The Web of the Spider
Chapter I. The Last Coo-ee
Chapter I. The Last Coo-ee.
It was toward evening, and the shadows were spreading and fusing in the sparse scrub about the kumara-grounds. Over the black spur, the scarred base of which rimmed the river at this point, the sun was declining swiftly, and within an hour it would be dark. In the kumara-fields themselves the Maori women were stooping to their work at the close of an arduous and sultry day. Over all a great silence brooded, though the river roared faintly in the cañon, and the bell-bird called softly at intervals.
Presently a woman, straightening herself, glanced at the sun, now a crescent on the mountain; and as she did so there was a movement in one of the patches of manuka in the scrub. She watched the sun dip a little further into the hills, and then, leaving her companions, walked away to the west. One called to her from the workers, and she paused for an instant to answer, and then, shaking the dirt from page 2her naked feet, crossed the plantation toward the river.
As she moved on, a white man crawled stealthily from the manuka-bushes, and dodged from cover to cover through the scrub at a rude parallel to her. At his distance of fifty yards on the outskirting bushes the Maori was well visible in the open. She was possessed of a shapely form and a not inelegant bearing; her face was comely, her chin free from tattoo, and her rough waving hair was fastened in a clasp upon the nape of her neck. She was girt about with a red flax-petticoat, and a white flax-mat covered her shoulders; her feet and legs were bare. The white man in the manuka could see all this, and could also see that there hung round her neck a heavy gold chain, the end of which was tucked into her native bodice.
From the kumara-fields to the steep cliffs of the river it was but a quarter of a mile, yet because he chose concealment the man fell behind the level of the girl owing to the roughness of his way. As he went, however, he kept glancing after her as though he would keep her in sight, until thus she drew to within a stone-cast of the cliff, where she paused for a moment and looked across the slope toward the pah, the palisading of which frowned from the cliff-side upon the environing bush. As she turned her back upon him, the white man darted swiftly through the scrub and hid himself in the heart of a bush upon the verge of the cliff.
"I can watch from here," he muttered to himself.page 3
His heavy breath rustled the dark green leaves; he pushed them aside and looked out upon the river. From cliff to cliff were a hundred paces of void; below, two hundred feet or more, the Teramea lay dark and still in its bed, the sheer walls on either side bare, save for a straying bush or stunted ti-tree. The last gleam of the sun shone upon the dark-red grain of the stockade. The Maori girl moved up the cliff toward the pah.
"Curse it! Am I to lose her after all this watching?" growled the man in the bush.
Suddenly he started and thrust the branches farther from his eyes; the girl had disappeared, apparently gone over the precipice. He strained at the distance for a while, and then, rushing from his hiding-place, approached the edge of the cliff, and looked down.
"I must find a way," he said; "if not for to-day, for to-morrow. She will be back again then, no doubt."
He walked along the cliff through the scrub, peering over, and at last stopped and, throwing himself upon the ground, dragged his nose over the abyss. A dozen feet below him was a ledge of rock to which the cliff sloped; below again a small ti-tree stuck out over vacancy; beyond he caught sight of several small projections in the rock. These means promised but a meagre footing, yet the man hesitated not. He took the earth in his grasp and flung himself over; hung thus in suspense a moment till his feet dropped motionless above the ledge; and then let go his hold. The rock received him faithfully, and neither swayed or cracked. From it he leapt down upon the stem of the ti-tree, and, now page 4vertically above the river, surveyed Ms position. A rough way seemed open downwards, and having satisfied himself of its practicability he carefully remounted to the cliff-top. When he regained the scrub he turned from cliff and pah, and slipped silently into the dense bush about the lower reaches of the river.
The dusk had fallen, and the forest was in song; and by this he had dropped his precautions against discovery, brushing through the tangled brake at ease. He was following a slight narrow track, which was yet well-defined from the opaque bush, though trailed with creepers. Here and there the undergrowth was rarer, where the axe had ravished the virgin forest. As he swung through the pepper-trees with the tread of the accustomed bushman he suddenly stopped short upon the margin of a circular clearing, and fell quickly to the earth. At the same moment a shot rang through the bush, and a bullet scattered the bark upon a tree behind him. Rising instantaneously with the sound he darted across the clearing throwing a revolver forward. In the centre stood a Maori with a smoking gun. "Come," said the white man, in Maori, "I might shoot you like a pig, as you would have shot me. But I desire a truce. Be seated."
The man nodded, but did not move.
"I will stand," he said. "The Maori does not sit while the Pakeha is with him. Let it be a truce. I will stand."
"I am no coward to answer questions."
"I speak to a warrior," said the Pakeha. "I have bought your answer at the price of your life. You will not die the death of a pig. You are of Kaimoana's fighting men?"
"I am from Matapihi," answered the Maori.
"Good. What of Kaimoana's Pakeha?"
"He is gone."
"Where has he gone?"
"He went a moon ago. I know nothing more."
"You lie. The truce is over," said the white man, raising his revolver; the Maori moved not a muscle.
"You speak to a warrior. I lie not," he returned.
"How is it, then, his property is scattered among the women of the tribe. He has been robbed and slain."
"He has not been slain in the tribe. One moon ago he left Matapihi. As for the women, they are wonderful. How can a man know their ways?" said the Maori philosophically.
"Kariri was sick. Is he not dead?" asked the Pakeha again.
"He went away a moon ago," repeated the Maniapoto, doggedly.
The white man's brows contracted in doubt; then he said, "I ask of Ihirua. Is she, too, gone?"
"She and the Pakeha went together. They disappeared in a night. The wife's place is with the husband."page 6
Again the white man's forehead wrinkled in perplexity, and he fingered his revolver.
"You lie again," he said. "If Ihirua is not in Matapihi, who is she that wears the Pakeha gold round her neck?"
"I know no one who wears Pakeha gold," said the Maori sullenly.
"Fool!" said the other. "Why do you imperil your life? Has a Pakeha girl come from the west to seek her father?"
The Maori shook his head.
"Your questions are riddles. Why do you make game of me?"
"You have made game of me," returned the Pakeha sternly. "You have lied to me."
The Maori grinned.
"Will you take Matapihi single-handed to prove me a liar? For fresh water they will give you salt, and in Reinga" (the under-world) "you will look for your friend."
The Pakeha took from his belt a second revolver. "If you have lied to me you are no coward," he said. "See; you must not go back to Matapihi alive. They may carry your body. Tell a bird a tale, and he will sing it through the tribe." He put the butt of the revolver into the Maori's hand, and looked him in the eyes. "The truce is not over. Walk to the rimu yonder—call, and fire."
The Maori looked surprised, but his fingers closed over the weapon. He stared for a few seconds into the page 7face of his adversary, and then, turning on his heel, said: "Though a bird tell this tale, he will not be believed. I am a small man, but I will fight. Let Maniapoto carry me if I fall."
The Pakeha watched him receding in the obscure light to the pine, where he turned again as he had been bidden, and faced his foe revolver in hand. There was silence for the space of thirty seconds, as the two weapons were steadied in the air.
Then the Maori cried, "The bird calls—Maniapoto!"
Two cracks resounded on the instant, and the dark figure by the rimu fell. The other stood for a time, poised, his revolver still levelled at the spot; and then he walked deliberately to the prostrate man and bent over him. "Through the heart," he murmured. "I was not on Bendigo for nothing," with which he slowly replaced his revolvers and stalked into the bush without more ado.
In half an hour's time he had reached a wide depression in the bush below the face of a small cliff, studded with broad-leaved karaka-bushes, and overgrown with a quilt of dark creepers. Into this he descended, and, wending his way to the cliff-end of this natural quarry, set about an evening meal. The rock abutted into the shallow pit in two projections, so that anyone nestling in the crescent between them was excluded from notice on three sides, while the abundant karaka-bushes veiled him on the fourth. In this coign a fire smouldered securely, and needed but a dry log or two to burst into a blaze.page 8
Having supped on toasted pork and "damper," and drained his "billy" of tea, the Pakeha flung himself upon the fern and bracken against the rock and contemplated the leaping flames at peace. From a bushman's "swag" he presently withdrew two letters, at which he gazed reflectively, suffering his mind to run upon their familiar contents. The first was dirty with three months' wandering, and over its unclean and ragged envelope were scrawled a number of addresses, all scored through save one, which read, "Matangirahi, Hawkes Bay." The letter ran as follows:—
page 12"Matapihi Pah, Upper Waikato, N.Z., "October 5th, 1864.
"Mine is a voice out of the dead, you'll think. Twelve years ago you and I were partners on Bendigo, and a damned bad time we had of it. It's all that, too, since I saw you, for you went God knows where from Marion's Gully, and it's more than ten years since I met poor Billy Graves, who told me you were having a gay time at the Royal, in Sydney. I suppose you struck something, therefore, and what you struck you mostly left your mark on. Lord, what a heap of fellows struck, and went in a week or two! Poor Billy was the last I heard of. You heard of his being found in a hollow tree on Beech Mountain. In the name of atua what does it all matter? I should quote a neat little moral from Horace here, but the tongue has gone from me. But, Jack, I have business for you, and that is the reason of this page 9letter. I always was a beggar, and I'm at it now. The fact is, I've gone to pieces, and the candle's going out fast. I hear the waters of Reinga, as the Maoris say. You know I was a married man when we were on Bendigo. I told you I had a wife in dear old Hampshire, though why she married me is a riddle for the Sphynx. Bendigo was to make me. As you know, old chum, it came nearer to breaking me. Well, to cut short reminiscences (I haven't seen a white for years, you see), I gave up digging, and played the settler in New Zealand. Hereupon my father-in-law swore he would support my family no longer. Family, Jack, observe, for there was a daughter in the case, seven years old when we were on Bendigo. Therefore, I went to prepare a place for them—the which I did in Auckland on the ill-gotten gains of gin-selling. Then poor Milly died—rest her soul! She was a sweet girl when her brother and I were at Oxford, twenty-five years ago, Jack. The life was damned hard for a woman after the comfort of Maycroft; at any rate, twelve months was all she stood of it. I buried her somewhere in Auckland. Do you know, it's very odd, but I can't remember where. There are mountains between and darkness, and I have no memory now. Milly went, and the daughter remained, and the question was, what to do with Ida. I settled it by sending her to school, where she was far better off than with me. I should like to have had her with me, for she was a fine little girl; but it wouldn't have done with my life. As a matter of fact, I've only seen page 10her once since, and that was nigh ten years back. I thought I'd do a big stroke, old chap, after encumbrances were all gone. I never had a real chance before, as you know. So I came into the Waikato on a cruise for gold. The Maoris were pretty friendly, and I got on very well, and, to be brief, I've remained here ever since, close on eleven years. What's more, I did find gold; nothing for a rush, nothing like the claims we used to see on Bendigo; but still, gold of a sort, asking a pretty industry to get hold of it. It's no use bothering you with more particulars, so I'll come to the point. In all, I've got £10,000 worth stowed away. Kapai! The Maniapoto, to which tribe this pah belongs, know nothing of this. I found a few 'pockets' in the mountains, and you may bet I kept the secret. It's accumulated now to something like £10,000. I daresay you'll want to know why the deuce I haven't come down to civilisation and spent it, as I was wont. Well, to be frank, I have had ideas of that game, but it kept postponing itself. Then, it's no doubt ridiculous, but I've got accustomed to the Maniapoto and they to me, and that's about it. It's a bit heartless not to have seen poor Ida all these years. I was down in Auckland some years back, but I didn't go near her, though I always paid up prompt enough. And, then, town's a mighty long way, and somehow the desire has left me. I'm a Pakeha-Maori, and there's an end. I know she's in good hands, and she wouldn't care for me, so what's the use of bothering her. I've always thought of her affectionately, and drunk her health on page 11her birthday, and that kind of thing, though there's nothing here but the ungodliest of gin, probably some of my own selling in the years gone by. Now, Jack, God knows where you are. I send this to the address poor Billy gave me ten years ago, on but a thin chance. I want a reply; therefore, write. I am a dying man. Reinga is sure of me. I can't take a journey to Auckland; I have a longer journey in view. I have ten thousand, Jack, and the girl is in Auckland. I want to get it to her. I know no one to trust. Man and woman, the Pakeha has gone out of my life, and the Maori only remains. Mine is a voice crying in the bush, a last cry, old man. Will you help me? I don't know what your case is now; I trust you are in luck, as we dreamed of being on Bendigo. But, in any case, will you come to me if you get this? If you are hard up I'll make it worth your while, or, rather, you can make it worth your own while, for I am in your hands. I know you're honest, or you were twelve years ago. Men change as well as die. But if you're hard up, fix your price. I don't ask a favour for nothing. Blood must always be bought. Let me know. Will you undertake to carry this down to my girl, and see her house is builded on a rock, as the Scriptures used to say. And, by God, Jack, if you are going to hesitate, name your own price, for I'm too near death to haggle.
"Yours, in the memory of Bendigo days,
The second letter ran thus:—
page 14"Matapihi Pah, Upper Waikato, N.Z., "Xmas Day, 1864.
—I have heard nothing from you in answer to a letter I wrote nearly three months ago. You may be dead, but I will 'coo-ee' once more. I am nearer the end than when I wrote before. For six weeks I have not been outside the whare, and my wits wander, Ihirua tells me. She is a good girl and looks after me better than a doctor. My wits are keen enough to-day, which Ihirua says the missionaries call Christmas Day. It's odd that these Maoris should remember and I forget it. While my mind lasts I write you this letter, for I don't know how soon the end may be, nor much care now. Come to me and help me. I want £10,000 conveyed down to my girl in Akirana (Auckland), and you only are left, within my knowledge. As I am a dying man, Palliser, I ask you to come. It is a chance shot, this 'coo-ee' of mine. Come. I would send down, to the nearest mission place for a missionary, but the war has scattered them, and there's no one near. You're my last hope. I have written to Ida in Auckland telling her where I'm bound for, but how can she and the womenkind about her help in this business? Moreover, there are sharks, and the Waikato is a plain of loot. So I have said nothing about the gold. What's the use of raising expectations? She knows that if a man named Palliser seeks her out, she is to go with him. I befriended you when you were a boy on Bendigo. The Bloody Gulch party would have shot you page 13hadn't I stood by you. Seek her out, Jack, if you are on this side of the grave. And here is my last will and testament, with Ihirua looking on and nodding her head in consent. To Ihirua, the faithful one, the whare and all that it holds, with a hundred pounds in gold; to yourself, as much as will repay the trouble of your coming, on the estimate of that good and honest lad you were in '52 on Bendigo; to Ida Mervyn Caryll, all that remains of the gold in the secret place. And here is how you shall find it, written in haste, for the light is sinking and Ihirua is chiding. If you answer to me here, and, hastening, reach me in time, you shall learn by word of mouth. If you cannot reach me in time (and I fancy I've but a week or so left), and your answer comes before I go, I will send you instructions how to find the secret place by letter. But if your answer comes too late, Ihirua will hold the secret, and you will get it from her. These are my last words. I send this by the hand of one, Parekura, who has been pretty friendly. But the Maniapoto are turned against me now because of the war. The chief Kaimoana I have distrusted lately, more especially since I wrote my last letter. He it was sent it for me to the coast. But I'm not sure of him. He has some that read English in his train; and money would be welcome to the King party just now. So I send this by Parekura, who will deliver it safely in Te Awamutu. If you hear my voice calling out of the void, Jack, answer. If there is silence, look for Ihirua. Behold, I have said.
"Yours, by the waters of Reinga,
Palliser sat regarding these letters in the firelight, his square chin, with its short beard, resting upon one hand. The flames flickered out; and rising, he pushed another log into the ashes with his foot. He was a man of thirty-five, somewhat over middle height, and his spare frame made a display of its muscles. Throwing himself again upon the bracken, he pushed his bush-hat from his head, and stretching before the fire, toasted his heavy boots, his hands clasped upon his head.
"Is the girl Ihirua?" he said at length; "or did the Maori tell the truth after all?"