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The Web of the Spider

Chapter XXI. The Finger of Ihirua

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Chapter XXI. The Finger of Ihirua.

"The sooner it's over the better," said Palliser to Foster. "Start right away to-night."

"If you must go," said Ida, looking at him apprehensively.

"Little girl, it's our last hand in this game," said the ranger, turning away to Aotea.

Ida stood with her eyes upon the other, who smiled assuringly.

"I am sorry we have to leave you," he said. "You've been quite enough by yourself, but we hope to bring you news."

"Yes I felt afraid for the first time in the whare, and then came that dreadful time."

"I had a bad time till I found you, little girl, as Foster calls you; something must have guided me to the Hauhau's hut, if one believes in such things," he added, as ail after-thought.

"But I do," she answered, and then went on softly, "I wonder how many lives I owe to you. You must have saved all the nine, if I am as fully equipped as a cat," she said, with a little laugh.

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"And I wonder how much—" he began, but did not complete his sentence.

In the evening the two Englishmen and Aotea left the rude Arawa encampment and filed up towards the pass. Ida accompanied them to the portals of that black gateway, where she bade them farewell.

"Kotahi has promised me to take care of you," said Palliser. "You will be good, and take care of yourself. We will soon be back."

"Yes," she said, with a nervous indecision in her voice. "And then?"

"Then, hey, for the north and home!"

She laughed a little uncertainly. "I hare no home," she said.

There was a pause; then, "Nor have I," he said curtly.

"Well," she went on, "we shall both be wanderers."

"And I, you must remember," said he, "am a sort of father to you by appointment."

"Oh, yes."

"Poor Lance Caryll! I should like to have seen him before he died, for the sake of old times."

"How long—?" she asked, and hesitated.

"Twelve years and more," he replied, answering her unfinished thought.

"I cannot quite think of you as my father's friend so long ago."

"Can't you I am getting old, and a hard life adds to one's years."

"You don't look old."

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He laughed. "I don't feel it perhaps, but my life proves it. None but an old rough hand like myself would have spoken of you as I did when first we met."

"You mustn't refer to that," she said, her eyes twinkling a little. "You have expiated that sentence about the 'feminine element.'"

"You have forgiven me?" he said. "Women forgive everything. And you don't mind my having treated you as a child?"

"Since you do so no longer—no."

"You are not a child to me now," he said suddenly. "By no means. A child could not have faced all this. Miss Caryll," he said abruptly, "you must go back now. Good-bye."

She took his hand. "It seems a cold way of expressing one's thanks," she said, with some hesitation.

"As it's the only way, suppose you leave it alone," he suggested.

"Good-bye," she said simply. "Mr. Foster, good-bye, and you, too, poor Aotea. Good-bye all."

"Good-bye, little gel," said Foster, removing his battered hat. "Keep up your pluck; we'll be here some fine day at cockcrow."

She shifted her eyes from Foster to Aotea, and from Aotca to Palliser, on whom they rested irresolutely.

"Good-bye," she said, and turning, walked slowly back towards the hill of the White Pah.

They stood watching her for a moment, till she had passed out upon the tussocks, when Foster turned whistling to his swag. Palliser still looked after the page 336dwindling form. It was strange how they had all grown in companionship together! It seemed now long years since he had been playing a lone hand in the reaches of Tauranga, and yet it was but a month ago. In so close a fellowship were he and his companions knit by their many sufferings that to see one going from them was to watch the stars shiver. He turned away as the figure vanished, and found Foster still at his swag.

"Are you ready?" he asked.

Foster looked up. "Oh, you're waiting for me, are you? Yes, I'm fit now to beard a hundred taipos—give the word."

"March, then," said Palliser.

After getting through the pass they kept along the old track by which they had formerly descended from Hine-te-ao, and in a couple of hours had reached their resting-place for the night.

"I think," said Palliser later, over his pipe, "that you were a little out when you called the girl a spitfire."

"Oh, think so, do you?" said Foster. "P'raps I was. Anyhow, she's a trump."

"She's stood this," said Palliser emphatically, "like one in a million,"

"You're right," said Foster, who seemed thoughtful. But he broke silence in a little with the air of one giving an explanation. "You see," said be, "I had the feeling all along that I was responsible in a kind of way for the little gel. Of course you're her natural guardian and that sort of thing, but somehow you didn't page 337take kindly to it at first. So I thought I'd keep an eye on her. Not that gels are in my line, being only a ranger. But I did what I could. I wouldn't have harm come to her—well, for the gold old Caryll stowed away in Hine-te-ao. But, you see, all that's done now; and you've maybe noticed I ain't been particular attentive lately?"

He waited for an answer, and Palliser nodded.

"Well, that's clear enough. I ain't the sort to make two bites of a cherry, and I can generally tell a rose when I see it. So when the natural guardian turns up right face, old chap, it's my notice more or less to quit. Ain't that clear?"

Palliser laughed.

"You're a young chap yet, you know," said Foster, turning on hire, "for all your grave airs. Why, I top you by some years, I'll take odds on the boiling Hauhaus. No, you're young yet, take my tip for it."

Palliser got up and walked abruptly away, leaving his companion staring after him.

"Well," he said, turning to Aotea, "he's a good head, and as for arms I never see his equal at a pinch. But he's rum ways, my wahine."

Aotea leant towards him. "It is a full day to Hine-te-ao," she said. "At night shall I see the face of Ihirua. I desired, also, to see the face of the murderer. But someone has killed him and not I. I will go back to Matapahi and the kumara-fields. My mourning is not over. Matuku, too, is dead. The same hand killed page 338Ihirua and Matuku, Friend, there is much death in the land. It is the time of weeping."

She rocked herself, moaning as only Maori women moan on the occasion of a tangi.

Palliser strode down the track restlessly, revolving strange thoughts. Night had fallen in a twinkling, and the bush rustled in the darkness about him. Stars came glimmering out in the thread of sky above, and the scene was at the summit of repose. Yet his thoughts ran a little wearisomely as he turned over the disappointments, the failures, the grotesque disillusionments of a wayward life. All these had been so familiar to him as to cause no surprise nor displeasure upon their appearance; he had, by the sheer necessity of time, discovered a modus vivendi not wholly distasteful, if of few generous reliefs, and this, or a little better, had filled his anticipations till the end. 'Twas not a life of pretensions, though free of the flatly ignoble uncultivated, sane, discomforting, and withal active and he had viewed it indifferently as one impervious to the laws of change, that make a way through all things. But had his faith so hardened alter all? and were there not revelations possible even for one so versed in natural change? Might, then, that vivid fire of hope and enthusiasm be recaught through a wonderful renewal, and the beliefless of many experiences be infused with the spirit of youth? These were questions be would have answered with a bewildered affirmative but that bald facts and plain reason bade him doubt. Perhaps, then, there was naught 'twixt him and his end, naught save page 339the worn round of years. There was in his soul a new capacity, even a new desire hitherto unfelt upon the further side of thirty, but upon what should they be turned, in what wild vain use must they waste themselves? The hand of fate had fitted nothing to his economy, had left him to dovetail recklessly with chance, and the odds were heavily against the discovery of any correspondence.

He stood meditatively on the bush-verge oblivious of his environment, when suddenly he was aware of a sound, and looking across the path, saw a figure walking along it. With a start he recognised it, and stepping out, went forward.

"Whatever are you doing here, Miss Caryll?" he asked.

"Oh!" she said, drawing a deep breath. "I—at Pukutea—" and then hesitated in the utmost confusion.

"There's nothing gone wrong there?" said Palliser anxiously.

"No, nothing at all." She stopped again with a nervous laugh.

"Then, child, what have yon come here for?" asked he, in astonishment.

"Oh, I'm sure I can't say," she returned somewhat slowly, shrugging her shoulders. "I—well, I came to the conclusion, Mr. Palliser, that it was my duty to see the end."

"This," said Palliser, "is very characteristic of your sex."

"Please don't be rude," she returned, flushing.

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Palliser said nothing, but walked beside her in silence, which at last she broke.

"You don't seem particularly glad to see me," she said lightly.

"Because I am silent?" he asked. "I was thinking what Kotahi will say when he finds you are gone tomorrow."

"I left him word that I was going," she said hastily.

"And I was thinking that three hours' walking by night in a country like this is not particularly wise for an unarmed young lady who is already fagged out."

"I'm all right now, and I've got one of your revolvers," she retorted.

Palliser laughed. "Then," said he, "I am delighted to see you, Miss Caprice, and I commend to your notice an early bed, in view of a long day to-morrow."

"I don't mind obeying that order," she responded cheerfully, as they came opposite the camping-place.

Foster was as much astounded as Palliser at the appearance of Ida, but after his first outburst of surprise he composed his face, and, throwing another log on the fire, said, "Well, I must say I ain't sorry you've come. It went much agin, me to leave you with the Arawas. We'll look after you, little gel, and if you can't get through to-morrow, by gum, we'll carry you." Later, too, ere they retired to rest, he muttered to his pipe, "This is quite old times again, saving for poor old thickhead, who's been wiped out."

Ida walked gallantly on the morrow, and so speedy was their pace that it soon became evident that they page 341would reach the northern spur of Hine-te-ao before sunset. This was so much the better, as the daylight would be necessary for their investigations. Caryll's directions were plain and simple—it did not seem that it was possible to go wrong. Every topographical detail of the hiding-place was specified, so that the explorers should merely have to walk straight to it. It was nigh three after noon when they rounded the northerly spur of the mountain, and drew up for a short halt. Palliser took the scrap of paper from his pocket.

"It is here we make our start," he said. "I imagine it is only the question of a mile or so from this spot. Here are the directions once more.

"'Three feet in the heart of the only hollow at the base of the south wall of the limestone strait, which lies midway between the first and the second cave beyond the fall going from the east upon the northern face of Hine-te-ao, twenty miles by the south road from Matapiki.'

"Now, this spur I take to be the limit of the east, and hence we count going westward from here. There is the dropping sun to guide us. The first duty is to find the fall from this point."

Very shortly afterwards they came upon a small creek rushing down a steep slope into the forest below.

"This," said Foster, "looks like a fall somewhere. What about that gully to the left?"

"The very place," exclaimed Palliser, "though there's no sound of a cascade."

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They mounted out of the scrub into a clearer slope, and, rounding the corner of a rise behind which a steep gulch spread out from precipitous cliffs, came face to face with a waterfall.

"The caves!" said Foster eagerly, Ida fastened her glistening eyes upon Palliser's face.

"'Midway between the first and the second cave,'" said he. "That should be easy. See, it is all limestone just about here."

They were moving upon a gentle slope covered thickly with scrub above the dark face of the bush. A lofty vertical wall of yellow cliff rose on their left to the height of one hundred feet, and it was at the base of this they were creeping carefully.

Presently Foster gave a cry.

"We've hit it!" he said, "and a mighty comfortable cave, too, in wet weather."

Passing the yawning mouth of the black cavern, Ida shivered slightly.

"It does not look comfortable to me," she said.

Foster ran on in advance, and Palliser, too, quickened his steps, and was followed by the two girls. Then Foster, who had vanished in the scrub in front, reappeared, waving his hat.

"Found!" he shouted.

"Oh!" said Ida, turning to Palliser, "what will be found here? Is it only gold or——"

"Miss Caryll," returned he, stopping and facing her gravely, "I have told you that I don't think there is any possibility of your father being alive. Just think.

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No, you must throw away all hopes, except, perhaps, the hope of learning how and where he died. Do not let this affect you too much. And, after all, it may be, and probably is, nothing. Come, Aotea," he said in Maori.

Passing into the scrub into which Foster had plunged, they turned a corner in the mountain, and saw before them a curious formation of the limestone. A huge fragment of the stone stood out apart from the mountain, separated from the main body by a narrow channel. The detached island rose almost to as great a height as did the mainland, and the strait between the two was crowded thickly with manuka and other bushes.

"Undoubtedly the strait of the letter," said Palliser, when they had come up with. Foster, and stood regarding the place.

"Read the last directions."

"'Three feet in the heart of the only hollow at the base of the south wall of the limestone strait,'" read Palliser. "This, then, is the south wall; where is the hollow?"

"Here!" cried Foster excitedly.

Both stooped to the ground. The height of the overshadowing cliffs somewhat darkened the strait, yet there was plainly visible a rude natural recess at the base of the vertical wall. Three feet below this alcove was the place assigned in poor Caryll'a note.

"Dig," said Foster briefly.

Ida looked on breathlessly while the two men cut up the earth with their axes, and excavated with their hands; page 344and Aotea sat staring at the rocks as though Ihirua should make a sudden apparition from this hollow grave. They worked continuously, and in time the hole was deepened to three feet without result. Still they plied their implements.

"Nothing," said Palliser at last.

"Nothing," assented Foster, sweeping the perspiration from his forehead.

"I am not sorry," said Ida, with a sigh of relief. "I can't bear the thought that this expedition should end only in gold. 'Twas not for that I came."

"Well, I candidly confess I'm disappointed," said Palliser, "though there was but the merest chance of finding it here all along. When I heard Te Katipo knew English, and was resolved that he was the author of the outrage, I had practically no hopes."

"Can't say I had none," said Foster. "But it's all up. This here's been dug out two months ago, and the blackguard's dead that done it."

Aotea, seeing they had ceased from their work, lifted her eyes for the first time from the alcove, and let them travel slowly across the faces of her companions. They were standing, the two men leaning upon their axes, and she, squatting midway between the cliff and the scrub that lined the strait, regarded them with a dull, melaucholy stare. Her glance fell last upon Ida, who stood toward the bushes, and its piteousness struck her with sympathy,

"Poor Aotea," she murmured to Palliser.

Obeying the intonation of her voice, he looked at page 345the Maori, whose eyes were resting upon the bushes immediately behind them.

"Good heavens!" he said, "what is the matter with the girl?"

Foster turned, too, at this exclamation. Aotea had started from her squatting attitude, and, bent forward upon her knees, was staring with wide eyes of horror and fear at the bushes.

"What is it what is it?" cried Palliser in astonishment, glancing hastily over his shoulder, but seeing nothing in the shadowed pass.

A long low wail burst from the Maniapoto, and crawling upon her knees, she moved towards the scrub, trembling violently.

"What, in the devil's name, have we here?" asked Palliser.

Foster sprang to the bushes upon which Aotea's eyes were fixed.

"Devil's name, by gum, yes," he cried. "It's a skeleton."

Ida's hand shook as she took hold of Palliser's arm. He put her gently aside.

"Stay here," he said soothingly "don't let it hurt you. It may be nothing."

Then he went forward to Foster's side. Certainly it was a skeleton, but at a glance he saw it was not that of his old friend. It was much too small, and its construction prohibited the belief that it was the skeleton of a man. He pushed quite close in excitement, and inspected it narrowly. Yes, this had been page 346once a Maori woman; assuredly this was the last poor relic of Ihirua. He turned to Aotea, who had crept nearer, and was crouching at his feet waiting, waiting with the fearful patience of the afflicted of fate.

"It is too late, Pariha," she said; "the murderer slays in the darkness. Night is over all. Yet I am glad to know this and to see the body of Ihirua again. Enough, let me be."

"Ihirua!" echoed Foster. "How does she know this is Ihirua?"

"Hush, let her alone," said Palliser. "This is a sorry discovery. I'm very sorry for this," he repeated, and turned away to Ida. "There is nothing there," he whispered to her. "Only Ihirua."

Ida shuddered. "I knew we were on the threshold of a discovery," she whispered back; "and there is worse. Yes," she continued, as Palliser shook his head, "worse, I say. What do those poor bones mean there? Why are they here? My father has been here. There is worse, I am sure. Hush!"

Aotea's dry-eyed horror had given way to a melting grief, and she was wailing loudly at the feet of the skeleton, her sobs echoing down the quiet pass.

"Let me see," said Ida fearfully. "I had better see."

"Then give me your arm."

She put her hand trustfully into his keeping, and went over to the melancholy mourner with a scared look upon her face. Somehow the stillness and silence of page 347that narrow strait, and the shadow that brooded over it, and their remoteness from human kind, all touched her with a sense of awe, and the presence of a great mysterious tragedy oppressed her. Standing by Aotea she peered into the bushes. The skeleton was planted upon the ground at the very verge of the manuka, propped upright by a bush at the back. By exposure it had grown so discoloured that, standing as it did in the shadow, it was not very prominent against the sombre green; and that was the reason they had failed to discover it at first.

"See," said Palliser. "Here are the remains of a Maori mat. This is Ihirua."

But Ida's gaze was steadfast upon the grinning skeleton, the mockery of God's handiwork; she stared as under a grim infatuation.

"Come away," whispered Palliser, as Aotea's droning dirge ceased for a space.

"No," she answered. "Look at that hand. What keeps it up like that?"

Palliser looked at the long grey bones reaching outward, the twisted knuckles and the index finger stretched into the air. His eyes followed them. Suddenly he sprang forward.

"By Jove!" he said. "The arm is propped up artificially."

"What is it? Oh, what is it?" asked Ida nervously.

Foster ran to them. "The finger points," he said.

"Look! what is it? Where does it point?"

"By gum, there's something behind this," said page 348Foster. "The arm points at the wall above the recess."

"Come," said Palliser, with a subdued excitement. "Let us explore further."

They ran across the dozen yards to the wall, and putting their faces close to the stone, scrutinised it eagerly.

"Figures! figures! figures!" cried Foster.

Palliser fell back suddenly, and the pupils of his eyes were roundly dilated.

"I see it now, at last," he said, in a voice in which deliberation struggled with wonder, and excitement with both. "I see the whole hideous crafty plot. Lord, what a devil that man was!"

"What do you see?" asked Ida.

"These figures, Miss Caryll," said Palliser solemnly, "are the last work of your dead father. You were right. There was something more to come. He and Ihirua reached the place where he had hidden the gold in safety, and reached it before the murderer who stole the paper. They dug up the gold, and he removed it to another place. Ihirua died ere this was done—died of her wound. But Caryll succeeded in hiding his treasure again, and then, in case I should ever come upon this place, wrote mo this message upon the wall. Here is his message to us."

Ida stared at the figures.

"I cannot read them," she said, in low tones. "They are strange to me."

"Yes," said Palliser. "They are Greek characters."

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"Greek!" echoed Ida and Foster together.

"Greek; that when the murderer came he would be unable to learn the secret. That secret is now in our grasp."

Foster and Ida stared again at the letters, and Palliser went a little nearer and examined them more attentively. They were roughly cut with a knife upon the soft limestone, and the whole inscription ran thus:—

Kρεvις υνδερ Θιρδ καββαγε τρεε

παστ ρεδ Φαcε Pοcκ wεστwαρδ

Pεμεμβερ Iδα