mr. Palliser?" she asked.
"Having a little geometry by myself," said he.
"But why?" she asked. "Can I help you?"
He saw her bosom heaving vaguely, and the suspicion of a smile was in his eyes as he answered—
"Can you tell me how many ravines go to one valley? Or how many ridges to one hill? What's the odds against a circle in five hours of see-saw? How many segments in a day's march, and what's the arc? Not enough bush life yet. Go and talk to Aotea."
With this, he bent over his figures again; but she did not withdraw.
"You know perfectly well Aotea doesn't speak English," she said quickly.
"Well, well, perhaps not," he assented, going on with his work.
He heard a rustle, as of a skirt abruptly set in motion, and, looking up, saw her walking off.
"Miss Caryll," he called, "come here."
She took no notice of his summons, but turned upon a second call, and came back slowly. Her cheeks were flushed when she reached him, and in her eyes was a trace of dew.
"What's the matter?" said he, smiling. "You don't seem to see that I'm busy now and then."page 180
"And you don't seem to see," she broke out, "that I'm not a child."
"How old?" he asked—"nineteen?"
"You're not so very much, older," she retorted, with flaming cheeks.
"Bless you, my child, I was on the diggings with your father when you were in the cradle."
"You've no right to put me down in that way," said she.
"Heaven forbid I should put you down at all," he exclaimed. "Well, tell me your grievance. What do you want to do?"
"I want to know what all the mystery is about. Why do you and Mr. Foster talk so much together? and why is Matuku looking so glum? and Aotea? What does it all mean, and why should I be kept in the dark?"
The questions ran off her lips in hot haste, as though to relieve the surcharge of her indignation.
"If I were to tell you that we thought we had discovered a gold-mine, and were disappointed———"
"I shouldn't believe you," she broke in defiantly.
Palliser was amused.
"I don't see why you all look upon me as a baby," she continued plaintively. "It's an insult to my intelligence. Whatever there is to know I ought to hear it like the rest. Isn't an English girl as good as a Maori? When I ask Mr. Foster he says, 'It'll be all right, little girl,' or something of the sort, but he doesn't tell me."page 181
"He oughtn't to call you 'little girl.' I must speak to him on the subject."
"You've no right to laugh at me," she said fiercely. "I can see you are; as if I minded about a phrase. I don't mind his calling me 'little girl.' I——"
"But you do mind me?" he interjected.
She made no reply.
"Why?" he persisted.
"He's older," she said, less assertively.
"Not so much, I assure you."
"You ought to take me more into your confidence," she returned, reverting to her former point.
"Supposing I tell you, then (what you'll learn in another hour for certain), that if Foster and Matuku bring back nothing, we shall have to dine on fern-root."
"Is that true?" she asked quickly, opening her eyes wider.
"But they will bring back something?" she said inquiringly.
"Nothing less likely," he replied calmly.
"Because there's neither fish, flesh, nor fowl in the bush, as far as my knowledge goes. Now, what have you to say?"
"I think I ought to have been told this before." He looked at her inquiringly. "I wouldn't have eaten so much then."
He burst into laughter. The red flooded her cheeks anew, and she went on hotly—page 182
"It's very rude of you, laughing at me."
He could see the tears start in her eyes, and, restraining his amusement, he said,
"What do you propose to do as it is, then?"
She looked into the bush. "I can go and hunt for food, too."
"Tut, tut," said Palliser impatiently.
"Why not? I've used a gun before now; I'll go out this evening."
"You'll do nothing of the kind," said he, bending his brows at her.
She looked her defiance at him.
"Understand, my wilful child," he continued, "that you do not move out of the camp without my permission."
"Why should I come to you for permission?"
"Your father," he said sarcastically, "entrusted you to my care, as you may remember. He said——"
"A man named Palliser——" she broke in.
"Precisely; if a man named Palliser called, you were to follow him. But, apart from all this nonsense," he said, "you're not to move out of the camp, and there's an end of the matter. Make some more boots for youself."
He turned to his occupation, leaving the girl to go off with an insurgent heart.
"Foster was right," he thought. "She is a little spitfire."
At dusk Matuku came out of the trees and stalked silently towards him.
"Salutations, O my friend," he said; "my hands are empty, like my stomach."page 183
"Ah," returned Palliser reflectively; "we will fill both with fern-root, O dark one. Let Aotea prepare the fern-root."
A little later Foster came in, also empty-handed, his chagrin showing in his face. He throw his gun upon the ground with an oath. Palliser watched him without comment, and presently turned to Miss Caryll, who was sitting aloof in the darkness.
"Miss Caryll, I'm going to give you another confidence," he said. "Eat all the fern-root you can; we're going to march all night."
"All night?" echoed the girl, with some awe in her voice.
"Yes. I hope you've been taking advantage of your rest. We're going to march all night. Matuku, throw some wood on the fire."