The Web of the Spider
Chapter VIII. The Home of the Taniwha
Chapter VIII. The Home of the Taniwha.
Palliser was still staring at the bush when his companion's voice roused him from his vacancy. The black-beard, who was binding a strip of cloth about his bleeding wrist, touched his arm and nodded in the direction of the retreating Maoris.
"Dam' bad shots," he said; "only hit me once."
Palliser made no answer, but darted up towards the wreaths of smoke that floated upon the still afternoon air. The man in black looked after him in astonishment, and then fell to binding his wrist again.
Palliser had disappeared into the bush; the Maniapotos had crossed the saucer and were straggling over the further rim; nowhere else was anyone visible. The stranger sauntered down into the cockpit to the scene of the recent fray. Proceeding to his dead horse he recovered his revolver, and was withdrawing certain packets from the saddle when Palliser appeared upon the slope and, holloaing to him, motioned him to the further side of the saucer, where he perceived two figures waiting. "When he reached this spot Palliser had already arrived, and the blackbeard saw with some display of surprise that the other two were Maoris.page 101
"It's a very good thing you came up with your reinforcements, mate," he said. "But the ambush business was risky. You're a good sort, you are."
"You went the best way to get killed," returned Palliser, whose face wore an abstracted look.
The man laughed. "They're awful shots," he answered. Then he went on, "What's your party doing here, and a Maniapoto warrior, by gum? I know the breed well. Where's the rest of you?"
"This is all of us," said Palliser shortly. "I fancy it's more to the point to ask who you are."
"Foster's my name. If that will teach you anything you're welcome to it. There's no party behind me neither. But look here, what are you bluffing over this business for?"
"I will explain to you later," returned Palliser. "In the meantime let me hear your story."
Foster glanced at Matuku, who was surveying him with interest, and Palliser, as though to anticipate an objection, added,
"The Maoris are safe enough. Besides, they don't know English."
"I wasn't afraid of that," said the man; "I was thinking I knew the chap's face, but I suppose I don't. They're all so much alike. Well, as for your game, I suppose it'll wait. Mine has been a lone hand since I left Tuparu, and I'd played out all my trumps when you struck in."
"What are you doing here?"
"The precise question I put to you," said Foster, page 102smiling. He hitched up his trousers, stuffing his black Crimean shirt deeper through his belt, and, cocking his head aside, looked at Palliser from under lowered eyelids. "I know my job," he continued pleasantly, "but I ain't up in my bearings. I'm on a little business of my own." Palliser regarded him inquiringly. "Yes," he went on with a jaunty smile, "I've got a big job in hand now. I was in the Forest Rangers up north, but the fun wasn't up to much of late, so I come down to explore. They say there's mighty goings-on among the hauhaus—as bloody a crew as you may strike in a day's march. I always fancy I must ha' known that Te Katipo. I've known so many of the reptiles, Maniapotos and all," and he grinned at Matuku. "Whose gel?" he asked abruptly.
"Look here," said Palliser gravely; "we shall never come to an understanding at this rate. We've got a job, too, and perhaps we shall have to part company. Let us clearly understand each other."
"All serene," responded Foster, flinging himself upon the ground hard by Aotea, who was staring at him steadily. "Let us hold a council of war, and put the dam' nigger in the chair?"
He winked at Aotea, who stared harder than ever.
"Then, please, attend," said Palliser curtly. "Since you seem want a fortnight for your story, I'll tell you mine."
"Haere ra," said Foster, pulling a black cutty pipe from his pocket.
"I've lost a friend," began Palliser.page 103
"So have I," broke in Foster, striking a match on his breeches.
"Well, I have reason to believe my friend is somewhere in these parts."
"Then he's having a mighty bad time of it," interjected Foster again.
"If he is alive I mean to find him. If he's dead—and he probably is—well, I should like to know it, that's all."
"I'm on that sort of lay myself," said Foster complacently; "only my friend's female, and she ain't dead. A very fine gel she was—could ride like the devil and make no bones about it. She was an obstinate vixen, though, was this said Miss Caryll."
"Caryll?" cried Palliser, in astonishment.
"That's so. She was on the same sort of lay, hunting up a father or something. Appears to me people mostly are."
Palliser whistled. "This is what the missionaries would call the hand of Providence, but what we folk are content to term a coincidence. Your friend's father is my friend."
"By gum, you don't say so!" said Foster, taking the pipe from his mouth. "Taipo-Pakeha! This is interesting. Then, mate, we've got to join forces, rescue the one and discover the other."
"Rescue?" echoed Palliser.
"Yes. My friend's in the hands of those infernal dogs, the Ngatiawas, and I'm after 'em."/
"So. It was this way, you see. I found this gel on page 104a steamer going from Manukau to Raglan. She'd got a father somewhere up in the back country, doing God knows what, and she wanted to get to him. because he was dying. I ain't saying 'twasn't the right thing to do, but it was a blamed foolish thing, more especially as she hadn't a soul with her. They wouldn't let her through the Waikato, nor give her an escort, nor nothing; so she'd got it into her head to go round to Raglan, throw herself on the charity of the blasted niggers and get over the ranges. I was coming down to see a bit more fun than I could get up north after the Waikato war was turned up, and there was a few more of us of the same mind. Well, naturally, we weren't going to see this gel trust herself to the Maoris, so we formed a kind of escort for her, and come over the hills. "We come up soon with a pah called Tupara, and there we come to grief; for the Ngatiawas attacked us and smashed us up. There was half a dozen of us, including the gel, Well, at the end of that rampage the gel was gone, and so were the souls of four as decent chaps as God ever made. I was left pretty well wrecked myself—got a nasty mark in here—but I crawled out from among the corpses when it was over, and picked up my old horse, and made off."
Foster paused in his tale, and puffed reflectively.
"'Struth!" he resumed, "I couldn't fetch a mind in go back. I had this gel on my conscience, so I stuck to the trail when I'd patched up a bit."
"You followed the Ngatiawas?" inquired Palliser.
He nodded. "I'm on the trail. I daresay you page 105think it a fool's move? Well, so it is; but I couldn't let the reptiles have the gel without a fight. Taipo! Taniwha! and general snakes—no! But, now I've struck you, it ain't so bad as it was looking. The game seems to me to be—get the little gel, then hunt up your friend, eh? With your men—"
"I have no men," broke in Palliser.
Foster looked incredulous. "You're a rum lot," he said. "I don't tumble to your game. What arc these Maniapotos doing with you? and where's the ambush that saved us?"
"I will tell you later," said Palliser, for the second time. "At present we must settle our course. I think your plan is good. We will join forces."
Foster had pierced the great bash by a track from the north-west, leading, as was reputed, toward the Ngatiawa country. It ran through the cockpit over the south rim, and was connected by the blazed track with the lower reaches of Te Tauru. He supposed that the Ngatiawa party, with their captive, had taken this route to the central fastnesses below Hine-te-ao, and Palliser decided at once to take up the stranger's quest, as now the premier part of his own. If they should succeed in regaining Caryll's daughter they might then retrace their steps and pursue their search for Caryll, and, indeed, so far the two quests fell in harmoniously. Matuku, upon hearing the determination, shook his head, and muttered some phrase about the Hauhaus, while Aotea exhibited a dismal resignation.
"Why," she asked, "is this altered? It is a good page 106thing to rescue a girl, but we have a duty of vengeance. But I am waiting a long time, and we are not yet out of Te Tauru."
Foster, who had been informed of these auxiliaries, caught the melancholy drift of this remark, though he was indifferently skilled in Maori, and stuttered out an answer.
"O beautiful girl, why do you fear? I, the black man, will protect you and give you vengeance."
"Leave her alone," suggested Palliser. "Matuku has a fiery eye."
Foster laughed. "It seems to me," said he, "that we're all bent on killing someone, sooner or later. We've got to filch the little gel first, though. If she don't get as far as Te Katipo, it mayn't be so hard."
"Who the devil is Te Katipo?" asked Palliser, a little annoyed at this name, now a second time become a menace.
"The wiliest Hauhau that ever sang the pai marire. He's a big man among the Ngatiawas now; and, by gosh, he scorches the country when he's in flame. All sorts of tales come down to the coast about him; but no one seems to have seen him in the flesh, nor don't want to, I believe."
Palliser was in favour of pushing on that night, by which he looked for two advantages—for, firstly, they might thus be quite clear of the avenging Maniapotos, should any such take to following them, and they would, also reduce their distance from the captors. As the latter had no reason for supposing anyone upon their page 107trail, they wore not likely to have hurried, and a forced march would bring the party close upon them. If they had delayed at any point for a feast, as was quite possible after a notable victory, they might, Foster calculated, be overtaken within four-and-twenty hours.
About the fall of dusk they dropped down from the ridge into the undulating forest beyond, girt for a night march through its wilderness. After an arduous day their course was wearisome, though a fresh wind blew cool upon them; and for the most part they followed the curving track with no great elation, though Foster whistled cheerfully as he walked, a great black figure mounting the rises in their van. The country was much broken, full of abrupt descents and tortuous declivities, flanked by dark supernal pines and vast scarlet ratas. Here and there the way rose into an opener space, and the pines thinned, so that they caught glimpses of the great purple head of Hine-te-ao eastward of them. But darkness was their commoner lot, and as the evening wore on, though the moon was nigh fulness, the gloom fell thicker, and in the lower parts heavy vapours rose. So soon as the excitement of the afternoon's discovery had gone, the expedition was become dispiriting, and this temper was enhanced by their growing footweariness. Foster was the only member of the party who was not a little abject, though on more than one occasion he called for a rest. When Palliser had demurred to one of these requests, the ranger pleaded the infirmity of a wound.
"The fact is," he explained, "I've got a bullet some-page 108where inside me, and it rolls about, by gum. But I don't grudge the hounds the bullet—that was a fair shot at long range, and the devil deserved his 'inner.' But it's mean to be dumped on the head from behind. The butt of a gun is cursedly brutal, and it's a poor business, too, for the odds are you can't bring your knock off. It ain't the proper game according to me."
Palliser apologised for his ignorant refusal, and henceforward they halted more frequently, till at last it was Foster who protested they went slowly. His spirits were wholly irrepressible; he talked and whistled, told long and rambling tales of the war, and joked in bad Maori at the Maniapotos. He was much tickled that the name Matuku (which signifies the bittern) bore some inverted resemblance to Makutu, which he had heard meant bewitchment, and he rallied Aotea upon the fact, though the girl understood but half he said. Indeed, both she and her lover interpreted him as referring to the charm the latter had east upon the Taniwha, of which he was egregiously proud; and by degrees the vague horror of Te Tauru gathering round the topic, was added to the oppression of the night. Aotea puttered along fearfully by her lover's side, and he, though assuming a bold gait, covered an obvious uneasiness with the dark. This mental condition was aggravated by certain dismal noises in the bush, which sounded like the cries of the weka, but were sufficiently obscure to pass for the menace of something supernatural. So that presently the terror of the Maoris was become palpable, and had even its effect uponpage 109
Palliser, who grew irritable and restless. For he alone of the party was aware that a mystery enshrouded that fight in the cockpit. Foster, being of volatile spirits, had not referred to the matter again, and had probably let it slip from his memory, while Aotea and her companion, having been distant from the point at which the strange shots were fired, had put them down to the visible combatants. Only Palliser knew that the fire which had swept out of the bush, upon the pursuing Maoris was not of his contrivance—was indeed an inexplicable mystery. Stricken cold, of a sudden, when he perceived it, he had, upon recovery, dashed through the smoke-drift into the forest and found no one, not even a sign of any human presence. He was no longer beneath the dread of the supernatural, but was, for that, none the less troubled and distressed. Therefore in a manner he shared the uneasiness of the Maoris, now that the still and heavy night turned him to dark meditations.
They had been some hours upon the passage when the moon came over the pine tops, and, standing in the clear zenith, suddenly illumined the track; and at this moment, as though nature below were in a conspiracy with nature above to dissolve the milieu, the track itself ran out upon a place of broken rocks. The forest here was full of monstrous stone fragments, wreathed with dense vegetation, and interspersed with trees. At a brief sight it seemed as if these were the remnants of an exploded mountain, scattered in the forest heart. The trees were smaller here, being mainly of the broad page 110and spreading kind, the red-barked fuchsia, the pittospore, the koromiko and the karaka, and, shivering before a little breeze, in the moonlight presented a white and ghostly appearance. Upon the more massive rocks rising over their heads the beams lay stilly, gleaming grey upon the sickly limestone, where the clematis and other creepers fell away. Instead of the thick club-mosses oozing water underfoot, which had served them as a carpet in the gully below, there was now a hard stiff ground, distempered with flaky white patches of a mangy aspect, and covered with large boulders, over which they tripped as they went.
The air was clearer and freer here, and as they issued upon the spot, Palliser, pondering the indiscretion of wasting their strength upon a further march that night, decided to pitch camp till the morning. The terror of his Maoris upon this order was manifest rather in their aspect than in their words. Matuku, it is true, protested against so plain an improvidence as sleeping in the haunt of the Taniwha; but upon Palliser briefly replying that they could not march for ever, he complained no more, merely addressing to Foster dreadful tales of the forest and its abiding evils. Aotea muttered to herself charms and imprecations for her own protection, while Foster ceased whistling and grew silent.
About two in the morning, as they judged, there came a loud noise from the bush, waking the Englishmen and startling Aotea into a scream.
"Silence!" commanded Palliser, springing up, "unless you desire Taniwha to find you."page 111
The noise was not repeated, but now there issued strange low sounds from the same direction.
Foster was on his feet, handling his gun.
"That fool of a gel has done for us, if them's the Maniapotos back," he whispered.
"It's not the Maniapotos," said Palliser.
Foster, noting something in his voice, looked at him.
"You don't believe——" he began.
"Hush," said Palliser; "come this way."
Together they stole off among the rocks, leaving the Maoris crouched in abject terror under the face of the bush by which they had lain. They went some distance toward the sound, and then paused.
"Can you make out what it is?" asked Palliser.
"Footsteps," said the ranger, in a whisper, "and something else," he added.
"What?" said Palliser, in a constrained voice.
Foster listened again. "Perhaps it's a branch creaking in the wind," he said.
Palliser shook his head.
"There's no wind," he said.
Foster was silent.
"See," said Palliser, presently; "you wanted to know the explanation of that ambush this afternoon. There's the explanation. I know nothing more than that myself: we are haunted by someone."
"By God, I'll soon find out!" returned Foster; and, gripping his gun, he rushed through the trees toward the sounds.
Palliser heard a shot, and then another, and presently page 112he saw Foster coming through the bushes, beating the air blindly with the stock of his gun. He rushed up panting, his dark face pallid in the moonlight.
"To hell with the Taniwha!" he said, gaping at Palliser.
"What have you seen?" he asked anxiously.
"Nothing—nothing but grass and trees and rocks, till they blinded me."
"What do you mean?" cried the other in alarm.
"Something struck me in the eyes, cold and damp, and blinded me, and I fired. To hell with Taniwha!"
"You fool!" said Palliser, between laughter and anger. "It's only a spider's web. See!"
He pulled some of the delicate netting from Foster's face, and dangled it in the moonlight.
The ranger muttered a curse.
"This tomfoolery has made a cur of me," he said nervously; "but there was nothing there."
"Listen!" said Palliser.
There was no sound.
"We can't let it rest here," he continued; "let us go on."
They pushed through in the direction from which the sounds had come, until they thought they had gone far enough; then they halted again and listened. Once more there was nothing audible.
"Shoot, curs!" yelled Foster to the darkness.
Palliser burst into a laugh.
"Look!" he said, "what infernal fools we've been;" and he pointed to the base of a rock at hand.page 113
"Pigs—Heaven help us!" ejaculated Foster, falling upon his knees.
"Heaven help the pigs," amended Palliser, "for there will he orphans and widows among them to-night. Come on; I've been waiting for this chance."
"Now, this is in my line," commented the ranger; "I've no fancy for your blowed taniwhas. March, matey, and confusion to all devils."
He struck through the bush with his hat set jauntily upon his head, and Palliser followed. They wound in and out among the rocks, spying for traces of the pigs, until they were come to a very broken part, where the rocks were larger and the bush more profuse. From beneath a sharp declivity, laid bare in ungainly cliff faces, stretched a wide and melancholy chaos. Strewn rocks, sheer walls, jagged and barren peaks, mingled in the dim light with a deep confusion of ragged bush and fallen pines; and the earth itself tumbled into heaps and hollows, overlaid with heavy creepers here, eerie and ghastly there, full of black recesses and abysmal depths, as well as of fantastic protrusions and antic motions—completed a scene at once of the most eccentric luxuriance and desolation. And had they not been already warned of the inhabitants, they might well have turned at the noises in that strange place; but, as it was, the sounds that emanated from the creatures filled them with satisfaction, for here was their quarry at last. They drew slowly down upon them feeding in a dark, cavernous spot, over which brooded a sinister rock. It lay to the cliff part of the hill, and was approached upon a page 114rough floor of pure rock, over which they crept with considerable inconvenience. Presently Palliser saw something moving a few paces away, hard by the great rock, and, motioning to Foster, he raised his gun and fired. A shrill and hideous squeaking filled the air, and off into the brushwood below scampered a herd of pigs, grunting and puffing as they ran. At the same second, to make sure of their prey, Palliser and Foster sprang from the rocky floor, and rushed together over a dark mass of creepers towards it. The next moment they had shot pell-mell down a gaping crevice hidden by the tangle, and were rattling against the bare walls into a Stygian blackness below.
When Palliser picked himself up he was conscious of many bruises, hut as no limbs were broken, he fell to groping for his companion. Foster, who had fallen more heavily, lay stunned on the rough stones, but came to himself presently, and sat up.
"That's another bang on the head," were his first words under Palliser's ministrations. "We must be pretty far down—somewhere near hell, I should say, from how I feel."
It. was a rough, natural well into which they had fallen, but at what depth they lay they could not tell. By the way their bodies had broken through the creepers overhead one solitary ray of moonlight penetrated their prison. quivering upon the wall a dozen feet up; but the sheer height of rock dwindled in perspective, and faded into darkness. Palliser examined page 115the walls, but after many fruitless essays, had to acknowledge they were unscalable. The ranger seemed to have been severely shaken, for he soon collapsed in a corner of the cell, saying,
"All right, old chap. Go on if you can. I'm played out a bit."
Palliser continued his search, but to no purpose; and, groping his way back to Foster, said quietly,
"I fancy this about finishes us. We can't climb the walls."
"Bust the Taniwha!" growled the other, and, raising himself, he shouted his loudest.
"It's no use halloaing," added Palliser. "God Himself wouldn't hear us down here."
Foster said nothing; but presently Palliser heard him whistling softly an air which he recognised as "Down among the dead men." He smiled sardonically to himself as he said,
"This will be proof positive to the Maoris that the Taniwha fable is true."
"Set it up for centuries, I should say," said Foster, ceasing to whistle. "I say, old man," he continued, "what's going to be the end of this?"
"Well," answered Palliser slowly, "I fancy i's pretty clear."
Foster rolled on his side and cursed beneath his breath. For fully half an hour there was silence, Palliser staring at the black wall, while Foster lay on his back looking up at the moonbeam. At last the page 116former drew his gun to him and tested the trigger. The click was caught by Foster, who put out his hand and felt the barrel.
"It works?" he asked, in a voice strangely altered.
"Yes," said Palliser laconically.
Foster whistled half a bar of his air.
"I suppose," he said slowly, "there is absolutely no chance of that Matuku fellow turning up?"
"Not the least. He won't move till daylight; and then, as we don't appear, he'll take to his heels with the idea that Taniwha has us. There is the remotest chance that he may endeavour to trace us to-morrow; but if you knew the Maoris as well as I do, and the powers of this superstition over them, you wouldn't build on that."
"We'll wait till to-morrow, at all events," replied Foster.
Neither spoke more plainly what was in his thoughts. Palliser, putting the gun from him, leant back. A low cry broke from his companion.
"By thunder! what's that?"
Palliser instinctively looked up, and saw descending down the faint moonbeam out of the darkness something quivering, spinning, twisting. The two men leapt to their feet.
"A rope! what does this mean?" cried Palliser hoarsely.
"Mean!" said Foster jubilantly, "Matuku is well-plucked, after all. He's followed us. Good nigger!"
"No, no—" said the other, and broke off hurriedly.page 117
The flax-rope descended upon their heads, and Foster, seizing it, shouted,
"Right, old boy. Kapai!"
Palliser made no movement, while the ranger hastily formed a loop.
"Pull, pull!" he shouted, but there was no answer, and the rope hung idly. "Of course," he said; "we'll have to climb, mate. I'll go first."
Palliser watched him painfully crawling up, hand over hand, till at last he disappeared into the darkness; then when the undulations of the rope bad ceased, he followed, and in a few minutes reached the top. As he scrambled over the ledge of rock, Foster emerged from some bushes hard by, with astonishment upon his face.
"I can't make out where that nigger's got to," he said. "There ain't any signs of him. He must have bolted along of the Taniwha business again."
Palliser's vague, wondering foreboding was realised. Turning, he examined the frowning rock that overhung the crevice, upon a projection in which the flax-rope was securely wound.
"Perhaps it wasn't Matuku," he said, presently.
"Then who the mischief was it?" asked Foster.
Palliser shrugged bis shoulders.
"You remember the ambush? I told you I could give you no explanation," he said.
"Then this accursed place is haunted," said Foster turning grey.