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The Web of the Spider

Chapter XVII. The Letters on the Wall

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Chapter XVII. The Letters on the Wall.

Puketea was now in a surfeit of idleness. The Arawas had been beaten back to the east, and the Hauhaus held their heroic fort unchallenged. Yet the captives noticed that excellent discipline prevailed, and that sentries and guards were regularly on duty. Te Katipo, after the strictest etiquette of modern warfare, had set them all at liberty immediately upon their decision, nor were their movements in any way restricted. They might go beyond the stockade or wander about within its barriers; no one took any notice of them, and their treatment resembled more that of honoured guests than of race enemies and prisoners. In the demeanour of Te Katipo himself a difference was noticeable—almost, Ida suggested, as if by his generosity he had lifted himself out of the barbarian and recognised his elevation. He was invariably courteous, and ordered all things for their comfort, seeming anxious to be put on the footing of an equal, though scrupulously avoiding the appearance of intrusion.

"Friend," said he, "is the Maori lower than the Pakeha?"

Palliser smiled. "Our countrymen have lied to us," page 265he said. "I find Te Katipo a true rangatira," whereat the Hauhau grinned pleasantly.

"They lied," he answered, "but you will tell them the truth. The Hauhaus are not beasts and devils. They are warriors. The Hauhau fights, and in war there are cruel things. But perhaps in your country cruel things have been done that the nation might, be free."

"It is true."

"Then," said the savage gravely, "why do they charge us with cruelty? Behold, the Pakehas are women."

"See," broke in Foster in his best Maori; "why do the Hauhaus drink the blood of their enemies? It is a foul taste."

"Friend Pariha," returned Te Katipo, looking at Foster but addressing Palliser, "there are things which are not desirable. But if a dog gets loose do you say, 'Why does he lap up blood?' You do not whip a dog if he buries his nose in the flesh of a pig. What is the dog for but to kill the pig? You cannot teach a dog wisdom. There are many things a wise man would desire to put away, but he is not able. And if the dogs will not fight unless they lap the blood, the wise man suffers them to lap the blood if he wants them to fight. He sits down and looks on till they have finished, and he says, 'Lap! lap! And you will fight, and drive your enemies into the sea.' He desires to have a kingdom and a nation, and his dogs must help him. That is the behaviour of a wise man. But the victories will page 266come, and then the dogs will be chained up inside the pah."

On the whole Te Katipo appealed to Palliser as a strong and far-sighted Maori, limited by his small environment, but of an ambitious courage, incensed with the scheme of an indigenous nation. He was at one with Tamehana, the great counsellor of peace, and with Rewi, the militant, in this; but Palliser could see that he plumed himself on a more effective wisdom than either.

"Rewi," said he sententiously, "is a fighter, but what wise man fights with a hood over his eyes? Wiremu Tamehana is the pigeon of the Pakehas."

"I think," said Ida privately, "that there is really something noble in his ambition, and all the more so that he is doomed to failure. He doesn't realise what a force is against him. How can he with these few poor warriors sweep the Pakehas away?"

Te Katipo's superiority over the average Maori seemed to them evidenced no less in his moral views than in his military strategy. He was not a fanatic as were the men he led. From his conversations they gathered that the pai marire superstition was but an instrument to his hand, an instrument hitherto most serviceable.

"What is this new religion?" he said contemptuously. "Does God give instructions to a tohunga or a chief? It is all nonsense, this pai marire. But, friend, if the dogs will fight when there is a buzzing in the ears, the wise man will say there is a buzzing. When the warriors go into the battle I fall upon my knees crying page 267'Hau, hau!' and they say, 'God is speaking in him. Let us fight and God will speak in us.' Pah! when we have fought enough we will stop this 'Hau, hau.'"

There was one circumstance during these days that perplexed and annoyed Palliser. At nightfall on the day of their deliverance both the Maniapotos had disappeared, nor had they since been seen. At first he had not considered this remarkable, thinking that they might have found acquaintances, if not friends, among the Hauhaus. The bulk of Te Katipo's men were Ngatiawas, but by this the fanaticism had spread, and other tribes were flocking to the victorious leader, so that the generic term Hauhau now covered a motley assemblage deleting in great part minor distinctions. Moreover, Palliser was prepared to find Kaimoana in Puketea, for it was only probable that he had come south to join Te Katipo. If that were the case Aotea and Matuku would certainly find friends in the fort. But when the third day came, and the Maoris did not return, he began to wonder, and at last spoke to Te Katipo. The chief was as frank as he had always shown himself.

"Where should a Maniapoto go but to the camp of the Maniapotos?" he asked. "I have seen nothing of them; but they are in Kaimoana's camp."

"Then Kaimoana is here?" said Palliser.

Te Katipo looked at him acutely.

"Yes. He came to fight the Arawas, but he came too late. Kaimoana is an old man, and his marches are lame."

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Palliser, however, did not feel satisfied with this explanation. He was ready to believe that Matuku would desert them easily, but he knew Aotea's stubbornness of heart, and was aware also that she put her faith in him as an avenger. She, at least, would have returned. He gave Te Katipo to understand the reason wag inadequate, and the chief smiled.

"Perhaps, O Pariha, you are right. Perhaps she is willing to return, but cannot. You do not understand all things. It is quite right that she should seek out the murderer of her sister and kill him, but who can interfere with the orders of a chief?"

"You mean," said Palliser, "that Kaimoana detains her?"

"I have said nothing. Kaimoana is not one of my men."

With this Palliser had to be content, and, indeed, the explanation was now in keeping with his theory of the Muniapoto chief. If Kaimoana were the author of the double crime, it was but natural that he should repress Aotea's efforts to discover the murderer of Ihirua.

"Why did Kaimoana dislike Kariri?" he asked abruptly of the Hauhau, following up the thread of thought.

"He hated all Pakehas, and did not wish his young women to live with them."

"My friend," said Palliser, putting a hand on his shoulder, "tell me what you think of this Kaimoana. Was he the murderer of Ihirua, and the robber of the message?"

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Te Katipo started slightly, and his eyes flashed wide; then recovering himself he stared at Palliser and laughed.

"Kaimoana is a brave man," he said. "He does not war against women. Besides, she was of his tribe."

"True," said Palliser. "But there is a great perplexity here."

"Some day you will find out," returned the Maori; "and I will help you, who was Kariri's friend."

"Will you?" said Palliser, looking him in the eyes.

"I have promised," said the Maori, meeting him fearlessly.

There were many fierce faces in the camp, but they were never turned upon the prisoners, who came and went as unmolested as among moving automata. Not a Maori showed even a knowledge of their presence, save when upon some mission on their behalf. Te Katipo alone discoursed with them, and that mainly with Palliser, whom he seemed to invite to his inner confidence. Kaimoana's camp lay to the cliff faces, and here, too, Palliser was at liberty to wander, but though he passed constantly about the whares, he never caught sight of either Matuku or Aotea. The old Maniapoto chief kept his house, and only once did they catch sight of him, seated at his door surrounded by his young men, and looking westward over the cliff. In the calm evenness of their existence Miss Caryll's thoughts reverted to the poor lunatic who had rushed so madly from them into the bush. She wondered what had become of him, whether he had been slain by the cruel page 270Hauhaus, or had perished of want in the crueller wilderness. She spoke to Palliser of her concern, and bade him make enquiries as to his fate; but Te Katipo could give them no information.

"He escaped from my men," he said. "Why should they trouble themselves about a madman? It is enough to fight the sane. If he is not dead God is taking care of him."

"It appeared to me, friend," said Palliser sharply, "that he had seen you before."

"Very likely," returned Te Katipo indifferently.

"But why," asked the other, with some sarcasm, "does the great Hauhau chief say there is no cruelty in him, and yet an old man is driven out of his senses?"

Te Katipo frowned, but replied, "It is God that decides who is to be mad."

"There was a daughter," persisted Palliser, who was anxious if possible to relieve Ida's mind. "Perhaps you dealt cruelly by her?"

"There was something happened," said the Hauhau, as if tired of the topic.

In relating this conversation to Miss Caryll afterwards, Palliser said,

"I daresay, after all, the tales on the coast were not so exaggerated. Te Katipo may not be cruel, but his men are, and he himself is indifferent."

"Oh!" said the girl; "but the horror of that 'There was something happened,' " and she shuddered.

As day after day passed by, eventless and desultory, they grew a little weary of their state, the indolence of page 271which was in such contrast with their recent activity. The only method of beguiling time was in conversation with the Hauhau, who showed so marked a disposition to their company. He came daily to the whare to talk with Palliser, exhibiting a graciousness alien to their fancy of the Maori. He had a pleasant trick of humour withal, though of a primitive kind, and dealt with his jests not illiberally. To Ida his vivacity commended him, for she declared his was the one cheerful countenance in the pah save Foster's, and that it was gratifying to see war put upon such reasonable bases. On Foster most of all the detention palled, for whereas hitherto he had shown himself the most good-humoured host of Fate, now he had grown restless, wondering often upon the date of their ultimate release.

"This can't go on indefinite, old chap," he explained to Palliser. "We've got to make a move whether the oily old gabbler gives us leave or not. We ain't set up to be fixed here for good, pleasing as the climate is."

"We've given our parole," said Palliser.

"Well, we can take it back, I understand?"

"Yes, if it is necessary," returned his friend, who could see no present advantage in being under guard.

Te Katipo observed this impatience in Foster, and seemed amused by it. He admired the herculean frame of the ranger, but pursued him with gentle badinage.

"I am relieved," he said once, with his finger at Foster, "the Pakeha has no weapons. It would be dangerous to give a man so black a weapon. I should be better pleased if he would smile. Then I should be page 272sure he would not carry Puketea away on his back. Pray him, O Pariha, to leave it alone. If there were many such among the Pakehas I would give up this game of mine. I would become a missionary."

The idea of becoming a missionary proved too ludicrous for him, and he retired, shaking with laughter. But he was far from being frivolous in their company; he wished rather to be taken seriously, they thought. He had a fancy to enlarge upon the future of the Maori race, and talked coolly of the day when the Pakehas should be washed about the ocean. "I do not desire your death, friends," he would say, "but there is time for you yet, if you will go back to your country." Yet he was not too vainglorious, confessing himself at times in the world's tutelage, and sitting to learn of the further-travelled Pakeha.

"There are things, Pariha," he said, "that the Maori has not seen. Great chiefs like Hongi went across the water. Perhaps I, too, will go across the water some day. But I hear of many things, and. I do not forget them. A man is not wise who has merely seen, but that man who does not forget is wise. The seeing is in the eyes, but the remembering is in the mind. Yet I have done foolish things. Why did I not learn the Pakeha tongue when I was with Kariri, my friend?"

"Did you not learn it?" asked Palliser.

"No; Kariri did not talk it. As I say, he was a Maori; and he did not talk Pakeha, but only Maori. Yet I should have learnt from him. But it's no use, page 273friend, to lament. Another time I will do better, when I am not so busy. There are many strange things of which I desire information. The Pakehas have wonderful books, they tell me, and wonderful studies in the books. They know the flowers and the trees, and what is in them; and they know the stars and many strange things. It is good to know all these after you have made a nation. Some day I will learn them. I am like a woman: I desire to know all things. When a Pakeha comes across strange figures in the country, he says, 'These are the story of my ancestors; I will sit down and listen to them, and they will prove my ancestors great.' But if a Maori comes across the figures, he cannot understand them unless the tohunga has told him. There is no history of them on paper. In that the Pakeha is to be envied. This is an instance."

"But," said Palliser, "your tohungas and the old chiefs can tell you all the tales of your tribe; there is no need for a history."

Te Katipo shook his head.

"There are many things unknown to tohungas. I will show you some. Behold, friend, in this neighbourhood are things the to hungas do not know. They are inscriptions of our ancestors written many centuries ago, but the tohungas cannot toll what they say. One day I will show them to you."

Te Katipo seemed to have so taken to heart the antiquarian ignorance of his people that he recurred to the subject on another occasion, and Palliser was a little page 274amused by his grotesque admiration of European civilisation.

"What inscriptions are these?" he asked, concealing a smile.

The chief looked at him gravely, as if aware of his mis-timed humour, and said quietly,

"How can I say? They are figures carved by our ancestors. I will show them to you if you know these things."

"I will see these figures," said Palliser, smiling, "and will read to you the history that is hid from the tohungas."

Te Katipo seemed a little vexed at the manner in which his aspirations had been received, but after a while agreed to take his prisoner to inspect the mysterious writings. They started on the afternoon following the conversation, and having descended from Puketea, passed along the creek into the gorge between the hills. They were alone, for the Hauhau had demurred to the company of Foster, of whose intellect he had no high opinion. Half-way through the pass his guide began to climb the hill on their right, and Palliser followed. He had no antiquarian knowledge, nor was he interested in archæology, but for lack of other occupations he was willing to humour the Maori. In a quarter of an hour they had mounted to a level on the hillside, covered thick with bushes, which ran to the bottom of a white precipice. During the latter part of their journey the chief had been silent, and Palliser had not the inclination to talk, so that alien sounds, were easily audible to them both. They were breaking through page 275the bushes towards the cliff when suddenly a crackling noise struck upon Palliser's ears.

The Hauhau stopped short and turned quickly to his companion, holding up a hand.

"Arawa," he said; "wait."

With that he plunged rapidly through the thicket in the direction of the noise. The bushes stood as high as the shoulders, and Palliser, looking curiously across them, thought he could see a head moving slowly some distance in advance of Te Katipo. Then there was a slight "click," and both figures disappeared from his view, nor could he hear any further sound. Three or four minutes later Te Katipo came through the bushes to him.

"It was a pig," he said. "There is no danger."

Palliser wondered at this, for he was certain he had seen a man's head; but he said nothing and they resumed their passage. Presently they emerged from the brake and found themselves beneath the great wall of the hill. A little to the left stood the remains of a whare decayed and rotten with the rains of years.

"See," said Te Katipo; "here are the figures which our tohungas could not understand."

He pointed to the cliff, and Palliser, following his gesture, could see some rude scrapings on the white chalk. There were but half a dozen, and it was with difficulty that he kept his countenance, so solemn was the Hauhau's demeanour.

"Once," said the chief, "we knew what they meant. An old tohunga lived there"—he pointed to the whare page 276—"who knew all things, and he understood the figures. Not that I believe that God talks to tohungas, but they are old, and they spend their lives gathering knowledge. But the old man died, and would not tell us his knowledge. What is the use of a tohunga who will not tell us his knowledge?"

Palliser stooped and examined the figures. They were cut deeply into the chalk, but it did not appear to him that they could be very old, for he knew that markings on chalk are easily effaced.

"How long," he asked, "have they been here?"

"Many generations, they say. I know they were here when I was born."

Palliser was scrutinising two of the figures which stood away from the rest. Each consisted of a rude circle with a tail, but they were lying in different planes, thus—

Inline image of supposed petroglyphs

"My friend," he said, "I am ignorant of these things. No doubt they are the marks of your ancestors. But it is only the Pakeha wise men who can understand them."

Te Katipo's eyes travelled restlessly over his face.

"Are they like nothing in your country," he asked, "these inscriptions of our fathers?"

Palliser smiled. "Friend," he said, "if you ask a foolish Pakeha like myself, he would tell you that this figure was like a p in the Pakeha tongue."

"p," said Te Katipo. "And is the other a p, too?" Palliser shook his head.

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"You have not looked at the others," said the Maori suddenly. "Perhaps you will find them plainer."

Palliser moved on and regarded the others with the distant look of one facing the unintelligible; but gradually a change came over his countenance, and he went closer to them.

"This is most strange," he said at last. "I don't know how this strange thing can be, but these figures are Greek!"

"Kirika," repeated Te Katipo, with an unfamiliar accent. "What is Kirika?"

Palliser took no notice, but figured out the letters carefully. The sight of these almost-forgotten symbols stirred in him curious memories of the past. It was clear that they were intended for Greek. There could be no mistake about the ø and the Θ. But how came they here? He turned and found the Hauhau's eyes upon him—it seemed, with almost a feverish light.

"Do you recognise them, O Pariha?"

"Yes," he replied thoughtfully; "but they are not of your nation."

"What are they, O Pariha?" asked the chief. "It is a wonderful thing to read on the paper. All my warriors shall read when there are no Pakehas."

"They are letters of the Kirikas," answered Palliser.

"What is this?" asked the Maori, pointing to one.

"That is called gamma, which in Pakeha is g," said Palliser, with a grin.

Te Katipo repeated it.

"What is this?"

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"That is theta—in Pakeha, th."

Te Katipo repeated this also, and then, observing Palliser's face, laughed loudly at his own imperfect mimicry.

There were four in all—Ø, Θ, γ and ν; and Te Katipo went over them all. Then, he pointed to the first two.

"Are these Kirika?" he asked.

"Yes; they, too, must be the same."

"What are they?" asked the Maori.

Palliser explained that they probably stood for r and s. The Hauhau stood with his eyes fastened upon the cliffs.

"They are not the tale of our ancestors," he said at length. "The tohunga lied." Then he turned away. "It is good to read in a book," he said meditatively. "There are other figures on the cliff, but there is no need to see them to-day. To-morrow will do. The tohunga lied."

"Te Katipo," said the Englishman, "these must be the work of a Pakeha. Was there ever a Pakeha here?"

The Hauhau shook his head. "Not since I was born; but the figures were there before. Who can tell? If a Pakeha wrote them it was the tohunga found them, and he lied when he said he knew. It was the Pakeha knew and not the tohunga. Did I not say those tohungas were liars and pretenders?"

He exhibited a certain amount of indignation at the deceit of the long-dead tohunga, and set out upon the page 279return in silence. But in a little he regained his temper and talked briskly, setting forth the wonderful gain of wisdom and much education, petitioning Palliser to instruct him in English, and displaying his conversational powers to the utmost.

They parted within a gunshot of Puketea, the chief being bound upon some strategical duty. It was a lovely afternoon, and Palliser was indisposed to go back to the pah too early. Instead, he moved along the creek, and, reaching; a convenient spot, stripped for a bathe in the rapid waters. When he came out he turned and looked northwards where the hills rose over the black pass. So sombre was the prospect in the falling light that his thoughts ran insensibly upon mysteries, and he pondered over the secret of the Greek letters on the white cliff. What record of a forgotten man was here? Some Pakeha, it would seem, had lain in captivity in this desolate region years ago, inhabiting, perhaps, the very whare which had later been the dwelling of the dark tohunga. Or maybe those figures were but the musings of an idle hour, the faint recollections of someone, like himself a wanderer, whose thoughts had travelled back a score of years to the green days of boyhood and the school-room task. It was not his habit to recall the past any move than to imagine the future; he lived daily in the present. Yet the encounter of these musty memories in so unexpected a place raised for him older recollections, threadbare with age, in the shabby habits of new-risen ghosts. There was no corner in his life smelled to him oversweet; the years had passed in page 280unbroken care, full of devious monotonous vicissitudes. Chance had played him false, lured but to cheat him; he had no fear of her—no hope. He was bankrupt of desires, holding only the pittance of self-preservation. But yet these ancient echoes rang in his heart a little mournfully, and his thoughts were even pitiful to that wraith of a forlorn adventurer scribbling upon the chalk. Almost unconsciously he paced along the creek towards the pass, and stared up the hanging cliffs. There was no purpose in his wish to look upon the scrawl again, seeing he carried it wholly in his mind; yet he did not oppose the sentimental instinct urging him to another sight of the dead man's meagre handiwork, He climbed to the bushy level and moved peacefully towards the cliff. As he reached the further verge of his concealment and was on the point of rustling out of the thicket, he perceived in the uncertain dusk—for the sun was sinking and the pass in deep shadow—a figure bent against the wall a little distance to his left, and some twenty paces from where he judged the figures must be. The next moment, startled by the sound of his movements, it turned quickly and disclosed the face of a Maori; then, stealing away, it rushed with a swift movement into the bushes.

Palliser started out of his thoughts in an instant. He had recognised the young chief, Tutanga.