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The Web of the Spider

Chapter VII. The Man in the Black Shirt

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Chapter VII. The Man in the Black Shirt.

That evening Palliser questioned the Maori of his decision. "Will you," said he, "come with us on this journey of vengeance? Or does a Maniapoto warrior fear the talk of the women? Where is a man's place but by his betrothed?"

Matuku stared gloomily before him. He was what is termed of the Maori's pouri; that is, he was a dark and melancholy man. Yet he answered certainly enough—

"This is my word. A man has better things to do than looking after the follies of women. They are many, and occur often. This is well known except to children. But it is a strange thing we cannot say, 'Be foolish as much as you will—it is nothing to me.' We laugh at the folly which is plain to all hut children, but if we lose a woman because of her folly we do not laugh any more. No; we weep, or we get angry. Why is this? It is a stupid fashion, hut it remains. Those are wise thoughts, but they are too much for me page 86Also, it is not good to be called coward. Yet what is a man to do? He can only say to her, 'What is it you wish? Do you desire to dishonour me?' and then follow her. There is no other course but this. It is enough, friend. I will go with you."

Aotea took but small notice of these words, so that Palliser guessed her to have been assured of her lover's conclusion. She waggled her head only, saying,

"The folly in a woman is too much spoken of. There are follies in men also. Why do you not name them?"

"You have spoken well," said Palliser to the man. "It shall be as you say. We three will go."

But Matuku, having set forth his resolution to attend them, proceeded now upon a remonstrance against this quixotic expedition.

"In the south," said he, "dwell the foes of the Pakeha. How will you avoid them? The Maniapoto is in the north, but since Maungatautari there is peace; but beyond the hills are the Ngatiawas. They are fierce sharks; can two men and one woman go up against Te Katipo?"

"Who is Te Katipo?" asked Palliser.

Matuku looked a little surprised.

"Have you not heard of Te Katipo?" he asked.

"What does one from the sea know of the mountains?" said Palliser.

"That is true," replied the Maori; "but Te Katipo is a great chief. His fame is gone down to the sea.

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He is the great Hauhau chief in the mountains. He is going to drive the Pakeha into the sea."

Palliser smiled. "We shall see. It is God that settles these things, and not Te Katipo."

"You speak truly," returned Matuku gravely. "It is God. Why, then, should not Te Katipo do this? But it will be hard for you to escape him and his Hauhaus."

"Come," said Palliser, "you know the country southward. Tell me, is the path clear, and whither does it lead?"

"There is one path southward through Te Tauru, but it leads to death," said the Maniapoto solemnly. "How shall you escape the hands of Te Katipo, who lies beyond Hine-te-ao? The Hauhaus have rolled over the land like the sea. You will perish and float out into Moana" (the ocean).

"Am I a fool?" said Palliser. "Have not the Hauhaus been crushed in Taranaki?"

"The Pakeha has broken them up on the coast; but they have fastnesses in the mountains. Besides, they cannot be killed."

"That is humbug," responded Palliser scornfully. "If you are afraid, go back to your tribe. I am not frightened of this Te Katipo of yours."

"It is well," commented Matuku calmly. "They blind a dog, and he jumps into the water and is drowned."

Palliser, indeed, had no thought of penetrating the Hauhau country; already he had begun to question page 88whether Caryll and his companion in their extremity had reached even this point ere the arrest of death. If, as Aotea avowed, their talk had been of Te Tauru in the hut, the searchers were thus far upon the right road, and yet how possible it was that these two poor stricken creatures had themselves wandered off the track and died in some hole or cranny of the bush. At present they were to proceed, but Palliser saw that in a little they might decide to return, and at all events their duty would stop short this side the Hauhaus,* whither it was preposterous to imagine the lost had wandered. These fanatics were now of a year's date, and were notorious to the colonists by their outrageous savagery, yet it was idle to tremble at the terrible Te Katipo, between whom and himself were leagues of mountains.

By ten o'clock on the next day they had all but topped the saddle over which the bush stretched toward Hinete-ao. Palliser's thoughts were running upon the uncertain nature of their march when suddenly they came to a spot where the track divided, one branch twisting upwards over the saddle to the left, the other running along the slant towards the lower ground upon the right. At this Palliser's doubts returned. If Caryll and the girl had come so far, which direction had they taken? He stood for a while in debate with himself, until at last Matuku broke the silence.

"Why do you hesitate, Pariha?" he said, "This is the road that leads out of Te Tauru to Hine-te-ao." He pointed across the saddle. "The other is a blind page 89road leading nowhere; but there is ruin and death at the end of it. But, indeed, the end is all one, for both ways lead to Te Katipo."

Here Aotea, who had been wandering a little in advance, raised a shrill cry.

"Look! look!" she called. "What is it? It is the paper of Kariri. Behold, the way is here. Look!"

Palliser sprang forward to where she stood, a few yards along the lower track, indicating, with a tremulous hand, a white patch upon a pine trunk. It was a paper, nailed to the tree, stained and sodden with rain.

"There is blood upon it," cried Aotea wildly. "Is it the blood of Ihirua, or the blood of Kariri?"

Her eyes were flashing, and the red mat across her breast fluctuated rapidly as her breath came and went in spasms. Palliser examined the paper carefully. It was some two inches square, and was pegged into the rimu with a splinter of wood. He took it for a fragment of some letter, for there was writing upon it, and the complete words ran thus:—

"Wrote last I … yet forgotten … silence … father."

And at the end was legible in full—"Laneelot Caryll," as though it had been the care of him that placed it here to exhibit his name. Without a doubt, this was a message from the lost Englishman, and Palliser saw at once what it must mean. Caryll, on hearing that Ihirua had been robbed of her secret, had hastily fled with her to secure his gold, and, in his agitation, had forgotten to page 90leave any word for his friend. On his way he had remembered, and, to guide Palliser, in the event of his fallowing, he had left this scrap of paper to indicate his route. There was no message upon it, for he had been without the means of writing one; the paper was itself the message. The fragment had been torn from a letter, perchance a letter to his daughter, for the few words decipherable seemed to suggest a certain pitiful repentance, which struck Palliser as wholly pathetic.

"Who has slain Ihirua, O friend?" cried Aotea; "who is the murderer? Tell me, that I may follow upon his trail, like the hawk. What does the paper say, Pariha?"

"Hush! be silent!" said Palliser sternly. "Vengeance is not yet in our power. We must go on; the paper says, Forward. Keep silence, and follow. And you, O Matuku," he continued, "what is this shameful advice you give us? What if the path run to death if it will bring us also to vengeance? Let us be wary. It lies clear over the mountains. Let us follow. We are wise men, and not children. No dogs shall bark at our heels. There is silence behind us, and the shame of the tribe. Before, there are voices calling us on. I hear them, daughter of the Maniapotos, and you, O dark and gloomy one, I hear them. Shall I neglect them and sleep while there is death in the forest? Your words are pouri, friend. Leave us, if you are afraid. We will go upon the path alone. Enough. I have spoken."

"Two brave men may meet death," returned Mataku. "Let the woman go back and sleep; I will follow."

"No," cried Aotea, with flaming eyes. "Peace; yours page 91is a foolish word. I, too, am on the path of death. Peace, I say; why do you annoy me? I will not turn back," and as was her wont when deeply moved, she drew her wrappings closer to her, squatting upon the ground.

"Come, then," said Palliser; "let us go."

In silence they filed down the path which led from the upper way into the heart of Te Tauru. The great bush lay about them on all sides. The track, here narrow as a thread, was obstructed by great boles and swinging climbers, and 'twas as if the passage, but roughly accomplished, had been, thereupon, abandoned, so that the vigorous vegetation had soon fallen to the task of reclaiming it. Supplejacks hung in festoons across it, and the logs that filled the way were overgrown with prickly creepers. It was a tedious journey by this path, and within a couple of hours they were feeling somewhat spent with the heavy walking, when at last the track tapered suddenly off and ceased. Matuku, who was leading, cried,

"The track is ended."

Palliser hurried forward, and Aotea, whose nerves bad grown a little unsteady, gave a cry.

"The end!" she said; "the end!"

But presently they discovered that (in the bushman's phrase) a track had been "blazed" from this point through the heart of the bush. Matuku now remembered that, some thirty years back, the Maniapotos had set out to cut a roadway through to the Ngatiawas below the sacred mountain, but that fear of Te Tauru page 92falling upon them, they had desisted, only barking the trees here and there, for the use of anyone so bold as to brave the taniwhas. Without more ado they moved into the bush, and followed the blazed track, Palliser in advance, Maluku in the rear, and Aotea between them, her eyes starting from her head. By this guidance they proceeded for at least three hours, as they judged, though the sun was now hidden from them by the thick bush. The forest itself was as silent and as desolate as that prison from which Palliser had escaped the previous day; the axe-marks on the trees, too, were faint and in. some cases so obliterated by the growth of years that it was impossible to Bay with certainty whether they were upon the right road. They had frequently to rest now, being much fatigued with the long day, and it was during one of these pauses that Palliser noticed Aotea, who had scarcely spoken a word since their entry into the bush, dart back quickly from a koromiko-bush, and cower by Matuku. At the same time Palliser himself was conscious of a rustling in the bushes near. Turning his head sharply, he listened. Faint yet measured footfalls were in his ears. He sprang to his feet with a drawn look in his face.

"Good God!" he exclaimed, in English. "Am I indeed going mad?" Then he said quickly to Maluku, "Tell me, friend of the sharp ears, do you hear a sound?"

"I hear the sighing of the wind," said Matnku. "It is an evil omen of the Hauhaus, and their work upon the Pakeha."

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"Do you hear nothing else?" whispered Palliser hoarsely, while Aotea put her hands over her face.

Suddenly Matuku bent forward, his head poised toward the south, and a change came over his face.

"Is there a sound?" whispered Palliser. "Do you hear the noise of feet?"

Matuku strained his ears, and Aotea broke the silence with a low wail.

"I have heard it. It is the Taniwha,", she said; "we are in his evil house."

Her eyes were glassy with terror. Matuku'a brown skin turned sallow, and his fingers twitched.

"Do you hear it?" asked Palliser hoarsely. "It is a sound of footsteps. There! there!"

Matuku gave a cry, and crouched back in the fern.

"I hear it," he muttered. "It is Taniwha."

Palliser darted forward, raising a revolver.

"Who is there?" he called. "Who is there, O crawlers in darkness?"

There was silence.

"They are many," muttered Matuku. "Is not one enough to destroy us?"

"Who is there?" cried Palliser again.

There was a humming in the air as of distant blowflies.

"They are talking, perhaps," muttered Matuku.

Aotea wailed inarticulately.

"You shall die," cried Palliser, levelling his revolver at the bushes.

"They are laughing," said Matuku to himself.

"You shall die," repeated Palliser.

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"O Head in the darkness, I will slay you," chanted Matuku, trembling.

Palliser fired. The report rang through the bush, reverberating in a hundred gullies, and ere it had died away, out of the koromiko before him a small and sickly green lizard wriggled into the one blurred patch of sunlight. Matuku started up with a cry and, rushing forward, brought down the butt of his gun repeatedly upon the reptile, crushing it into a shapeless jelly. When he had done, he looked up complacently, and nodded to Palliser.

"It is quite right now," he said; "I have slain him. This one will not trouble us any more. He was a fool to show himself. Did you not hear how I bewitched him? I said, 'O Head in the darkness, I will slay you.' That brought him out, so that I could kill him,"

Palliser, under a sudden reaction, burst out laughing. "You are the man to charm Taniwha," he said. "Behold, how easily you have slain him."

Matuku looked gratified, but Aotea now raised her voice in a melancholy fashion.

"That is very well. But Taniwha will not let us escape. Someone must die, since we have seen him."

Matuku became grave again.

"That is true," he said; "someone must die."

Palliser was now convinced that the noises he had heard on the previous occasions had not been due to his imagination; for on this occasion they had been audible to his two companions. It was true that the Maoris, owing to their superstitious dread of Taniwha, were in a page 95highly nervous state, and that their senses might, therefore, not be wholly trustworthy; yet their impressions had so synchronised with his that he could not dispute their reality. It was no small relief to him to find his sensations natural, for he knew that prolonged solitude, especially in a vast wilderness like the bush, was apt to develop morbid fancies, and he had been strangely unstrung by the mysterious footfalls. Kow he was resolved that they were natural, and, if not due to some accident, betokened the presence of pursuers. The mystery was not explained by this conclusion, but it was at least released from the supernatural. With Matuku he scoured the bush about their resting-place, but found no trace of human beings, and so, once more for the lack of knowledge, he fell back upon the hypothesis that the sounds were, like the cry of the weka, the result of coincidence. On the other hand his two Maoris had not the least doubt that all was the work of the taniwhas. Te Tauru was the home of these monsters, and it was foolish to suppose they would suffer a free passage to intruders. Furthermore, they declared, this was but the gate of Te Tauru. In the caves, in the heart of the forest, dwelt the great and terrible Taniwha, who could not be destroyed like the little green lizard. It was of him they had so deep a dread.

By five o'clock they had reached an ascent in the bush toward the south, as they conjectured. About this time they were suddenly alarmed by sounds of firing at no great distance from them. The track took them in page 96the direction of these reports, and seeing they were secure enough in the bush, save from an enemy already aware of their presence, Palliser began to hurry forward in the hope that in this new phenomenon would be found some explanation of the perplexing mystery. They came soon to a steep bank, covered with creepers of all kinds, and surmounted by large pines; and here the firing sounded much louder, as from quite at hand. "With his following he crept cautiously up this wall and reached the pines, between the trunks of which they passed, till all at once they found themselves on the verge of an open space.

It was an odd sight upon which Palliser looked down. Before him, in the very heart of the bush, was a clearing in the shape of a large cockpit or saucer, some hundred yards across, bounded on all sides by a slope, upon the crown of which the bush terminated. The saucer was devoid of trees and bushes, and was carpeted with long rank grasses. In the hollow were a number of Maoris, engaged in shooting at a man on horseback, who was riding wildly toward them. It was this figure that most attracted Palliser's attention. He sat upon a black horse, which was foaming at the mouth, and was himself clad in black from head to foot. His beard, too, was long and black, so that at first, from the prevailing hue, Palliser took him for a Maori; but on a close inspection perceived he was white.

Palliser watched him as he rode through his assailants, discharging a revolver right and left, and singing a snatch of a Maori war-song in a loud dismal voice, page 97which rang above the noise of the guns. It seemed a marvel that he was not blown into a thousand pieces, so close were the quarters. But he rode out of the mélée still singing, and his horse trampling down a Maori, plunged madly up the slope upon the farther side of the saucer. Then, to Palliser's wonder and dismay, he deliberately turned his charger's head, and spurred him down again upon the natives, who were collected in the hollow, some reloading their weapons, others taking aim and firing. The man in black, having emptied his revolver, had drawn a heavy navy cutlass from his saddle, and was waving it in the air. As he thundered down the slope, shouting and chanting his Maori song, he kept flinging the cutlass into the air in circles, and catching it as it fell; and this, together with the strange noises he was making, his oddly uniform colour, and his coal-black steed flecking itself with spume, composed so extravagant a picture that Palliser for the moment stood aghast. Then recovering, he called to Matuku.

"Come," he said, "follow me; we must assist him." But Matuku had seated himself upon a log, Aotea by his side, and was contemplating the scene with equanimity. He shook his head emphatically.

"I am sorry, Pariha," he said; "those are Maniapotos."

"Oh, damn your tribal etiquette," said Palliser, in English, and rushed down into the cockpit with a whoop. The black man, indeed, was at the moment in sore need of help; for, even as Palliser began to run, page 98the horse staggered forward, shot through the heart, and came down upon its head. The rider rolled over upon the grass, but to all seeming the affair scarce interrupted his chant, for he was on his feet next second, shouting and singing. Palliser's whoop reached the Maoris at this point, and they turned in astonishment at the diversion. He came down at a long stride, brandishing his revolver till he got within range, and before the Maoris had recovered from their surprise, he was upon them, discharging his chambers in rapid succession. Two of the natives fell, and then the others turned their guns upon him. He joined the black man, who was advancing, cutlass in hand.

"Curse your folly," he said angrily; "are you mad? Don't you see there is only one chance? Up the slope with you!"

He wrenched him about with one arm, and the man in black laughed. Both started up the clearing at a run, and the Maniapotos dashed after them, shouting.

Now and then a gun was discharged, and though the aim was bad, Palliser looked every moment to hear the heavy thud of a bullet upon himself or his companion. They doubled up the rise, but the Maoris were gaining upon them, for at a short distance the native is usually swifter than a European. Suddenly there was a volley of reports, and Palliser, whose head was bent low upon bis breast for better speed, heard his companion give a kind of grunt. He glanced at him, expecting to see him wounded, but found be was looking back over his shoulder. Palliser also twisted his head round and saw page 99to his surprise that the Maoris were halting undecidedly. At that moment another volley rang out, and a native fell. Turning with wonder in the direction of the sound, Palliser saw smoke hanging about the bush verge on the top of the slope some thirty yards to his left. As he gazed another report followed, and the Maoris turned and fled back into the hollow.

Palliser came to a stop and stared, panting and stupefied at the drift of smoke.