The Web of the Spider
Chapter IX. The Filching of Ida Caryll
Chapter IX. The Filching of Ida Caryll.
The two men turned from the place in silence and made their way back to the spot where they had left the Maoris, Foster limping painfully and objurgating under his breath as he stumbled over the unevennesses in the ground. They found Aotea cowering in the hollow of a rock, with her face to the darkness, but of Matuku there was no sign; and Aotea, on being questioned, was full of evil forebodings. "He has gone into the night, and my eyes are the stars that watch him die. Alas, Toniwha never relents."
"You are talking foolishly," said Palliser. "Why do you watch the darkness? The wise man mourns when they bring home his dead. You spoke truly, daughter. Your eyes are stars, but they will lead your lover home. Sec, even the parakeets are laughing at you."
A cackle arose in the bush at that instant, and immediately they discerned a form running from out the tangle upon them. It was Matuku.
"Look, friend!" he said excitedly. "It is as far as a man may walk in the quarter of a day to it."page 119
Following the direction of his arm Palliser could see a red twinkling light hanging between heaven and earth. The silver moonlight illumined the vague limits of a hill before them, and high up in the heart of the bush-covered elopes gleamed a faint red flame.
"A camp!" cried Foster.
"The Ngatiawas!" added Palliser.
Foster's fingers were playing with the butt of his revolver; there was a moment's silence upon the thought of this proximity and all it entailed.
"I make it about six hours, too," said Palliser presently. "There will be ample time to-morrow to catch them up. Let us get some rest now."
Foster whistled one of his tunes through his teeth, and limped off to his blankets; Palliser, on the point of following, turned suddenly to Matuku.
"Where did you go?" he asked. "I thought you were afraid of Taniwha."
"It is plain I was not afraid," returned the Maori with dignity. "I am not frightened of the dark; that is only for women. Taniwha is a different thing, but Taniwha does not leave footprints, and doesn't squeak like a pig. A herd of pigs came by, and I followed them."
"Which way did they come?"
Matuku indicated the direction, which Palliser recognised as that from which they had just returned.
"They came by squealing and grunting," said Matuku, "and I said, 'This is not Taniwha's doing; it is the Pakeha.' So I followed, and caught one in the page 120thicket. It is rash for pigs to venture into thickets, when a man with a knife is behind them."
"Good," said Palliser; "but you saw no one, and heard no one?"
"I heard nothing except the pigs, which the Pakeha frightened by a vain shot. Aotea was afraid, but I said to her, 'These are pigs and not taniwhas.' Women are foolish; they cannot tell a pig from a taniwha."
Palliser lay down with his back against a rock and his face to the south. The difference between him and Foster was marked in this, that the latter had already forgotten their mysterious deliverance in the new-born excitement upon the discovery of the watchfire. Palliser sat thinking long, but found no solution for his perplexity. The only comfort in the mystery was, that it had hitherto been beneficent. Yet he took no pleasure in this thought, but sat blinking his eyes in doubt and wonder till the watchfire upon the way to heaven darkened, and he fell asleep.
The terrors of the night had ruffled the serenity of Aotea's face; though in the morning the air was abundantly cheerful she had not lost her feverish alarm. This showed itself neither in her words nor in her actions, but only in her appearance. She spoke little, and was very still, walking with her head bent slightly forward and her dark eyes rolling restlessly in their deep sockets. She appeared to Palliser as some hunted creature who, seeing no way to avoid its impending fate, awaits it mute and unresisting, though horrorstruck. In the neighbourhood of a material enemypage 121
Foster forgot his fears, and Matuku, though not individually concerned in the Ngatiawa affair, exhibited an intelligible sympathy with his inspirited humour. They resumed march soon after dawn, with a promise of reaching the hostile encampment by noon at the latest. Foster still limped, for he had twisted his ankle in the crevice, and walked with great discomfort to himself. His injuries, indeed, were accumulating upon him for, apart from the bullet he averred was inside him, he was suffering from a nasty bruise upon the knee-cap, and one of his wrists, which he had bandaged in a handkerchief, was for the most part slung inside his shirt for support.
"I am," he said to Palliser, "the most cursedly unlucky man, and always was. If there's any chance of getting riddled I'm on that chance, and it's a certainty. Such a time of it as I had in the north was a caution. One day a parrot sticks its claw in my eye, and another I put my foot in a rat-trap. I'm bound to get into trouble somehow. There's no equal distribution of justice."
Palliser suggested that he should rather be regarded as exceptionally fortunate, seeing he had come through so much with his life; to which Foster replied thoughtfully,
"Well, y'see, it would be hard lines to have all the odds against me. Something's got to make up for my being so unlucky, and I suppose it's getting off with my life."
He would not hear of a slower pace, protesting the page 122limp rather aided him than otherwise, while the bullet inside "had settled down a bit." It certainly did not affect his rule of walking, though he made a strange and awkward figure hobbling up-hill with the aid of a lance-wood stick, like a huge black devil upon some hot, stirring quest.
About ten o'clock they passed the still-smouldering ashes of the watchfires. The bush had been gradually growing sparser and more shrubby, and the deserted camp, lying a little off the track, was yet visible from it. Matuku and Falliser, after an examination of the ground, were agreed that the Ngatiawas had taken a late departure and could not be more than a couple of hours in front of them. The tracks of a horse could plainly be discerned, which was complete proof to Foster that this was the party that had captured Miss Caryll, and that she was still with them. They now proceeded with greater caution, being undesirous of stumbling unawares upon the enemy, and for another three miles pushed through the forest in silence. This brought them to a fork in the track, one division of which led forward on a high level of the hill, while the other trended down into a valley. The hoof-marks of the horse showed them that the Ngatiawas had descended here; they followed, therefore, the latter track.
The road sloped gently, zigzagging round the abrupt angles of the hill. Below them now was a broad, shallow ravine, bordered on the further side by rising ground heavily wooded. Beyond, the country broke up into inferior undulations covered with bush, and page 123through this opener land the larger valley travelled in curves, carrying in its bosom some sort of a river. They pursued this way with the greatest circumspection, and in entire silence, for the space of an hour, when suddenly Palliser, who was in front, stopped and held up his hand. The three paused where they stood, and listened. It was very still, and on bending forward, with one ear to the earth, they could catch the regular sound of horse-hoofs in the distance. Beckoning Matuku to follow, and waving back Aotea and Foster, Palliser crept stealthily along the track, and was soon lost to sight round a corner. Matuku and he went forward the quarter of a mile in this covert fashion, till they reached a bend in the road, from which the Ngatiawas were visible. They were, as Palliser judged, a party of twenty, fully equipped for war, and filed along the narrow path in regular order. Bringing up the rear was a girl on horseback, guarded by two Maoris, each with a gun on his shoulder. He watched them till they vanished beyond a farther angle, and then turned to his companion. Matuku was looking at him.
"Friend Pariha, you are, no doubt, a wise man," he said. "I have great faith in you and your skill. Perhaps, too, it is an unfortunate thing that the Pakeha girl is in the bauds of the Ngatiawas. It is never very pleasant for a woman to belong to her enemies. But I have said before, and I say it again: one cannot fight a dozen. It is quite possible they are all dogs; but one may kill nine dogs and the tenth will bite.page 124
There has been a mistake in this business. Many things are disappointing in life."
"Palliser's eyes were fixed upon him, but he was not listening; he was casting about for a plan of rescue. Matuku sat down by the way and resumed.
"Let us discuss this matter without annoyance," he said, "Even if you should kill all these men, how could you escape Te Katipo, who cannot be killed. But perhaps you also cannot be killed? "
"Are these Te Katipo's men?" asked Palliser, coming back to himself suddenly, but ignoring the delicate sarcasm.
Matuku shook his head.
"They come from the Wanganui; but Te Katipo will snap them up as they pass him. He has sworn all Ngatiawas shall join him. You will fall into his hands also."
Palliser strode off without answer, and rejoined the others, who were awaiting his return with impatience.
"Well?" said Foster eagerly. "We've got 'em, haven't we?"
"It looks more as if they would get us," replied Palliser. "They are more than a score, and are all well armed. There is no chance for us in fair fight."
"Fair fight he blowed. Let us sneak the girl when we can."
"Precisely. That's what we've got to think about."
Palliser was twiddling a sprig between his fingers thoughtfully, and his eyes wandered to Matuku, in conference with Aotea.
"God," Matuku was saying, "is sometimes very page 125good. He has permitted me to save you from madness. It is true Taniwha has no control over these Pakehas, but Te Katipo will sweep them into the sea. Then there is this foolish business of the girl."
"This is your business and mine," said Palliser abruptly, to Foster. "I don't well see how the Maoris are going to be specially interested in the rescue of the girl. In their position it certainly wouldn't be an affair of mine. But I'll endeavour to browbeat Matuku."
"Leave the little nigger gel to me," said Foster, with a grin.
Palliser stared at him. "You don't seem to realise that you'll double my difficulty."
"Oh, leave me the gel. There won't be difficulties. I'll jabber away her scruples. Let me be. I know when war's war and the sex is a nuisance; but we can't get on without her. We've got to set a gel to catch a gel—more or less; and I'll stimulate the plot."
"I see," rejoined Palliser, after a pause. "That idea may be worth thinking of, but it's very risky."
"We've got the biggest bluff on record to play," said the other, grinning; "so, of course, we take a risk. I should be obliged, mister, if you'd point out exactly how this is going to be a genteel round with the gloves."
"Certainly not," said Palliser, in some amusement.
"No, take' em off, take 'em off; and lunge in." Foster broke off with, an imaginary body-blow, and whistled curtly.
"Obviously a game of finesse," remarked Palliser ironically. "At any rate let us follow and think it over.page 126
We can work on the fair maiden's feelings, for she is a good girl, and slightly irrational—which is so much the better. But you'd better leave it to me, or you'll be setting Matuku by the ears. Aotea comes with me as a bait."
"There's a certain amount of distrust in you," said Foster, with resignation; "but you're a dam fine scholar, glib and oily. I'll clean my gun."
To Palliser's surprise, he found that Matuku had every intention of adhering to him through any venture. His disparagement of Palliser's good sense was partly from a desire to warn him off a dangerous course; in part, also, the outcome of his philosophic temperament. Yet whatever befell, he had pledged himself to stand by the Pakeha. He forboded evil when he learnt that the pursuit was not to he abandoned; shaking his head, and recalling that the lizard had not yet exerted his noxious power.
"When he wags his tail someone must die. We have always known that, and you are not so foolish (foolish as you are) as to deny that fact. But you cannot be blamed. It is all these women."
With a common object, then, they followed on, hanging close upon the skirts of the Ngatiawas all the afternoon without: seeing the slightest possibility of a rescue. But Palliser expressed no disappointment; he was deep in thought, concocting a plan. According to Matuku, who had never before travelled this route, but knew of it, a pah had once stood at the bottom of the hill, where the road ran out upon the flat, and had only been abandoned page 127a few years before. From the manner of their march Palliser concluded that the party intended to camp here for the night, and consequently here, if anywhere, must the rescue be accomplished. The Ngatiawas had evidently no suspicion they were being followed, for though, they were orderly enough, their array was not at all menacing, and they jogged along with, a good deal of talk and little restraint. By dusk Matuku calculated they would reach the old pah, and Palliser determined to forestall them in this. The bush was pretty dense still, though not so close as hitherto, and while covering the presence of a party within, it would not offer any serious obstacles to progress. So the two Englishmen and their companions left the track about a couple of hours' march from the pah, by Matuku's reckoning, and struck off down the valley, with the greatest speed they might attain in safety. The track to which the Maoris held made a long detour to avoid the heavy slopes, so that the more direct passage through the bush brought the pursuers to the flat on which the pah stood, a good hour before the former could reach it.
It was still light when the four came upon the pah, and they immediately set to a thorough examination of the place. The ruins stood by a wide creek, which came out of a steep ravine to the left, and rushed through a flax swamp, into the river in the bosom of the valley. From the bushy hillside the track ran out upon the grassy flat, and split up into two brunches, the one crossing the creek by the pah, the other turning page 128aside into the swamp, through which it was carried upon a rough causeway, built of manuka-bundles upon a base of logs. There was no time to explore this passage, but it was evident that it crossed the creek at a lower point in the swamp, and issued upon the valley towards the river. It was nothing unusual that a pah should be built by the side of a swamp, for in case of a reverse the Maoris were wont to retire into the latter, and shelter themselves from the attack.
The native flax, which is falsely named, grows mostly in boggy places, to the height of ten or twelve feet, and is in effect a broad stiff sheaf of hard coriaceous leaves, several inches across. The appearance they present is that of a gigantic yucca, or a more flexible aloe, and the texture is so stringy as to be quite bulletproof. The heart of one of these bushes forms a perfect redoubt, and they grow so closely together that, even if driven from one, a man might pass into another, and continue to defy an enemy. The road across the swamp had evidently been prepared against emergencies; the main track, after crossing the creek near the pah, climbed into the bush-covered slopes beyond it. The flax swamp must evidently play some part in the rescue. Of the old pah nothing now remained save a portion of the palisade and the ruins of a whare or two. But towards the track, and a couple of hundred paces from the creek, were several old rifle-pits still roofed with withered branches and rotten fern. It was upon perceiving these that Palliser matured his plans, which had the boldness of extreme simplicity. He had care-page 129fully noted that the captive was being conducted in the rear of the party. Should the Ngatiawas arrive in the dusk, as Matuku held, it would be possible for men hid in these pits to make a sudden sortie, and abstract her from the custody of the rear; after which there was the swamp to help them. This scheme was approved by Foster, and Matuku had no criticism to offer, which was a sign that he recognised the mastery of the Pakeha. Aotea was to be stationed in the swamp to await them.
All these dispositions were quickly made. Though the Ngatiawas would assuredly camp by the creek, it was not certain what route they would follow to it across the flat. Accordingly the strategists made use of three of the pits, covering thus a line of a hundred yards, which in all certainty the Maoris would tap at sorne point. Palliser himself was in the middle pit, with Foster to his right. In this close concealment they waited nigh upon half an hour, while the sky darkened and the gloaming gathered in the valley. At last there were sounds down the flat, and voices drew gradually nearer. Palliser, with his head in the bracken roof of his pit, listened and watched. Presently two figures silently stalked past him a few paces to the right, and he heard the rattle of a rifle barrel against something metallic; then out of the darkness came others, some talking in low gutturals, but most in silence. Then there was an interval, and he raised his head higher above the grass, and could just see another band approaching, and behind it a larger, darker figure; page 130the regular tramp of a horse reached his ears. Foster, he knew, must be watching too. The figures drew closer; more passed him, but he moved not; he was watching the shadowy masses beyond. One and another filed out of the increasing dusk, and then the horse with its burden was within a dozen yards of him, its guards upon either side. He uttered the short harsh cry of the weka, as had been arranged. The Maori upon the hither side turned sharply round, but not in time to see the source of the blow which dropped him upon the ground insensible. It was but a moment later that Foster, with big, limping strides, was upon the farther Maori, who had barely shouted an alarm when he rolled in a jumbled mass under the horse. Meanwhile Palliser had flung his arms about the form on the horse, and dragged it to the ground.
"Give me your hand, and run!" he cried. Without a word the girl, whose face he could not see, obeyed him, and together they dashed out of the line of the pits towards the swamp. In an instant the flat was alive with noises, and figures were running up everywhere out of the darkness. The Maoris were crowding back from the front.
"He! he!" said a voice, and Matuku stepped from the cover of a bush and joined them.
"Quick, quick!" said Palliser. "They'll find us directly." They had now reached the spot where he ancied the entrance to the swamp must lie, but the gloom was too heavy to make certain. Suddenly there page 131was a yell, and a volley of shots whistled across the flat. A figure rushed down upon them.
"This way, this way!" said Foster's voice. "They're down upon the swamps."
"No, no!—no chance anywhere else," cried Palliser breathlessly. "Quick, Matuku! find the manuka-track."
Sounds of firing came down the flat toward them, and bullets struck the flax bushes close by. Foster started off into the right.
"Good God! what's that?"
"Fool! stop here; they're out all across the flat," whispered Palliser, as a batch of dark forms stole softly along within twenty paces.
"No, they're the wrong side. It can't be."
"Never mind. Quick, Miss Caryll, we've got the track; jump! No, here; your arm round my neck—so." With a bound Palliser was upon the manuka-causeway, the girl clinging to him, and next moment they were rushing at full speed along the rude bridge between tall hedges of flax.