The Web of the Spider
Chapter XIV. The "Hatter" of the Gorge
Chapter XIV. The "Hatter" of the Gorge.
Palliser stooped over her and raised her in his arms. "Hush, hush!" he said; "nothing shall harm you. Would you like to wait here while I go on?"
"No, no," she whispered. "Cannot we go back?" she implored. "It's no good going farther, and we want food,"
"Yes, food. That's why we must go on. Come, be brave. I will take care of you."
"I will come, "she said, with a gasp. "I won't be afraid, but you know I'm so weak."
He drew her with him through the sparse bush, and, crossing a slight rise together, they came at last upon a smooth level clear of the forest, where the spur ran out from the mountain. On the border Palliser paused, peering into the dusk of the open. At the upper edge facing the valley he could make out some sort of hut, in front of which a fire was burning, and by the fire a dark figure bent towards the ground. The sound of an axe upon wood was audible, but the other noise had ceased. Bidding the girl stay in the shelter of the bush he emerged upon the level and walked towards page 206the fire. The noise of the chopping covered his approach, and he was but a dozen paces away when he spoke.
"Good evening," he said.
The man by the fire started, straightened himself at a movement, and, lifting the axe over his head, ran forward.
"Put that down," cried Palliser. "I'm not a Maori, but a white man lost in the bush."
The stranger stopped and irresolutely lowered his weapon. The firelight gleamed on his face, and revealed to Palliser an old and withered man with a white beard, whose eyes searched him with an angry frightened look.
"What do you want?" he asked, in a high-pitched tremulous voice.
"Food, "returned Palliser; "we're lost in the bush. I have a young lady with me; we want your hospitality."
"Certainly, certainly, "said he, with an abstracted air.
Palliser turned and called to the girl, who came slowly out of the covert towards him. In the light of the fire Palliser noticed with concern how white and thin was her face. The old man stood leaning; upon his long axe, and staring from the one to the other with a bewildered expression. He was very old, with a stoop in his shoulders, and his beard and hair were perfect in their whiteness, He was dressed, too, in a manner to add to his years by the very incongruity of his garb. He wore a bush hat pushed jauntily back from his forehead, and was clothed in a suit of white corduroys page 207with leggings of corduroy, buttoned tightly round his thin calves. His height was considerable, and his frame of a powerful construction. He stood so long gazing at them, bowed upon his axe, that Palliser grew impatient.
"We are waiting for you, sir, "said he.
The girl swayed a little as she stood, and Palliser put his arm about her in support. "We are waiting," he repeated, with acerbity.
"Sir, I crave your pardon, "said the old man. "You are welcome to my property. You fully understand," be continued, tapping Palliser on the shoulder, "you fully understand that this is my property. I claim the right of occupation, and my claim is recognised in the land courts. I'm a surveyor and I ought to know."
"We are your guests," said Palliser, "if you will kindly take us to your hut."
"You are my guests," said the old man gravely; "you have acknowledged it," and so saying he hobbled off towards the hut, and they followed.
The shanty was a miserable affair of two rooms, little protection against a strong wind or a smart shower. The walls were naked, and gaped with a hundred chinks, and of furniture was nothing but a rude table and a still ruder stool. In one corner was an opossumskin rug, and in another an antique gun and a revolver. As they entered, the owner of this hopeless abode turned sharply upon them and said,
"What is it you want?"page 208
He still held the axe in his hand, and his arm wag trembling.
"Food," said Palliser curtly, placing his burden on the ricketty stool, "and the quicker you are the greater our debt to you."
The old man made no reply but, after a hesitating look at them, went into the further room, and reappeared shortly with the cold remnants of a duck and some stale damper. He watched them eating, but still said no word, and the silence was unbroken till Palliser had finished, when, looking up, he caught the strange eyes upon him.
"We are much obliged to you," he said, "for we've been a long time without food."
"How did you find me out?" broke in the old man in his tremulous tones.
"By accident. We were——"
"Where do you come from?" he asked, and his tremulousness savoured of despair.
Palliser scrutinised him carefully as he answered,
"That's a long tale, but I'll tell you later. Meanwhile I want your permission——"
"Where do you come from?" repeated he, as though, he had heard nothing.
"We have escaped from the Maoris westward," said Palliser quietly.
"You don't come from Tauranga?" asked the old man eagerly.
He took his eyes off Palliser and looked at Ida.page 209
"Pray make use of my rug," he said, and gathering it up in his arms, he rambled across the floor to the girl, placing it helplessly on her lap. Then giving a shrill sort of laugh, he fixed his eyes again on Palliser.
"What are you here for?" he asked presently.
"I'm looking for a lost companion."
The old man pointed to the girl.
"She has been in the hands of the Maoris, but we've managed to rescue her."
"What Maoris?" he asked, bending forward with an intent look, his voice sinking.
"Ngatiawas!" he repeated, in a whisper. "Ngatiawas!" He came nearer and bent so close that Palliser could see the Hues in his cheeks and his glassy eyes revolving. "Was it Te Katipo?" he muttered, trembling as with an ague.
"No, not Te Katipo."
"Ah! I thought it could not have been Te Katipo. If it had been Te Katipo you would not have escaped. He would have sucked your blood and trampled on your bodies. He's a rare man, is Te Katipo. He would have taken that girl, and——"
"Silence!" said Palliser angrily. "What the devil are you talking about?"
The old man's long shaking arm was extended towards Ida, who shrank a little into Palliser's side. He dropped it and muttered, "Te Katipo! Oh, you don't page 210know Te Katipo," and he laughed shrilly, talking to himself.
"There's no harm in him," said Palliser, in an undertone to Ida. "He's only a bit eccentric—what we call a 'hatter' on the goldfields, a man who lives by himself."
"I'm not frightened," she answered, smiling, "only tired."
"You shall rest now. I will go back for the others, and leave you here. You won't mind being alone with him?"
She shook her head. "He is so old."
Palliser got up and addressed their host.
"Could you give this young lady shelter to-night?" he said; "she is very tired and exhausted."
Thus interrogated, he ceased his self-communings, and turned his eyes upon the girl. A line of doubt upon his brow slowly dissolved, and he went over to her.
"What is your age? "he asked suddenly.
"Nineteen," said she gently.
"Nineteen!" he echoed, staring at her. "I had a daughter like you," said he, pointing his finger at her, "but she died. I don't remember why she died."
"She may stay?" said Palliser inquiringly.
The old man bowed. "Certainly, certainly. Three chains from this door my property ends. If she go beyond that I've no jurisdiction."
"Well, I don't suppose she'll take any harm," said Palliser, smiling.page 211
"You forget there's the bush," answered the other quickly.
"Yes, so there is. Well, I will entrust her to you. And I'll ask your permission to go back and fetch my three companions."
The man started.
"Companions!" he cried furiously; "what do you mean by your companions? I see it all now, curse you," he quavered. "You're a spy upon me. But I'll have none of your gang here; go into the bush and starve, you knaves! And as for you, girl——"
"I don't know what all this fury's about," broke in Palliser quietly, "nor what you have on your conscience; but all I know is that I have three starving friends in the bush, and if I don't get help for them, they're as good as dead."
"Let them die," shrieked the old man passionately.
"Very well," returned Palliser coolly. "If that's your game we can soon set it all right. I fancy we're a match for you, starved as we are, and we're going to be entertained if I'm not mistaken."
The filmy eyes glowered at him for an instant, and the lips twitched convulsively.
"Will you swear," he whined, "that you mean no harm?"
"Swear it—'By God.'"
Palliser used the desired oath, and the long fingers ceased working with the waistcoat buttons, and were pointed at him.page 212
"What's your name?"
"What do you want?"
"I want food and shelter for my companions."
"Where are you going?"
The old man chuckled. "I will send you to Matapihi. All right, Mr. Palliser. Bring up your friends. They're all welcome to this little property of mine. I'll put you on the road to Matapihi."
Palliser left him chuckling to himself and struck into the bush forthwith. During the two hours he was away there was complete silence in the hut. Ida was too weary to talk, and had it not been for a certain distrust of her host, would have succumbed to sleep. The room was dark except for a leaping fire between two stones at one end, but this lighted up the old man's face in flashes, as he sat upon the floor in a corner eyeing his guest thoughtfully. After a time he got up in a straggling fashion and limped across to the door, muttering as he went. Ida could hear him murmuring, "Te Katipo—Te Katipo," in a thin complaining tone. He passed out of the hut and presently she heard him return and to her alarm realised that he was piling wood against the door. She rose and tried to push it open, but by this it was blocked; so she went back to a corner and covered herself in the rug with some anxiety. It was plain that his wits were partly wanting. The process of piling continued for a space, and then he came no more, and there was an eerie silence everywhere.page 213
Then suddenly arose that horrible sound that had so terrified her down the gorge. She started up, listening, and then sank into her coverings again, drawing deeper breaths. Of course it could be nothing, but it was so hideous and inhuman that it chilled her blood; sometimes like the ghostly howling of a dog, but stronger and shriller, sometimes like a gabbling herd of fiends, and anon dying into the croaking of a hundred frogs. The girl was struck with terror. One moment she sat up in her robes gaping for the sound, the next she was crouching in the rug, her hands upon her ears. To her worn mind these noises were an appalling horror; even the dull glowering eyes of the tenant of that hut were a more acceptable companionship. But presently they ceased, and in a little she heard the wood being thrown from before the door. Then the door creaked on its wretched hinges; and the old man's face peeped in.
"Do you hear them, Pakeha girl?" he called. "Do you hear them, my little dead daughter—all the damned spirits of the sleeping Hauhaus. They're abroad tonight. Round and round the mountain, round and round the mountain." His voice was jubilant; he entered and shut the door.
"Is this Hine-te-ao?" asked Ida, in almost a whisper.
"Ay; Hine-te-ao?," where they bury their accursed dead. Did you hear them? They're out to-night. Round and round the mountain."
"With that he fell into silence, and she, too, held her peace, a spasm of fear at her heart. There were page 214now no noises in the hut, save a little gasping of the wind in the crevices behind her, and the splutter of the ashes collapsing in the fire. The spell of quiet seemed eternal with those revolving eyes upon her, so that the sound of footsteps without was music to her tortured soul. She sprang up and ran to the door as it opened. The old man followed and flung it to its widest.
"You are welcome, gentlemen," he said. "It's little I can offer you, but you shall be put upon your road to-morrow. Early to-morrow, mind you," he continued feverishly, laying hold of Palliser. "I make a point of starting at dawn. It's a long way, and will take time, plenty of time."
"We will be ready," said Palliser. "Come in," to the others. "Two of my friends, sir, are Maoris."
"Maoris!" said he, with a little shriek. "Maoris! not—not Ngatiawas?"
"No, Maniapotos—a man and a woman. They are quite trustworthy, and will be grateful for food."
As Matuku entered, the old man seized him by the shoulders and peered into his face anxiously.
"Food, of course," he muttered, turning away. "I am proud to entertain you. Food, naturally."
Palliser threw another log upon the fire, which had burnt low, and the flames sprang up and lighted the room in long quivering flashes. The three new-comers disposed themselves to eat; the "hatter" stood by the entrance to the inner room watching them; and Ida moved nearer to Palliser and whispered her relief.
"You must not whisper here," cried the stranger, in page 215a voice shrill as a frightened child's. "Speak out, you!—you there. No whispering here. The dead of the mountain do not like it. Speak out."
"Living all alone has turned his head," murmured Palliser to her. "Never mind him."
Foster looked up from his food at the cry, stared at the tongues of light licking the old man's face, and laughed loudly. It was the most reassuring sound Ida had yet heard, and cheered her even into a smile.
"This is a doosid fine kingdom of yours," said Foster, nodding affably. "You've pitched on a pretty bit of country with them birds in the valley. Lord, we'd ha' given a whole gold-mine for 'em this morning."
"What do you know about gold-mines?" cried the "hatter," rushing forward to him. "What do you know about gold-mines?" he repeated, shaking the giant by the shoulders. He turned precipitately upon Palliser. "You have sworn," he cried; "you have sworn. You have sworn by God. Turn him out," he said, pointing his finger at Foster, and clinging to Palliser. "Turn him out—turn him out! By God, turn him out!"
"Steady, steady, old chap," said Foster, in amazement. "Your head ain't right. Sit down and count your fingers. If you ask me plain, I say I never saw a gold-mine in my life. Turn him out he hanged!" and he took to eating again ravenously.
The old man retired into his corner muttering, but Foster was in the mood for conversation, and went on,
"Yours ain't quite the language for ladies, neither, page 216old chap. I should stow a bit of it away till you've got rid of us. Now, I don't generally speak for this party —Mr. Palliser there does—but I do say we're much obliged to you for this hospitality, and any rules you like to make about whispering we'll stick to."
The old man bowed with dignity.
"I s'pose," continued Foster, picking his teeth with a twig, "that you don't mind telling us what's your line."
"I'm a surveyor," replied the "hatter," staring at him.
"Name?" queried Foster.
"My name's Mayhew," he answered again, and his gaze wandered to the fire. "I come from the west country. Somersetshire's my county." A faint smile flickered over his face as he spoke, and his voice assumed the mode of garrulity. "It's four-and-forty years since I was in England, and I was seventy-two on New Year's Day. I go with the year and come with the year. I've seen the world, gentlemen; I've seen the world. I was in China in the war, and I've been in the States for many years. I've lived in Peru and in Patagonia, gentlemen. I was shipwrecked on the Bounty Islands in 1841. Sirs, I've been most trades in my time—schoolmaster and sailor and trader, surveyor and tinker and beggar."
"Was you in California in'49?" asked Foster.
"No," said old Mayhew fiercely, glaring at his questioner.
"All right; don't jump down my throat. What lay are you on now?"
"I tell you I'm surveyor," said Mayhew peevishly.page 217
"Oh yes; a Government job. I've been a long time at it, gentlemen; a long time."
"You'll go cracked over it," said Foster warningly.
The old man took no notice of the remark but, turning abruptly, opened the door behind him and went into the inner room. They heard him pulling a box in front of the door, and Palliser burst into a laugh.
"That's our good-night," he said; "a delicate hint which I imagine, Miss Caryll, you're not disposed to ignore."
"I do feel tired," she said, smiling at him.
"Then let us make ourselves as comfortable as we can. At all events, it's better than the bush."
They were awakened very early by the entrance of old Mayhew, who went round and shook them, one by one, but did not approach the Maoris.
"Come," he said, "wake up! It's time you were starting. We can't afford to lose the day. Eat as much as you can," and he rubbed his hands together gleefully.
A substantial meal was soon prepared, and shortly they were ready to start.
"You're good bush hands—you're good bush hands," repeated the surveyor approvingly. "You lose no time. That's right. Eat as much as you like. There's plenty, plenty. You shall have provisions, too, and there are pigs in the valleys. Good, good. No one shall say I am not hospitable, foolishly hospitable, absurdly hospitable. Poor little girl, poor little girl!" he ended, page 218shaking his head dolefully at Ida, while rubbing his hands in pleasant excitement.
They set out by the back of the gorge, plunging into the bush, which was in these parts of a different character. It was more open, and there were fewer pines and tall trees; moreover, the colouring was not so sombre, and the closes were lively with birds. It was altogether a more cheerful march than any they had previously taken, and the hope of reaching the main track to Matapihi and the Waikato inspirited them. But the road was still rough, and as it lay over numerous off-shoots from the base of the mountain, there was incessant climbing of heights and dropping into small valleys, and they soon became familiar with the old fatigue. Their guide grew garrulous as they proceeded, and talked of his younger days, of quadrants and compasses, of the voracious bush, and the inhabitants of many a strange Pacific island.
"Forty years about the world, sirs," he cried admiringly; "forty years on my own beat."
His converse was that of a man newly benefited, and in the greatest humour; but Palliser noticed that he kept away from the Maoris, and now and then cast a wary side-glance of fear at them. The exertions of so ancient, a frame were marvellous; his endurance seemed beyond them all, for he displayed no inclination to silence at the most tedious portions of the journey, and after many hours' walking but talked on as a man speaking against time, now and again stopping and turning towards the mountain with an abstracted air.page 219
At the end of the day they had not reached the track, and Palliser, wondering, asked if it were much farther.
"Oh, a good way," he replied; "a good way, a wonderfully long way."
"Are you sure you can find it?" asked Palliser doubtfully.
"Sir, am I not a surveyor? Of course, of course."
He showed a wish to go walking through the night, but Palliser insisted upon resting, and they made a camp.
"I'll tell you what it is," said Palliser, drawing Foster aside. "This man's on no Government business —there never was any question of that. His wits are half gone, and he's had a bad shock in the war somewhere. Do you see how he avoids Matuku, and even Aotea?"
"That's so. You're on the right line, my boy. But I s'pose he'll carry us on all right."
"I suppose so."
The last thing Palliser heard ere he fell asleep was the old man chuckling to himself as he lay rolled in his blankets.
The morning was breaking when Palliser was awakened by a noise, which he at once recognised as that he had heard on the previous evening at the head of the gorge. He rose to his feet, and as he did so he saw a figure rushing towards him. It was Ida.
"What is it?" she cried nervously. "I thought we had got away from it, but it seems to haunt us."
"Wait," he answered, and crossed lightly to the spot page 220on which Mayhew had slept. "He is gone," he said, turning to her again.
"Lord have mercy!" exclaimed Foster, waking at that moment. "What's that?"
He struggled out of his blankets and came forward, while the two Maoris looked fearfully at each other.
"The Pakeha was rash," said Matuku. "I warned him not to violate the tapu on Hine-te-ao. But he would not listen. He was a fool. Thia is the proof of it."
"This is not a spirit," answered Palliser. "Pah! it is human."
"It is the spirits angry because you have broken the tapu," returned Matuku.
The sound came from the bush towards the mountain. Palliser and Foster strode quickly in that direction, but ere they had got a hundred yards it ceased. They stopped, and there came creeping out upon them what they saw to be the figure of the old surveyor. He passed by them without pause, merely throwing up his hands and asking,
"Did you hear them? Did you hear them, the accursed dead of the Hauhaus? Round and round the mountain."
He disappeared into the bush muttering this last phrase, and after a moment's hesitation the others followed.
"Did you hear them, my little dead daughter?" he cried, coming into the camp; and taking Ida by the page 221hand, he peered into her face long and steadfastly, and then turned away and sat down without a word.
"Quite mad," said Palliser to his companion.
"You're not afraid?" said Foster, going forward to the girl.
"No," she replied; "I don't mind him when he looks like that. It's those sounds that make me feel creepy."
"There's some mystery here," said Palliser reflectively.
All that day the surveyor's bearing was in the completest contrast to his disposition the previous day. He moved in absolute silence, never by word or look vouchsafing his knowledge that anyone was behind him. He still kept his quick pace, dodging in and out among the trees with notable agility; but it was as if his heart was no longer in his work; he plodded on unbrokenly, now nodding his head, now clasping his hands behind him, and sometimes pausing a little to direct towards the mountain febrile eyes. All day they followed at his heels without discovering a trace of the road they were seeking, till at last Palliser, growing ever more suspicious, questioned him again. His replies were intelligent, if a trifle incoherent, and as, at least, they would be no better without him, they continued to follow obediently. About the break of day the next morning there was a repetition of the horrible sounds, which ceased as before ere any discovery could be made. Once more Palliser and Foster rushed up the bush; once more they found nothing but the old man crawling among the branches and muttering to himself. The page 222Maoris both regarded the noises as the premonitions of a coming vengeance for the violation of a holy tapu, a fancy encouraged by the behaviour of the old man, as of one creeping from the presence of the invisible ghouls. Moreover, the fact that the sounds descended from the mountain on their right was a corroborative proof in the minds of the Maniapotos. But Palliser had long settled them to be in some way connected with the madman himself, though he could not interpret or understand.
"It's pretty clear to me," he said, on the third day, "that we can't leave the old fellow behind. It's rank manslaughter."
Foster nodded approvingly. "He's been got at by the Ngatiawas badly," said he; "that's my notion."
"And look here," went on Palliser, "something's wrong. Matuku just pointed out what's been on my mind all the morning."
"Look at the sun."
"Ah!" said Foster, screwing up his eyes.
"I don't pretend to understand the ramifications of this mountain, but I do know we started pretty fair north, and now we're on a southerly track."
"Well, what do you expect when you trust a blazing idiot?"
Palliser shrugged his shoulders. "What else can we do? It may be all right; and if it isn't we couldn't do better ourselves." But at a halt late in the afternoon he once more beset the surveyor with questions.page 223
The "hatter" stared sombrely for a moment, and then a smile ran over his face.
"The road!" he cried; "the road! Oh, the road, yes. Am I not a surveyor? Don't I know all the roads—all the roads? I'm on a Government job, I am; ask him," pointing at Foster. "He! he! he!" he chuckled, hugging himself till he caught Ida's eyes fixed on him pitifully, when he stopped suddenly, returning her gaze with a certain fashion of awe, as though she were new to his notice, and then sidled towards her.
"How old are you?" he asked.
"Nineteen," said Ida once more.
"Where did you come from?" he questioned eagerly.
"I was captured by Maoris," she returned gently.
"Ngatiawas?" he shrieked, with his long finger pointing from his face.
"Yes, they were Ngatiawas."
"God! God! God!" he cried, staggering to his feet and sticking his trembling arms slowly towards her. "My little dead daughter."
Ida rose, too, and approached him. "Hush!" she said softly. "Tell me of her. How long have you lost her?"
He stood quivering like the toitoi, while his lips dribbled over his white beard, then he leaned forward whispering. Ida could just hear the words.
"Six months, six months, six months," repeated without end.
"How did she die?" she whispered, putting a hand upon his arm.page 224
"Die? die?" he murmured. "Ask them," he shrieked, breaking into a thin yell, and waving his arms towards the mountain. "Ask them, the accursed spirits of the Hauhaus. Ask them!" and turning he burst through the undergrowth and disappeared. They could hear his footsteps crushing through the rotten wood; and Palliser, who had sat quiet during this strange colloquy, jumped up and made off after him.
Foster and Matuku followed quickly. It was an uneasy run, but happily on a straight slant, though the way was blocked with boulders. Ten minutes they had been running, and there were no signs of the surveyor, though they could hear him in the distance, when suddenly Palliser stopped.
"As I'm a live man," he cried blankly, "this is the hut again!"
"What?" yelled Foster.
"Look," said the other, pointing through the trees, "we've been round the mountain."
Foster swore as he panted.
"Listen!" said Palliser excitedly. "The ghoulish sound, by heaven. Quick!"
In a second the three men had dashed into the level, and were rushing abreast at full speed for the hut.