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The Web of the Spider

Chapter V. At the Back of the Fall

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Chapter V. At the Back of the Fall.

Palliser had no plans beyond a resolve to follow upon Caryll's trail to the forest of Te Tauru. At the end he looked for nothing but Caryll's body, seeing that he must have been in the article of death when he left Matapihi; and 'twas more than likely, too, that Ihirua had succumbed to her desperate wound. Te Tauru, as he gathered, was a vast expanse, wherein the chance of happening upon anyone was of the smallest; yet there was a faint hope, and this, slight as it was, moved him to continue till at last he should be beyond all traces of the lost. Lancelot Caryll should not be forsaken were it within his means to discover him, or at least identify his fate. There was also a minute prospect that some accident might point to the treasure-câche, though this actuated him less; and lastly, the thought of Caryll's wandering daughter troubled him vaguely. These fears and projects were to be his company upon that expedition.

Upon the morrow he rose somewhat late from his fern bed, and passed them in review. Aotea was still sleeping calmly in her mats, her loosened hair straying over her pretty face, now relieved from the gloom of page 58sorrow and vengeance; and Palliser, reflecting that she had left her lover to follow him, wondered to find all other human properties outcast of this surly passion. It was not in his nature to forecast the result of a venture; he made his plan and moved by it; so that he fell into no speculation upon the end of his search and the intermediary dangers. Instead, observing that the morning was far gone, he set about breakfast with a cheerful whistle.

By noon they were diverging from the river line by a dashing torrent which ran out of the heart of the steep mountains, and was closely hedged by the thick bush. Through this, upon the left bank, the thin track crawled tortuously upwards to the distant gorge where blue, hanging mists drooped as a veil upon the summits. As they proceeded a faint roaring arose from cascades and rivulets in the upper reaches. The sunlight fell fiercely upon the bush, but was withheld from them by the tall pines, and the frothing creek dispersed a pleasant coolness through the air. They came at last to a point in the ascent where, to avoid a monstrous projection of the spur upon the left, the track ran down to the creek edge, and crept under the face of a cliff for a few hundred paces. Here it followed the undulations of the stream, through a narrow belt of flat land covered with low bushes. The noise of waters which filled the air now covered all other sounds; and when they had turned a corner half-way along this passage, a sudden sight struck Palliser still. Round the foremost angle of the cliff was pouring a band of armed Maoris.

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In a second—for there were but twenty paces between them—they had discovered him, and, with shouts, those in advance ran forward. Palliser cried a warning to Aotea, who was a little in the rear, and darted from the track, through the bushes, towards the creek. The leading Maori brought his gun roughly to the level and fired, but his shot passed wide, and the fugitive plunged into the creek and ran up the farther bank. Then followed a smart volley, but Palliser rushed on unhurt, and half a dozen natives dashed through the stream after him. The farther cliff, which toward its base was sprinkled with loose bushes, did not rise so steeply as that by the track side, yet went up too perilously for scaling. Palliser had flung his swag into the bushes, and was flying along the slant, ducking his head here and there behind a manuka-tree for protection from the intermittent shots from the other side. At a glance he had seen how impervious was the upper cliff in the face of these sharpshooters, and he trusted only to his speed to carry him out of danger. Gradually the roaring in the air grew louder, and presently he had burst out upon a waterfall. The cascade curled smoothly over the face of the cliff, twenty feet higher, and thence, sweeping outwards, fell in a white curve into the torrent below. Glancing hastily over his shoulder, where no Maori was yet in sight, he almost instinctively made up the remnant of the slope to the foot of the higher cliff. Between the fall and the naked rocks behind was a certain space, filled doubtless with spray and mist, yet possibly such as might be adventured by a man running page 60for his life. Blindly pushing through the curtains of water on the outermost edge of the fall, he groped within for a holding, and finding his hands rest upon a ledge of some sort, at once dragged himself through the drenching spray and passed behind the fall.

When his eyes were clear of water he examined his retreat. He was clinging to an outstanding bit of rock in a dark recess, with a thunder in his ears and a black shuddering blind of water before his eyes. On either side the cascade thinned into dense spray, through which the only light was admitted into this strange hiding-place. And the air in the recess, too, was permeated with a mist which gathered into drops upon his beard and moustache. Yet he was not so far incommoded, and at all events was safe from the enemy. He secured a more convenient position on the rock and waited. He could, of course, hear nothing through the roaring of the fall, but he strained his eyes through the veil of mist by which he had entered, and beyond which he had glimpses of sunlit rock. He had not been many moments in his hiding-place before a figure sprang into the light, and stood for some time looking at the fall. Presently another joined it, and the two appeared to be in conversation. Then one bent his head to the ground and began examining it. Palliser realised at once what a difference it had made to him that the cliff here had been of pure rock with no superficies of earth; for his feet had left no marks from the moment of his leaving the bushes below. After a time the Maoris went out of range, but Palliser had no means of page 61telling whether they had given up the pursuit. The time of waiting was a weary one, yet he would not risk discovery, hut crouched in his corner for nigh upon an hour, by which time he was wet from head to foot and at the height of discomfort. At last he decided to leave his ambush, judging it unlikely that the Maoris suspected him of harbouring in the fall; if they were still searching for him, it was more probable they were examining the bushes below. Leaping out through the spray he crawled from rock to rock into the sunlight. There were no Maoris visible; and so, step by step with a perfect caution, he went down to the bushes, but found no sign of the enemy's presence. It esteemed as if they had given up the search. A passing stranger was hardly game for a laborious hunt, though well enough to run down between meals. Moreover, it would seem to a logical mind that the Pakeha was more likely to have run over into the fall than to have been spirited up an unscaleable cliff.

Aotea was now in Palliser's thoughts. Had she, too, managed to escape? There was no friendly waterfall for her, but he trusted much to her native wit; and to lessen his anxiety he remembered that she was, like his pursuers, a Maori, though a Maori in the wake of a Pakeha. He had seen her, as he fled, whip into the bushes by the track, and it was, at least, dubious whether the Maoris had seen her at all, in that she had not rounded the corner into their view at the moment of his own discovery. He had every hope, therefore, for Aotea also. He began at once to retrace the way by page 62which he had fled, and descending carefully to the spot where he had thrown off his swag, found it as he had left it, among the bushes. Crossing the creek without finding any cause for alarm, he came at last to the track, but could see nothing of Aotea. He searched the scrub alongside without any result, and finally, resolved that the Maoris had indeed abandoned the chase, reascended the slope from which the track slipped down to the bed of the creek. Still there were no signs of Aotea, only the voices of the noonday bush and the noisy murmur of the torrents. There was a singing, too, in Palliser's ears, which was the echo of the cascade's thunder. If Aotea was not in the passage by the creek, he deemed it certain she had not gone farther; if she had not been carried off by the Maoris she was still in the rear, and so he took up a position upon the cliff which commanded a view of the lower track, and waited for her.

He watched long and patiently, but at length, growing drowsy in the hot air after his night of labour, planned a rest for himself. A short way back the path narrowed to a thread between two large trees. Taking a string of flax he weighted it at either end with short sticks, and threw it across this point, in such a fashion that no mere accident should displace it, though it would yield to the passage of a body. By this means he looked to tell, not only if any one had passed, but also in which direction. Having contrived this artifice, he returned to his nook in the bush and slept.

Palliser opened his eyes upon the dusk with soft footfalls sounding in his ears. He was so accustomed a page 63bushman that upon waking he made no movement, but merely opened his eyes and listened. Without a turn of his head he could only look up through the grey pines, where the clouds were gathering towards night; but he could hear sounds as of feet pattering in the open, and of movements in the undergrowth. He had even a suspicion of voices, low and near; then again there was growing silence, as of echoes dying in a haunted room. This continued to his imagination as long as he lay listening, but when he rose abruptly, impatient of the suspense, a perfect stillness brooded over the bush, broken only by the korimako's bell-like notes. He ran to the verge of the forest, and peered down the track: nothing was visible, nothing audible. For a moment he stood overcome with astonishment. He rubbed his ears, out of which the rumble of the cascade had not quite departed, and passed his arm pensively across his sight; then, shaking off covert fears, he went down to examine his register. The flax had been kicked aside and, from its position, obviously by one ascending from the river. If this were Aotea she had passed during his sleep, and must be some distance ahead. He strapped his swag upon his back and hurried down the slope to the passage by the creek; and then, still keeping a furtive eye about him, ascended into the bush beyond.

By the twilight it should have been a couple of miles farther that he heard a sound which he at first mistook for the cry of the weka. It came from higher on the hillside and deeper in the bush, and was a long-drawn wailing, rising and falling about one note in plaintive page 64cadences. Putting his burden to the ground, Palliser crept up the hill, and, guided by the noise, came shortly to the spot from which it issued. The young moon shone softly upon a grassy knoll clear of undergrowth and in a girdle of vast trees, the great stems of which rose bare, erect into the night. In the very centre of the knoll, half buried in long rank grasses, crouched Aotea, swaying to and fro, and wailing in a monotone the song she had sung in the whare.

"O darkness, whence come you?
Why hide you my beloved from me?
He was with me in the dawn when the clouds are red.
O my loved one, where have they hidden you?
Alas, my heart, there is woe in the evening;
When the sun goes down, there is woe;
My eyes stream and my cheeks are wet,
Because of the coming evil."

And then again, rocking herself, she cried,

"Who has slain Ihirua? Who is it has made the White Cloud to grow dark? Lo, there is darkness in the east, and no brightness in the west. I am as a burning ember in which is no light. Ah! who has slain Ihirua? who has slain Ihirua?"

The wekas were shrieking in the distance a mournful harmony to this melancholy lament. Palliser shuddered, as a sensible chill struck to his heart.

"Hush, Aotea," he broke in; "it is I, the Pakeha. Hush! daughter of the dawn. There are no clouds here. See, the moon is shining."

The girl sprang to her feet with a startled look, which passed when she saw Palliser emerging from the page 65trees. In a moment she had run from her knoll upon him, and was exhibiting the liveliest excitement.

"You have escaped, Pariha, and we must follow the track. Come, let us follow; come."

She was hanging upon his arm, from which he put her gently, as he answered,

"Follow! Where should we follow?"

"Shall we not follow upon the trail of Ihirua and Kariri, your friend?" she said. "Have you not said? Come, let us be gone, for it is time to be working."

"Let us go slowly," returned Palliser, using a familiar Maori phrase. "We cannot march in the dark. Let us wait till it is light. We must approach Te Tauru in the dawn. Wait."

Aotea stopped suddenly and made a movement with her hands.

"We will go in the dawn," she muttered, and she shuddered.

"How did you escape?" asked Palliser.

"I did not escape," she said quickly.

"What is this!" cried he. "Did they find you in the bushes?"

She shook her head.

"No; they did not find me, but I followed and was caught by them."

"Why should you do this foolish thing?" he asked reprovingly. "Are women always to be ridiculous?"

"Listen," said the girl. "They were Maniapotos; but not of Matapihi—of Waikino. And I followed them—but why should I lay my heart before you?

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It has nothing to do with vengeance. I will say nothing."

"It is true," returned Palliser, watching her with amusement. "If you say to me, 'My escape has nothing to do with our vengeance,' I will believe it, and he silent. I am not curious. Cover up your heart. I have no desire to learn the secrets of a woman's heart; they are too great for a man."

"It is nothing to do with our vengeance," responded Aotea gravely.

"Then," rejoined Palliser, "let us prepare for the night. To-morrow we must enter Te Tauru."

Palliser pitched upon the ringed knoll for that night, and a little later sat ruefully surveying the meagre provisions in his swag. Very soon he would have to trust to his gun for a supply of pigeons and ducks, for already the stock was getting pitifully low. Leaning against a tree he was smoking his pipe, while these thoughts ran in his head, when Aotea's voice interrupted them.

"O, Pariha, though a woman's heart is secret, there is no need to hide it in the dark. You have said well. Yet I will tell you my tale; but you shall also tell me yours, if at any time something should be secret. It is not right to have one-sided bargains."

Palliser smiled, reflecting that all women were alike, civilised or barbarian.

"Speak on," he said; "I also will put my heart before you when the time comes."

Whereat she told her tale.

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It seemed that when she had caught Palliser's warning cry, she had dropped off the track and crawled into a hollow bush, whence, herself invisible, she could perceive the chase. She saw both pursuers and pursued break through the creek; but after that the intervening scrub hid all from her sight, and she, therefore, turned her gaze back upon the path, from which a score of Maoris were watching their companions scamper up the cliff. Now and then one would raise his gun and fire, but she knew not with what result. Thus they remained for a quarter of an hour, by which time it was become clear that they were unaware of her presence. Concealed in her hiding-place she watched them turn at last and come slowly up the track, leaving their comrades to scour the banks.

"Know you," said Aotea at this point, "that these men were of the hapu of Waikino of the Maniapotos, and as they passed me I recognised them. Why should I hide it? He is a brave man, and my betrothed, though of another hapu. Matuku was with them, and I lamented that Matuku was with them. But I was also glad. I had seen him, and was not that something? Why should I be laughed at because I have a lover? Am I not well-favoured and of good birth? And was not my sister the wife of Kariri, Kaimoana's Pakeha? I see no laughing matter. I am not ashamed, though it is a secret to those in Matapihi. If it be foolishness and a matter for laughter, the fault is not mine, but our fathers' who begot us. I saw Matuku and I followed after. So, when the darkness is at hand, do men not page 68love the twilight? When it goes out then they mourn, thinking of the evil night. Therefore I wished to follow after Matuku before it was too late and night came upon me, as it came upon Ihirua. Therefore I followed."

Aotea held her peace for some minutes and gazed at the fire. Resuming at last, she told how she had followed the Maniapotos back to the fork where the torrent ran into the river. Here they rested, apparently to await the arrival of those who were behind; while the girl hung on the outskirts watching her lover. So absorbed was she in this affectionate office that she did not notice the approach of the contingent in the rear, and being caught between the two parties fell into their hands. Matuku was astounded at her appearance, and reproved her, to the amusement of his companions, who were thus informed of her identity. He was incensed to find her so far from Matapihi, and was suspicious of her motives.

"'What is this you tell me?' he cried," said Aotea. "'What does a girl do away from the kumara-grounds in the afternoon? Why have you left your tribe and come into the mountains?'

"And I cried, 'O loved one, hear me. For an hour and more have I followed after you to be near you. But you suspect me. Behold, there is no end to my troubles.'

"But he would not be soothed. He said, 'Does a girl go out to follow a war party? It is nonsense. What evil have you in your heart?'

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"And I answered, 'My Desire, in my heart there is no evil, but only you.'

"But he put me from him, saying, 'Let there be an end of this folly. You have pursued evil, and I have found you out.'

"But I wept and called, 'My beloved, my beloved!'

"And Matuku said, 'If you are willing to prove there is no evil in you, come back with me to Matapihi. And I will place you in the hands of Kaimoana; and you shall not go out beyond the kumara-grounds day nor night. And one day I will come and say, "Here is my bride," and if necessary will fight for you against the young men of Matapihi. Thus I shall know there is no evil in you if you will do this.'

"And I wept, for I was not able to do this, seeing I was searching for the murderer of Ihirua. And I stole away from the camp, ran along the track all through the afternoon, and I came to this place, and I wept again."

Palliser, meditating on this story, saw with satisfaction that Aotea had resolved to sacrifice all to the duty of vengeance, seeing that she might not be deterred from it, even by her lover. Later in the evening, when he crept into his blanket-bag and was curled up in the long dry grasses, the girl was still astir. He heard her moving about the fire, and presently the soft droning of her lament fell gently on his ears once more. Her sorrow for her dead sister and her lost lover was devouring her. The wekas were still crying in the solitudes; on the breeze the noise of the fretting creek was afloat; and so he passed into sleep.