The Web of the Spider
Chapter VI. The Cry of the Weka
Chapter VI. The Cry of the Weka.
From appearances 'twas near four in the morning (for the sun was just risen beyond the hills, though this side of the valley was in shadow) when Palliser drew himself from his blanket and went forward to throw some sticks upon the fire. But a few were left of the stock, and, after enticing the flames with these, he pushed into the forest for more fuel. As he did so, Aotea awoke and sat up. He was gone but a few minutes, and when he regained the verge of the knoll he saw an astonishing sight. Out of the lower bush a Maori was stalking, spear in band, to the spot on which Aotea stood, facing him. For a moment Palliser stared in his wonder; then, to his utter amazement, Aotea sank slowly to the earth; the Maori drew near, menacing with his weapon, but silent, and the girl, silent also, bowed her head upon her breast and folded her arms.
As the stranger poised his spear, Palliser snatched his revolver from his belt, and then, struck with a sudden thought, dashed out upon the knoll with a cry.
"Hold!" he called.page 71
The Maori turning quickly levelled the spear against him, his eyes gleaming with rage.
"Hold!" cried Palliser again. "Is Matuku a fool that he does not know a friend? Lower your spear, and hear my word."
"Is the Pakeha a coward that he invents a lie?" asked the Maori, breaking silence at last, but holding his weapon still poised. "I had corao to slay the false one. I shall slay also the paramour."
"Peace, fool," said Palliser contemptuously. "Why do you chatter so? What is this talk of paramours? If you are Matuku, this is your betrothed."
"A brave man speaks truly," said the Maori, scowling. "It is only the coward that lies. She had a brave man, and now she has chosen a whining puppy. Why should you not both die?"
"No doubt," returned Palliser, smiling sarcastically. "Matuku is a brave man, and could slay the Pakeha, who covers him with a gun. But it is true I have not lied when I said, 'This is your betrothed.' Ask her. Say, 'Why is this you are with the Pakeha?'"
"I want no dark words. I love the light. Is it not plain to me how this matter stands? The Pakeha bewitches the Maori women. Ihirua was taken by one, and now Aotea by another. But he shall die. Kaimoana says well. They shall be cut down like thistles."
"Your words are fine," retorted Palliser. "If they are true also, you will have much honour. But why lay a trap for yourself? The weka sees the leaves rustling in the wind, and rushes at them. It is blind, page 72as you also are blind." Then turning to Aotea, who was still silent, he continued, "Speak, Aotea, to this blind man, and tell him why you left Matapihi, that he may go home in peace."
Thus addressed, the girl lifted her eyes apathetically, and let her gaze fall upon Matuku. A little light glimmered in them, and the corners of her mouth softened; a wave of expression ran over her face, yet her voice was marked by the resignation which is peculiar to the Maori in certain crises.
"How shall I convince him? It is an impossible task you have given me. I cannot say, 'We have come to take vengeance.' He would laugh. 'What plot has a Maori with a Pakeha?' he would ask; and how am I to answer him? Let me die."
"Yet speak," said Palliser impatiently.
"Behold, then," said the girl, flashing out. "I am the sister of Ihirua, who was with Kariri, and the Pakeha is the friend of Kariri, and I am the sister of Ihirua. What more shall I say? They are both gone. Who can guess where their bones are laid? Yet we must find them."
Palliser observed the spear-point drop, and seized his advantage.
"Come," he said, "you have heard. We have come out for vengeance. Sit, and we will talk. If you think it good, you also shall assist. But if not, you shall go home in peace."
Matuku, with one steadfast glance at his betrothed, threw his spear upon the ground, saying, "I have been page 73blind. Enough. There has been fool's talk between us. I feel I am as a child. Why have they not beaten me?"
He strode forward to the fire, hanging his head, and Aotea regarded him.
"The Pakeha is a deceitful race," he said, sitting down deliberately, and with the air of a philosopher. "When I say that, friend, I do not include you. It is very kind of you to have taken charge of Aotea, who is a forward girl and mischievous. But when she is in your charge I am satisfied, and no longer feel afraid. The Pakeha is objectionable," he resumed dispassionately, "but there are exceptions. You are an exception, friend. The Maori is not a cunning race. He can run, but he cannot jump far; it is necessary that he walk all the way. So I was simple in believing there was evil in a woman, where there is only the mischief common to them all." He looked across at Aotea, whose fingers were playing with the fringe of her mat. "Let her come to me, and I will say I am a fool," he added.
But Aotea's fatalism had passed with the crisis, and she was now the woman, half-ashamed, half-indignant, no longer oppressed and moody. A sly bashfulness sat upon her face as she sent Matuku a covert glance from under her long dark lashes.
"Perhaps my love is dead," she said, "and you have killed it with your cruel words. No; I will not come to you. It is absurd."
It seemed as if there really was some mischief in page 74Aotea. Matuku shifted uneasily in his seat, and Palliser, turning on his heel, left them to make it up.
When he returned Matuku was squatting by the fire, smoking a black pipe, and the girl was roasting taro for the morning meal.
"Friend," said the former, addressing him, "you will be glad this foolishness is at an end. But what madness are you rushing on? How can I decide what I am to do?"
"The word is with you, friend," returned Palliser indifferently. "We are going upon a difficult journey. It is for you to say whether you will come with us. Our skulls may adorn the stockades of our enemies. Who can foretell? Yet we are going, for we have a sacred duty to perform. Surely, the word is with you."
Matuku smoked for awhile in silence, and then he said, "Our ancestors have made difficult rules, so that it is hard for a man to obey them. My tribe will wonder when they do not see Matuku, and will ask, 'What is become of this laggard? He has fallen over a cliff, this poor dead man'; and my enemies will answer, 'No, your dead man is a coward; he was afraid to face the Arawas, whom we are going to attack; therefore he has crept home. Go and look for him, and behold, you will find him nursing the pigs with the women.' It is not a nice thing for a warrior to have this said. Yet I am a trembling toitoi. The wind drives me from side to side, and I cannot rest. When the wind ceases I will answer. To-night I will have a word for you. It is ended."
Palliser smiled, and said,page 75
"Good; we will wait for your answer till the sun sets. But it is time for us to go; we have lingered too long. March with us till then."
"I, too, will come," said Matuku.
Palliser had resolved to forage for provisions that morning, for, with Matuku added to his party, the stock would not hold out that day. It is not always easy in the New Zealand bush to obtain food, as the absence of all animals, save the pig (which Captain Cook turned loose in the islands), severely limits the use of the gun; while though pigeons and parrots are plentiful at certain seasons, they are not always to be met with, and in the heart of the bush frequently not at all. The large rail, known to the natives as the weka, is a bird impossible for the larder, owing to its rank and oily flesh. Along the route, therefore, the party kept a sharp look out upon the bush, but nothing worth shooting was seen, only innumerable minute blight-birds, and an occasional tui flitting by, the white tuft of feathers gleaming on its black breast.
About midday the track, forsaking the creek, began to creep up a heavily-wooded slope. Glancing at Aotea Palliser saw that a change had come over her. Since Matuku's advent she had lost much of her preoccupation, and early in the morning had displayed the indolent good-humour of the ordinary Maori girl. But gradually this had left her, and as the day wore on, a look of fear and expectation crept over her face. And now when they turned upward from the creek that look had settled deeper.page 76
"Why are you afraid?" asked Palliser curiously. Matuku glanced uneasily at his beloved.
"It is the beginning of Te Tauru," murmured the girl vacantly. "It is the road to the abode of the Taniwha,* and to death."
"Why should you fear Taniwha?" returned Palliser. "Let him stay in his caves; we shall not trouble him. We will charm, him with an incantation, and he will leave us alone."
Aotea said nothing. Matuku shook his head.
"It is all right in the daytime," he said; "but at night who can avoid the Taniwha?"
"That is all humbug," said the Englishman scornfully. "A warrior is not afraid of a lizard."
He was aware that to shame Matuku into fortitude was the only means of retaining his prompt services, so deep is the terror of this superstition in the Maori. Matuku made no answer, and they toiled on in silence.
Certainly a gloom hung about this threshold of Te Tauru. At first the road opened a little here and there, and where the slope ran back to the left they caught a passing glimpse of the great head of Hinete-ao, the sacred mountain, and the ancient tomb of chiefs. But as they went on, the track narrowed and shut out all view. Denser and denser grew the forest, loftier and loftier the trees, till the path was thickly shaded from the meridian sun, and a jagged line of blue was all of the sky visible overhead. At last Palliser determined to call a halt, and while Aotea page 77rested, Matuku and he, free of their burdens, separated in search of food. One struck off to the left of the track, the other to the right.
Palliser's heart misgave him when once he was fairly in the bush. It seemed to him that he had entered a world of silence. Not a sound was audible from bird or leaf. If there were any breeze astir it was playing far above on the surface of the tall pines; in these depths was no movement, but an unspeakable stillness. A profound gloom lurked in the recesses of that bush, and every now and then he struck into a patch where the undergrowth was so dense that he was encompassed by the darkness of night. In this he moved with a slowly-rising horror, his footsteps for the most part falling dead upon the heavy mosses, but now and again crashing through a treacherous and rotten bough enwrapped in lichens and overgrown with long grasses. In the centre of the stillness this noise echoed fearfully of disaster, so sudden was it in the quiet bush. About him was a world of dead things, and the sombre living. Dead trunks of trees sprawled everywhere, lying thickest in the slimy bottoms, covered with green and sickly fungi. Yet was never a sign of life through all that afternoon. The tangles in the deep thickets resisted his path so stoutly that it was by slow marches he proceeded, and as time went by, he confessed to weariness as well as to the futility of his expedition. 'Twas little use to take this weary path into the wilderness; and turning at the thought he headed for the track.
It is upon a certain instinct of direction that the page 78bushman leans for guidance, and Palliser was wont to carry in his head without an effort the twists and turns of an unfamiliar passage. Yet now ere he had retraced some thirty yards he hesitated, then faltered and stopped. Something fluttering in his brain made him question his direction, and on a sudden all certainty vanished. He began suspiciously to examine his path, and at each step found his confusion growing. The forest tumbled up and down a hundred gullies; he could not say if he was going east or west, or north or south. He wandered first in one direction, then in another, and again back and upon a third. The bush was a trackless chaos, through which were a thousand possible paths, but one of which would lead him home.
Nigh three hours had been spent in futile wandering when Palliser sat to rest in the fork of a wild fuchsia, understanding that but an accident could recover him from the most horrible of deaths. The struggle through the undergrowth had worn him out, so that mind and body were exhausted, and dark thoughts haunted him. The close air seemed to collect upon him and choke him; the damp rottenness of the earth beneath him rose up and ate into his bones; there was a savour of death and decay abroad. He breathed (so he fancied) the atmosphere of a charnel-house, full of the whitening dead. Under his feet was the black-rot of centuries, and from the miasma the very vegetable life about him would appear to sicken and die. Far better (so ran his thoughts) that he should shoot himself now, and join the common decay at once. For a second the vision of his body page 79dangling from a supplejack flashed into his eyes, and then with a shudder he put such thoughts from him. But the horror of the place had gnawed into his soul, and lurked there, mordant. He saw now how it had come to be regarded as the home of the Taniwha, the place of death. But, despite the oppression upon him, he was resolved to live. Jumping to his feet, with the remnant of his vigour he shouted—
The cry of the Australian black awoke the quiet bush, and echoes started from the many gullies. Again and again he shouted, till his voice grew harsh and raucous, and the cry turned into a shrilling wail, that pierced the stillness desolately.
"Coo-ee! Coo-ee! Coo-ee!"
"Kati" (enough), he murmured; "if they hear nothing, neither shall I again, till, like poor Caryll, I hear the flood upon Reinga."
There was a deep and passive silence; the coo-ees had echoed into the past, and Palliser waited upon his fate. Suddenly, far off, high and solitary, rose the wail of a weka. Was it the wail of a weka? Or was it an answering coo-ee?
"Ko-ee! Ko-ee! Ko-ee!"
'Twas the first alien sound that had come to Palliser's ears since he entered the bush. Whence came it? He strained his ears to the four quarters. Again upon the stillness it rose, distant, but clear. Could it be Aotea calling to him? Or was it in truth only a weka, deeper in the abysmal recesses of Te Tauru? Again page 80he heard it, this time nearer, by the sound. Here at last was a faint glimmer of hope, before which, the deadly vapours sank back into the sullen earth. He was not left to perish, then; here was something calling; here was at least some live thing calling—calling in this house of death. His heart leapt at the thought; he would not die in his seat after all, but fighting, as became one to whom no emprise was desperate, until the end. He listened again, and as the wail sobbed upon the air, nearer now, still nearer, he jumped across a fallen tree, and plunged quickly through the bush towards it.
Trailing his gun behind him, he brushed through the mutinous thicket of small wood, stopping here and there to listen to the cry. From time to time he heard it, sounding nearer and nearer, until at last he judged he could be no further away than two or three hundred yards. He was now in the hollow of a small ravine, down which trickled a rivulet beneath festooning creepers. Crossing this at a bound, he rushed up the thither bank, and at a hundred paces stopped beside a ribbonwood tree. The cry had ceased; there was no sound now, save his own sharp breath as he panted. He waited for a few moments, and then pushed on; paused once more and listened; and then again moved forward. When he had come to a stop for the third time, there was silence for fully two minutes, and then, fearful of a mistake, he raised a long coo-ee on the air. Silence ensued, unbroken. Again he coo-eed; again there were but the echoes to reply. Yet were that weka-cry the call of Aotea, she had answered him. As he stood motionless, one hand upon the stock page 81of his gun, his head to one side, agape for the slightest sound, suddenly murmurs seemed to grow in his ears, and he had that old familiar fancy of persons environing him. What was this singing in his brain? Was it only the self-consciousness of a strained sense, or was it due to strange voices? Where previously had been perfect silence there appeared now to be sounds upon all sides. A confusion fell upon his senses; the hot sweat quivered on his lashes, and his eyes grew purblind; and despite his conviction that all these halting symptoms were legitimate perversions of nature, there returned upon him a sickening sense of being haunted. Good God! was he going mad? Or was this, indeed, the house of some mysterious Taniwha? But by degrees the noises passed away, and again he heard the welcome call of the weka. In an instant the shapeless forebodings were dispersed, and he was pressing hot upon the chase once more.
On and on he drove, ever toward that cry, yet never reaching it, nor even now making way upon it. Was it but a phantom? Did he mistake for a cry in the distance what was but the illusive product of his own dazed senses? If it came of Aotea and Matuku, why did it continuously retreat from him, irresponsive to his calling?—and if it were in truth the wood-hen, into what lower depths was it leading him? Yet Palliser would suffer no fears to come between him and his pursuit of the one living thing of which he had evidence, and through the interminable and arduous forest he strove bravely, in the weariness of many hours' page 82toil, stumbling and tripping in the dark shadow of the bush, made darker by the falling dusk. At last he was come to a spot where there seemed a break in the trees, and, staggering out upon an open patch of earth, he flung himself down and drew a deep and freer breath. As he sank to the ground, exhausted in every limb, the wail of the weka died away, and silence reigned once more. To Palliser's jaded heart further effort seemed now futile, yet he waited for the cry to begin again. Time passed and he heard nothing, so, rising, he walked up the open strip, listening for the sound. He soon perceived that the tongue of clear land extended farther than he had thought, and he proceeded some distance along it in the dusk. Then, of a sudden, he was illumined by a great hope, and, stooping, examined the trunk of a tree which lay in his way. It had been felled by the hand of man. He was upon the track.
Palliser sat down upon the log, and taking off his hat, wiped his moist forehead quietly.
"After all," he meditated, "persistence is the divine law of safety."
He had no means of telling whether he had come out upon the track above or below the spot at which he had left the Maoris, and as he thought upon his companions he was recalled to the means of his deliverance. The weka was silent; the phantom cry (if such it was) had ceased at the moment he had regained the pathway. Bewildered at this reflection Palliser walked slowly downwards, making choice at a venture. There was page 83nothing to account for the cessation; it could only be a coincidence.
"Unless," he thought equably, "I really am haunted," and he laughed, but shivered nevertheless.
As it turned out, he had taken the right direction, for, rounding a twist in the track, he presently espied two figures in the dusk. He had barely reached them ere he threw himself upon the ferns and lay breathing heavily.
"It has been a difficult march," said Mataku, looking at him.
Palliser made no answer to this, but asked, "Have you shot any birds?"
Aotea held up a meagre wood-pigeon and a couple of parakeets, slung on a flax string.
"There is nothing in the bush," said Matuku. "If one had a club he could kill as much. The gun is good in war, but you cannot shoot fern-root with it. That must be our food if indeed Taniwha does not drown us."
"But why does Pariha linger so long in the forest, and bring home nothing?" Aotea asked.
Palliser struggled up against a black birch and folded his arms.
"When one looks for light he finds darkness," he said. "Surely it must have been the lack of a karakia" (charm) "that has given us a fruitless journey."
"That is true," nodded Matuku sagaciously. "We omitted the karakia, and God was angry; we will be wise next time. A child, when he finds no kumara in page 84the pit, cries, and his father bears him, and gives him from the store. We will propitiate Taniwha also."
"Yes," returned Palliser wearily; "we will be wise, friend, next time; we have been children. But," and he turned suddenly to the Maniapoto, "what will you tell me? Did you follow me into the bush? Did you hear me crying out of the heart of the koromiko? and what was your answer? Was it the cry of the hen weka to her mate?"
Matuku stared at him, and replied,
"I went into the bush, and God allowed me my three poor birds; then I returned. What is this talk about a weka calling to her mate? I have no knowledge of this weka."
"Was it you, daughter of the morning?" asked Palliser of Aotea.
"No; I do not understand," said she. "I was not in the forest; I heard no cry. Why should I call like a weka?"
"Of course; there is no reason. It is absurd," said he suavely, being unwilling to increase their dread of Taniwha by his story. Then he rose. "I am tired," he said; "prepare the food, and I will rest. My bones are those of a child to-night." And so saying, he drew his blankets round him and fell asleep.