The Web of the Spider
Chapter XIII. The Black Bush
Chapter XIII. The Black Bush.
The night was a dolorous one. The air was grown cooler now, even cold, but the opaque profundity of the bush oppressed and stifled. There seemed no space to breathe in that close prison. Blackness encircled them, and an impenetrable mystery. Their footsteps were set forward, but whether towards the deepest heart of that remote and solitary wilderness they knew not nor could conjecture. They went at a hazard on the indifferent knowledge of their leader, bowed with forebodings of a horrible fate. And in the passage they were tortured with a hundred exquisite inconveniences; their feet slipped under them, prickly climbers tore them, supplejacks stopped their way, their lessening energies fell upon rough and cumbrous barriers; a score of pains fretted the worn bodies as they climbed, and groped, and sidled through the malignant forest. There were no words, but a call from the leader to the backward in the most uncertain stages, and the sharp orders in direction. Fatigue clogged their feet. Palliser himself, inured to the toils of a hard life, slackened, and breathed heavily through gaping nostrils. A great and fearful care gnawed at page 185his heart; for 'twas his reckoning that led the party. Behind him Foster bolstered the wavering steps of the poor girl, panting and staggering in his tracks. In silence followed the Maoris, resigned after the quiet fashion of their race. The hours had rolled on, when at last Foster uttered a cry of dismay, and Palliser turned. The ranger was supporting the frail body of the English girl, and Palliser's face straightened rigidly.
"She's gone," whispered Foster.
"Bah!" said the other scornfully. "It's a faint, fool," and he stooped over her. "Lay her against the tree. We can go no more to-night."
"Damn the black bush," cried Foster fiercely.
He put his burden to the ground and sprinkled water from his flask upon her face.
"It's all right," he said presently; "she's coming round. You're right—I was a fool," and he laughed oddly.
"What time do yon make it?" asked Palliser.
"Yes, I think so. Aotea, rest," said he. "We may be white bones to-morrow."
The Maori girl seated herself on the ground without a word, pulling her mat over her shoulder as was her custom.
"That was my word always," said Matuku moodily. "I should prefer to die by the sea."
"Miss Caryll, you're better now," said Palliser; "can you sleep?"page 186
"I think so," she whispered.
"Then sleep, in God's name."
Silence fell upon them, and the night passed on. Then there came a strange sound as of a roaring of the distant sea.
"What is that?" cried Foster, springing to his feet.
"Hush!" said Palliser warningly. "Have you never heard the sound? It is raining on the surface of the bush. There must be a storm out to-night."
"There's no rain here," whispered Foster.
"No. This is the underworld. The fortunes of the world have no concern with us," returned Palliser, with bitter irony.
"My God!" cried Foster.
The girl near him stirred, and he went over to her. She opened her eyes.
"Are you feeling hungry, little gel?" he asked.
She shook her head. "Not much," she said faintly.
"Be brave," said Palliser.
Foster was rising from beside her when she clutched his arm and drew it towards her.
"What is it?" he whispered.
"Do you know," said she, "I want to go foraging myself, but he won't let me."
A look of bewilderment was on his face, and he stared pitifully at her.
"She's wandering," he whispered across to Palliser.
The latter uttered an exclamation, and, coming forward, bent over her. "No," he said; "it's all right. It's only exhaustion. She'll be right in the morning.page 187
Here, give her some of this. I saved it for emergencies, and this is an emergency." He put a flask into Foster's hands, and went back to his seat.
The dull morning broke at last, and slowly they girded themselves for the new day. For breakfast they had once more the roasted fern-root with berries of the wild fuchsia, which served to stay their hunger though not to satisfy. Yet Palliser was relieved to see that Miss Caryll seemed better; the long rest had benefited her, and she ate heartily of the poor meal, bearing herself with cheerfulness.
A broad smile spread over Foster's dark face at the first evidence of this.
"You wasn't up to much last night," he said reproachfully.
"I'm afraid I was a trial," she returned.
"Not a trial," said he. "But you gave me a turn when you wandered."
"Wandered!" she echoed, opening her eyes. "Did I say anything foolish?"
"'Twas rather foolish—leastways somewhat mad—but the words were sensible enough."
"What did I say?"
"Well, you talked about wanting to forage." Foster laughed, and continued, "You're pretty fit this morning, though."
Miss Caryll looked askance at Palliser, who was smoking with an air of supreme abstraction.
"I don't see," she replied, "that there's anything so very mad in that."page 188
"What," said Foster, "you forage! Good Lord, Miss Caryll, you ain't fit. for the bush. No woman is, God help her. Not but what you ain't as good as any of 'em. I'll take my solemn wager I never saw a gal come through them niggers more pluckily. But then, save your soul, it's build, not pluck, that tells in a bush."
She turned to him eagerly. "But, Mr. Foster, I have build, haven't I? Look at my limbs; they're strong and hardy, I'm quite sure. And I've plenty of muscle, too." And she fingered her arm critically.
"You'll do pretty well," he nodded approvingly; "but, then, you can see from last night——"
"Oh," she broke in, "I've been so ashamed of that. But, then, you see that wasn't quite a fair test, for we hadn't had proper food. But I was so angry with myself, and——"
"Angry!" he interrupted. "Bless you, no. Now, I don't consider that little affair anything. It really don't count. The fact was, we were all as near knocking under as possible, and I'll go bail we wouldn't ha' got another half-mile on our stumps. No; I was mighty glad when you fell, if you'll excuse my saying it in that way," he said apologetically.
"I'm glad you don't think I was very weak," she replied. Then she hesitated and went on with a display of embarrassment, and in a low tone, "You know, Mr. Foster, I don't want——" But here, casting a sideglance at Palliser, she thought she discerned on his face a deliberate smile, and broke off abruptly, turning away with a little sweep of her skirts.page 189
Their weary march was renewed, and hour by hour they dragged themselves along without change or the hope of change. At midday they had been for thirty hours without sustaining food, and the long exertions were telling upon their appearances. There was a thin and haggard look in the faces, and, though they still moved stoutly, their progress had become slower. About this time Palliser had grown desperate of coming upon the track. Their course must have been diverted by some accident into the recesses of the forest; else they must long since have reached their destination. For some little time past it had seemed to him that their route had lain uphill. There were small gullies and ravines and bottoms in the path, but on the whole he was inclined to think they were mounting a slow ascent. When they halted at noon it seemed unlikely that they would go further that day, so exhausted were they all. A long pause ensued; some slept, while others sat wearily against the trunks of trees in apparent unconcern of life. On all had fallen the shadow of their probable fate, and none but felt indisposed for talk, hugging to himself his own sombre reflections. Foster, it is true, endeavoured to disarrange this ordered quiet, but his remarks met with so ungracious a reception that he, too, was fain to grow silent and thoughtful. The peace, as it were of the grave, held the bush, and all but those warring human souls. But presently Foster, knocking the earth from his boots, began to whistle softly. It was an idle unconscious whistle, and its desultoriness grated on the austerity of Palliser's mood.page 190
"For God's sake, drop it," he said irritably. "We know our fate without a premature funeral service."
Foster stopped; unawares he had been whistling his old tune, "Down among the dead men."
"Yes, that was blamed foolish of me," he assented, with his imperishable good-humour. "I ought to whistle something with 'hallelujah' in it, "he suggested cheerfully.
"Oh, whistle what you like," said the other, now ashamed of his impatient temper.
But Foster made no answer, and once more they were sunk in silence. At last Palliser rose and called Matuku to him. Seeing them in consultation Foster joined them.
"I want," said their leader abruptly, "to find out if this is the base of a mountain we're on. My calculation as to direction is this—we've been going, as nearly as I can make out, east-north-east since we left the ravine. Now, where are we? Of course, we should be on that track, but I warned you the bush was hell. Matuku says he'll swarm a tree and see what we've struck here."
But Matuku's arduous climb brought no comfort, for it brought no understanding. As far as he had been able to discover they were crossing a slight spur, but the higher ground immediately in front barred his view, nor could he descry any familiar point in the restricted landscape. They were emerging out of a hollow, but whether upon a tableland or upon a mountain was not settled by the observation.page 191
"I think," said Foster, "I could do better at it than the nigger."
"Very well," said Palliser. "Up you go."
Foster shook his head. "This here's a big thing, and I'm going to take my time over it. I ain't going to be fetched up by some mountain blocking the way. I'm going to choose my tree."
"Then take your gun with you in case you should see something above a spider. I, too, shall go out before it's too late."
Foster made his way through the bush down a short deep gully, and mounted a ridge beyond, towards what he thought the likeliest spot for an unimpeded view. He climbed a tall rimu, but found the prospect dark with frowning cliffs, towards the face of which his feet were turned. Hastening, he reached this coign, and began a tedious and difficult ascent of the precipice. He was weaker than he had fancied, and the muscles quivered in his fingers as they clutched the rock edges; half a dozen times he rested and looked down at the dwindling foliage, but at last he had scaled the height, and, sitting down upon the ledge, waited to recover breath. The view that met his eyes was curiously unfamiliar; sunk in the dark intimately-involved bush he had not dreamed of such an outward presentment. From his point of vantage, thirty feet above the upper level of the pines, he could see the surface of the forest as the rolling bosom of a bay. Westward and southward, far as the eye could reach, it ran in dark-green undulations, rising and falling and rising again, without break or page 192colour, till it faded in mists upon the horizon. Rough and irregular, misshapen and distorted as it was at his feet, distance softened and unified it, so that the general appearance was that of a vivid homogeneous carpet stretching to the sky interminably. It was about the middle of the afternoon, and the sun hung in the west, dazzling the weak eyes of one so long in darkness; far off under his orb stood in a white light faint tumbled hills which Foster took to hold the gorge in which they had escaped the Ngatiawas. Where, then, was the track?
He turned from the cliffside towards the north. The bush flooded over the rolling westward and broke irregularly upon the base of a mountain immediately before him. The cliff on which he stood, and from which the black hush sloped slowly over a long chine into the sky, might well be on a southern spur of this mountain; but its peak was invisible, as was its shape and its projection. To the east his view was barred by small outlying ranges. Upon the limit to the north-west were some elevations which he calculated must mark the forest of Te Tauru. Satisfied at least to have the directions by heart, Foster descended into the lower bush, and made for the halting-place. He had found no use for his gun.
When Foster had left, Palliser and Matuku set out upon a long and determined expedition for food. Before departing Palliser approached Miss Caryll to acquaint her with his intentions, but finding her lying upon the ground with closed eyes, he thought her asleep and did page 193not disturb her. Instead, he left his brandy-flask with Aotea, with orders to administer it to the girl when she awoke. Then Matuku and he struck into the bush. For the space of three hours they were upon this quest, and at the end, wearied and exhausted, were still with empty hands. Starvation now assumed the face of certainty, for they were all too far gone for a further effort; unless food were found before morning they must dispose themselves for this ugly fate. With such considerations in his mind, Palliser, with his companion, drew into the camp, and flung himself upon the ground in very weariness. As he did so Foster came up to him excitedly.
"For God's sake," he said, "come and make out what Aotea's saying. I don't know, hut it's something about Miss Caryll. Where is she?"
Palliser rose and went forward.
"What is this tale, O daughter?" he asked. "What has befallen the Pakeha girl who was left in your charge in the camp?"
"How do I know?" returned Aotea. "I am very faint and sick. Have I not been telling the tale to the black Pakeha here? I was asleep and I awoke, and the Pakeha girl was awake also. So I gave her the brandy as you bid me. She refused at first, and said what I could not understand, shaking her head. But she refused: that was certain. And I said Pariha had ordered it, and she laughed a little and at last she took it. She drank it making a grimace. And then feeling hungry I ran into the bushes to search for kanini-page 194berries, and I could not find any kanini-berries. But when I came back behold there was no Pakeha girl; and I called to her, hut there was no answer, only the answer of the bush. And I sat down and waited, for I was hungry and I was very faint and sick. And I said, 'Pariha will bring back some food,' and lo! there is nothing."
"How long is this ago?" asked Palliser.
"How can I say, when there is no sun? It is half way between the time of your going out and the time of your return."
Palliser turned to Foster frowning.
"She's gone into the bush," he said shortly.
"Good Lord!" cried Foster. "It's the starvation. Damn the black bush! Poor little gel, her wits are gone. Damn the black bush!"
"She must have been gone a couple of hours now, so that as she's not back she must be lost. I doubt whether she had strength enough for more than half an hour in the tangle. We must separate," he said abruptly. "Strike upwards, Foster. She wouldn't go back, probably. Matuku can go down to the left, and I'll take the middle track."
Swiftly the arrangements were made, and the three worn men tramped off through the brake once more. Their courses lay at a parallel for the first hundred yards, and they called to each other for directions at intervals; but presently the paths diverged, and they drifted apart. Matuku slipped stealthily into the flat below a gully, calling in his deep bass voice, while page 195Foster suddenly took to his heels, and Palliser heard him crashing through the undergrowth, shouting hoarsely as ha ran. Presently the sounds of the two died off, and he found himself pushing quietly over a small slope, stopping to coo-ee loudly at every ten yards. An unchallenged silence reigned which his voice disturbed rudely. None could have known better than Palliser the risk of this bush and the forlornness of his search. Foster was of the manifest opinion that the girl in a fit of delirium had wandered from the camp, but. he himself held to another view. He recalled her indignation at being thwarted in her idea of exploration, and felt that she had taken advantage of their absence to carry out her plan. Had he been hopeful of her safety, he would have allowed himself to be angry, but as it was he thought on her disappearance with mingled pity and concern. Calling, calling, calling, he trudged on, cutting through the undergrowth with the heavy butt of his gun, till he was come to the verge of exhaustion, and at last threw himself upon a fallen tree and rested. In this condition he lay for some time calling at intervals not so much in hope as of habit when it suddenly occurred to him that the bush gave back a louder echo than hitherto. Raising himself upon his arm, he shouted again, "Coo-ee," and back came the sound in sharp reverberations. There must, then, be some cliff or large hollow close by. This he resolved to make the limit of his inquiry in the direction he had taken, for it was scarcely likely the girl had gone farther. So he got upon his feet, and in a short while came out page 196upon what evidently was a long ridge, reaching from a hill upon his right, and bordering a deep gully. The forest was more open here, and though it was growing dusk, the trees let in more light, so that he could see down into the gully for some distance. It seemed a steep fall from the ridge to the bottom, and he judged from, the slope and angle that it was narrow between the walls. Away below a creek ran musically over boulders, but invisible to him. Palliser stood for a moment in silent thought, as these facts came to him; and then, whirled out of his reverie, turned and seized his gun.
Was it a flash of wings? Merciful heaven! was it indeed life in this deathly wilderness? Surely a bird had swept by him in the loose bush, and that was the egregious cackle of a parrakeet far off! Nay, if it was the tweet of the diminutive blight-bird, it would be a ray out of heaven, a sign of life, the promise of another end than the slow rotting within these barren walls. He put his gun on the cock and crept toward the sound. It came from beyond a bit of shaly cliff abutting loosely over the gully, but when he had reached this place it had ceased. He stopped and listened, and then it seemed to him that all the valley was in song. Deep down in the bottom he could hear bird calling to bird, and the chatter of many voices above the impetuous sound of the creek. The western sky was aglow with the last fires of the sun, and golden rays streamed over the crested bush and lit up the gorge, now musical as on a sudden enchantment. In Palliser'a eyes, dim with page 197the long darkness and the failure of bodily powers?, was a flash of colours—scarlet wings and scarlet flowers, ratas and parrakeets, white houhere, aud purple koromiko, all blending in a golden mist. He leaned against the loose shale and passed his sleeve over his faint vision with a sigh.
Suddenly to his straining ears came a sound distinct and different from the joyous songs of nature, a thin, soft, echoing cry ringing from the heart of the chasm. He stooped and peered down, and listened; and then, raising his voice, sent a sonorous coo-ee through the gully. Immediately he heard the soft and silver cry out of the depths to his right, and, starting, ran over the shale slantwise into the valley. As he hurried along the cry was repeated again and again, and each time he answered it. By this conduct he presently reached the spot from which it proceeded. The bush here, though not so dense as beyond the ridge, was a little close, and the darkening sky made a gloom before him. Straining his eyes at the shadows below him, from which sprang a clear call, he at last perceived the bearing of the place. At a hollow in the hillside the shingle from the higher parts had gone down in a long steep slip, clearing away the lesser vegetation and even large trees. Thus had been formed a considerable shoot to the bottom of the gorge, covered in by the over-arching bush, here and there a broken stump projecting from the loose stones.
"Mr. Palliser," said a voice, and, looking closer, he saw the figure of the lost girl upon the remnant of one page 198of those projections twenty feet down. He darted into the forest on the hither side, and crept down to a point level with her perch in the shingle-slip. She was a dozen feet from the edge, and the shoot ran down well nigh perpendicularly to the creek below.
"No," he said, seeing she was about to make some movement. "Stay where you are just now. You can't come across the slip; it's too steep. We must think."
"I'm so glad you've come," she burst out in a tremulous voice.
"Poor child! How long have you been there?"
"An hour or more, I should think. I tried to get up again, but the stones slipped with me, and I was afraid. "Looking down, she shuddered, and clung to the tree.
Palliser scanned the slip quickly; he could see the marks of her fall above him. A little distance up a corner of the bush jutted into the shingle and descended to within fifteen feet of the tree, but the incline was terrible.
"Are you very weak?" he asked.
"No-o," she answered dubiously.
He was immersed again in thought. From the corner he might manage to pull her up with a rope; but there was no rope. Stay; there was surely flax by the creek. Bidding her wait and be cheerful, he descended to the flat and went along the stream for some distance; but his search was vain, for there was no sign of flax. He remounted the hill, discouraged but resolute.
"Miss Caryll," he asked, "could you hold on to a page 199supplejack if I lowered one?" She hesitated, and he continued, "Tell mo plainly, for we must run no risk. Do you think you could hold on tightly enough to be pulled up?"
She shook her head, and a little sob escaped her.
"Don't cry, poor child; we shall manage all right."
He turned into the bush, and rambled through it in the hope of finding a stray flax-bush, but when he came back he had been unsuccessful, and she saw at a glance that he was troubled.
"What are you going to do?" she asked, turning upwards a thin, pale face, with wide eyes of fear.
For a moment he was silent, absolutely at a loss for speech; and then in an instant an idea illumined him. He was so much a man of control at all critical periods that his voice was deliberate and most ordinary as he answered,
"I'm sorry to have to ask you to do this, Miss Caryll, but I'm afraid it's necessary. Your dress is of stout material, isn't it?"
"Yes, yes," she cried eagerly, expectant.
"Well, if you could take it off and throw it down to me, I'll make a rope of it."
"Yes, yes," she repeated, and in an instant was loosening the gown about her shoulders.
Palliser saw a gleam of red as he turned his back upon her, and when he heard his name called softly, and faced round again, he was aware of a strange transformation. She had taken off her gown, and her arms were quite bare to the shoulders, while for the rest she page 200seemed to him a blaze of scarlet, from the petticoat upwards. Reaching from the tree, she hurled the dress in a bundle to him, and it fell a little way out upon a large stone. Having dragged it in, he at once set to work upon the manufacture of a rope. He tore the garment into strips and securely knotted them together, till at last he had a length of twenty feet or more. After thoroughly testing this, he formed a strong slip-knot at one end, and thus armed, regained the corner of the bush above her. He lowered his rope carefully, while she watched with, ill-restrained excitement.
"Now," he said, "ship the knot under your arms, Miss Caryll, and it will pull tight. That's right; stand upon the tree, and lean up against the shingle. Now stick your feet in the stones, and climb up slowly on hands and knees and feet. Good; we're coming famously. Be careful of the loose stones; don't disturb them more than you can help. Gently, gently——so."
The shingle poured and rattled down the slip, but bit by bit he drew her up, warping the end of the rope upon a branch near him. When her head came to the level of the firm earth, he stooped, and clutching her beneath the arras, lifted her into safety. Immediately she sat down upon, the ground and burst into tears.
Palliser stood staring at her with some awkwardness. He was not used to tears, and he was such a man as would smile at them; yet somehow he was at a loss before these, and made no effort to stay them. But when they had ceased of their own will, he asked,
"How did you come to go over?"page 201
"I was chasing a weka or something," she said weakly, and it ran along here. I didn't notice where I was going, but I fired the revolver, and before I could stop myself I had gone."
"Yes; I took your revolver," she returned, drying her eyes with her hand.
"And how did you come to leave the camp after my warning?" he asked kindly.
She looked up. "I wanted to——" and then she was silent, and a shade settled on her face.
"Surely you might have trusted me to do all for the best," said Palliser gently.
Insensibly on this distressful occasion his tone to her was soft and even tender, as to a wilful, but sorely-tried child. At this she looked up into his eyes suddenly, then cast her own down, while a wan smile trembled on her lips and died away.
"I didn't want you to be broken up by this damned feminine element," she said softly.
Palliser started and frowned heavily.
"I must apologise for that phrase, Miss Caryll," he said, after a pause. "I know it was inexcusable, and I'd not the remotest intention of your overhearing it." He stopped awkwardly, his brow still puckered. "You must forgive me, "he said, "for I had been bothered and was bad-tempered."
She looked into his face, and in all her weakness a flush was on her cheeks and a smile on her lips. She said nothing.page 202
"Translated into ordinary language fit for gentle-women, "continued Palliser apologetically, "all my words meant was, that the presence of women would increase our difficulties."
"That's what I didn't like," she said gently.
"It was brutal of me, "he went on, "but why did you leave the camp for this?" he asked.
"Can't you see, "she returned, with a glance, "that I didn't like being considered a nuisance and in the way, and—and I wanted to prove—you shouldn't call me a child, you know," she ended hesitantly.
Palliser bit his lip.
"I think I'll go and shoot something," he said suddenly; "we musn't starve."
"Yes," she cried. "Oh, there are plenty of birds here, Mr. Palliser. I heard them while in that horrible place. Listen."
"They're quiet now; but we owe our lives to you after all, child or woman," said Palliser. "You have discovered this gully, and have saved us from starvation."
"As for that," she said quickly, with a sudden flash of her eyes, "I owe my life twice over to you."
She rose and held out her hand to him. impulsively. He took it, his glance resting on the smooth, white arm which issued from the dainty frilling at the shoulder. Her scarlet petticoat fell beyond the black stockings over her knees, and her red underbodice was heaving upon the scarce-covered bosom. She met his eye and a deep flush rushed into her cheeks.
"I'm afraid," said he, "I've spoilt your dress. I—"page 203
"It doesn't matter, "she answered quickly, her long lashes falling over her eyes as the colour rose higher. "I'll manage. I—think—I——"
Palliser thought to end the sudden embarrassment by turning away, when a strange sound struck his ear.
"What's that?" he asked.
Miss Caryll turned her head, and then, stepping to him, put a hand on his arm.
"What is it? "she said tremblingly. "I heard it while I was in the tree, Oh, what is it? I thought I must be wandering again as you said I was last night. It is so strange and horrible."
"Hush!" said Palliser, taking her hand soothingly. "It shall do you no harm, child," he whispered. "Listen!"
They listened, and the strange sound was borne to them distinct and clear from the head of the gorge.
"It is a dog," said Palliser.
"No, no; listen!" she replied, crouching against him. "Not a dog."
They were silent again, while the noise continued, harsh and discordant on the air; then she whispered, "It's like the cry of a ghoul. What a horrible place the bush is! Let us go."
Palliser made no reply, but stood rigid with intent ears. "Most of that, "he said, after a while, "is echo, I think, from the cliff faces. The head of the gully must be quite close, and the sound comes from there. We will see what it is. Come; don't be afraid, child,"
There was that in his voice and mien that strengthened page 204her, though exhaustion and want of food had worn her into subjection to a blind terror; and she followed him through the bush till they emerged into an open place. A bend in the hillside now revealed to them in the dusk the dim outline of a vast mountain blocking the east, from which their ridge was but an offshoot. Palliser stopped still, possessed with a sudden thought.
"By the Lord," he cried aloud, "this is Hine-te-ao!"
"Hine-te-ao!" she murmured.
"Hine-te-ao," he repeated, in an abstraction. "The Daughter of the Dawn—the mountain of the sacred dead."
Down from the black slopes beyond them, at this moment, swept the strange and hideous sound, as of a ghoul gibbering among the tombs, and echoes moaned from the shadows in the valley.
The girl shuddered and sank on the ground with an hysterical cry.