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The Web of the Spider

Chapter II. The Rat in the Pah

page 15

Chapter II. The Rat in the Pah.

Thekumara-grounds had been all day baking in the February sun, and in the bushes on the cliff for a full hour had Palliser lain hid. But now, at last, the girl he was watching had left her work and was passing quickly toward the river. As she slipped out of sight over the cliff he shot from his retreat and himself dropped down upon the ledge of rocks he had tested the previous day. Hence he leapt to the ti-tree, swathed in its long, dead, tape-like leaves. Below, a projection from the wall cleft space as a sharp dagger, but finding the drop too great, Palliser took a knife from his pocket, and cutting the long streamers of the tree, wove them rapidly into a rough rope. This secured about the stem was a means to the lower rock, and, hand over hand, he carefully descended. From here was a less abrupt declivity, studded with small emergent facets, to a steep slope, spread thickly with creepers and dwarf bushes. Having reached this latter post, he paused to regain breath, and then passing quickly from bush to bush, he took a slanting path downwards. Midway between the cliff-top and the page 16river-bed the bushes ceased, and a sheer wall of rocks abutted upon the water. But upon the margin of this perilous precipice, at the bottom of which the river roared sullenly, a level ledge crept away, like a thin thread, into the distance, at an even height of some eighty feet above the depths.

Along this Palliser moved with all speed, fearful of missing his quarry. As he turned a bend in the wall he espied a figure (which could only be his Maori) upon a lower level two hundred paces beyond; but the next second he had lost her round a further elbow of the cliff. Within less than fifty yards, as he hastened upon her, the ledge he was treading ran into furze and died away, leaving the black gulf yawning at him. There was now no option but to ascend through the furze, which slanted here to the upper edges of the cliff, and through which it seemed, from the girl's passage, a beaten way sloped to the river. His conjecture proved to be accurate, for he presently happened upon a rugged pathway zigzagging down the precipitous face. Palliser stalked along it as fast as was possible, and turned the elbow at which he had seen her. He now looked down upon the river, which had run latterly in concealment under the abutments; and as he did so he espied, to his surprise, a small canoe being driven up-stream by a Maori rower. He was by this not more than fifty feet above the river, and but the cast of a stone from the further bank, between which and the wall, upon which he was as a fly, hung the dusk of a cañon. In that obscurity he could not be detected; page 17yet, for greater surety, he crouched on the ledge and peered down at the skiff, just dimly visible. The girl had disappeared, but now for the first time the meaning of her adventure flashed upon Palliser; it was upon an assignation she was bent. Resuming his way when the canoe had got beyond him, he came in a little to a small plateau, overhanging the water and covered with stunted bushes. Here he halted, for the track seemed to drop straight upon the river, and he thought he could discern the canoe below. After waiting for a few minutes, he was about to push on impatiently, when voices reached him above the still murmur of the stream. Creeping to the edge of the plateau, he looked over. All was dark to his sight, but the speakers were evidently ensconced in some interior recess. Palliser withdrew and waited until the interview should be over; judging that the lover was to return in his canoe.

In a quarter of an hour he saw from his hiding-place the head of the girl rising over the face of the plateau, and presently she swept by him, the gold chain jangling about her neck. Thinking on the man, of whose movements he was in ignorance, Palliser dared not rush suddenly into notice, but crouched close, watching her. To his astonishment, instead of crossing the plateau to the track, she turned away upon the other side, and began swiftly to ascend, what was to all seeming the bare cliff. Ere she was a dozen feet up he left his bush and stealthily approached her point of departure. A thin but stiff flax-ladder hung along the page 18rocks, twisting and twirling beneath her movements. In his excitement upon this discovery he had forgotten the man, and was now startled by a cry from below. Was it of warning? He dropped to the earth, and lay motionless as a stone. The girl, turning in her ascent, cried words which reached him inarticulately. Moving his head slightly, he could see the river. The canoe was out in mid-stream, and the Maori, upright in it, was waving a hand towards the cliff. The Maori words floated, a resonant cadence of vowels, upon the evening air. This was plainly no warning, but a reluctant farewell, and Palliser cursed the fondness that kept a lover beneath the ladder of his mistress, more especially as by this accident he might be foiled in his resolve to have speech of the girl. But the canoe drifted slowly down, till at last it got into an eddy and ran swiftly into the darkness beyond.

Springing to his feet, the watcher glanced hastily upwards. The girl was out of sight, gone over a jagged projection, but the swaying ladder proved she was not yet at the top. In an instant he had flung himself upon the rungs and was mounting rapidly. Between him and his end was now but the fear that the girl, reaching the top, would desire to pull up the ladder, and so take the alarm. Even at the rate he climbed he despaired of coming up with her; and ere long his fears were accomplished. The flax ropes were suddenly tugged hard.

He was now under the jagged rock aforesaid, and, pausing, wondered what would happen. Would she page 19realise that she was being followed? Would she, perchance, deem it to be her lover? He put one hand upon the rock and threw a glance down the void. There was one thought which curdled even his strong blood. In her alarm, she might cast the ladder adrift from its holdings; and as the horror of this possibility passed through him, he gripped the rock with both hands, till its raw edges bit into him, and his weight rested mainly upon it. Suddenly, as he clung thus, the jerking ceased, and a series of undulations ran down the ropes now slackened by the shifting of his body. When he comprehended the reason of this his breath came easier: the girl imagined that the ladder was hitched upon a projection.

After a while the motions were discontinued, and it was clear she had given up the task. Palliser took his numbed fingers from the rock, and the blood came slowly back to them. Then he mounted quickly, fearful of another misadventure, and in a few minutes was upon the cliff top, looking about him.

The stockade of the pah confronted him within three feet of the verge, as he might perceive in the deepening dusk. Upon the riverside the cliff was indeed an ample defence to Matapihi, this window of the Maniapotos twinkling in the high storeys of the rough Waikato Mountains; yet, that it should run uniformly upon all sides, the square palisading had been continued on the river line, though with less care and excellence of workmanship. It opened in great holes here and there, and these were gaps broken by an evident traffic page 20to and from the flax-ladder, which hung from the stump of a huge pine-tree without the walls of the fortress, in the immediate backward of a whare, or native house. By this house was a large breach in the stockade, through which Palliser could see a few Maoris sauntering about among the huts. But the girl had vanished; he had lost her. There was a curse upon his lips, and he stood irresolutely for a moment, and the next, fell back into the shadow of the palisading as a figure, flitting out of the whare, melted into the darkness. Palliser suddenly slipped through the hole and crept behind the whare.

"Kapai," he muttered; "this must be where she lives, and she had a calabash. Going for water. Now for an examination."

The whare was built of broad, heavy black pine timber, which would defy cutting with a knife, but the roof, which, roughly thatched of raupo and other reeds, descended to within three feet of the earth, might soon be penetrated. It was now quite dark, and Palliser crawled gently upon the thick raupo, and throwing back the hasp of his knife, began to rip softly at the thatch. 'Twas but a little ere he had wrought a hole through which he might espy the interior performances of the hut, and even at the moment of his achievement he caught the sound of feet pattering below, and guessed therefrom that the girl had re-entered. His first glance took in the poor contents of the dwelling, lit dimly by uncertain flashes from a fire without the doorway. Presently he could page 21descry the dyed flax-mats on the walls, and then a melancholy voice reached his ears. Twisting his eye toward the sound, he made out the figure of the girl squatted listlessly upon the ground in one corner, as she chanted a dolorous love-song in a pitiful strain. With his ear to the peephole, Palliser could just catch the plaintive Maori words, the interpretation of which ran somehow thus:—

"O darkness, whence come you?
Why hide you my beloved from me?
He was with me in the dawn when the clouds are red.
O my loved one, where have they hidden you?
Alas, my heart, there is woe in the evening;
When the sun goes down, there is woe;
My eyes stream and my cheeks are wet."

Maori women weep even in their joy, and the love she was celebrating thus mournfully was Palliser's surest hope, for from this dreamy state they awaken but torpidly. His knife ripped through the raupo softly and with speed, and the hole, swollen into proportions, soon needed but the division of a supplejack to allow his body passage. Once or twice he heard the step of some approaching Maori, and paused lest the slightest noise should speak of him in the still night. At such times he heard still the soft wail within—

"Sorrow abides with me ever;
He is as the mist of the morning,
It flies and, alas, is seen no more."

When the steps passed away he fell to his work again with the droning in his ears, and at last, stooping low, held his breath, and waited.

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"Give me also the darkness that covers him;
I have no longer hope; it is night.
My tears are the blood of my darling.
I hear the waves breaking in Moana:
They are his voice calling to me."

A reed cracked in the roof; the girl looked up drowsily.

"My eyes are dim with weeping.
I come, my beloved, I come——"

Suddenly there was a louder crack, and the roof swayed and yielded. The girl started and rose to her feet, at which fell heavily at that instant a confused mass of thatch. Dashing the raupo from his face, where the unexpected fall had flung it, Palliser seized her in his arms, but too late to stop her utterance of a prolonged shriek of terror and despair.

"Taniwha! taniwha!" she cried; "it is the lizard that devours the world."

Her voice died off inarticulately, and she appeared to choke in a dumb panic, struck motionless by her deadly fear.

"Hush!" said Palliser, "hush! Ihirua."

From without there came to him the noise of rushing feet and the sound of many voices.

"Ihirua! Ihirua!" he called desperately, as the girl again raised a piercing shriek. "It is a messenger of the Pakeha, Kariri. I am no taniwha. There is peace between us. Quick—hide me! Damnation!" he ended in English, as the noises reached the door.

Through the hole in the roof was his only way of escape, and at this, leaving the girl now silent and page 23rigid as a statue, lie leapt swiftly. Clutching the long rushes, he dragged himself upwards through the aperture just as the whare filled with Maoris. The crack of a gun resounded in the quiet night, echoing from the distant cliffs, and a bullet snipped the leather from the heel of one of his boots; but in a second he was upon the ground, and dashing for the gap in the stockade. At the corner of the whare a rush of Maoris met him, and hurled him to the ground.

The concussion was so great that he lay gasping beneath two heavy bodies with a bewildered expectation of death. When his wits had settled he saw he was lying in the centre of a ring of natives, one of whom, holding a flaring torch, bent over him and stared into his face.

"Behold, the Maori girl is sweeter than those of the Pakeha. So I have always said, but they called me fool. Now we know it is true, and no lie."

He chuckled in his throat, and another from the ring spoke in blazing words of irony.

"It is the Pakeha who is wise. What do we know in the mountains of the whims of women? It is as a rat through the roof we must approach them."

Subdued laughter ran round the circle. Palliser saw he had fallen upon them in a merry mood, and that, secure in their multitude, they inclined to a pleasant mockery. He raised himself into a sitting posture, and as he did so his hands went down to his sides; where-upon he was smitten back by the heavy hand of the Maori who stood over him.

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"The rat must crawl," he said, adopting the gibe of the former speaker.

Once more the crowd laughed.

"Will you not let the rat sit upon his haunches and speak?" said Palliser smoothly. "What can he do among so many dogs?"

"It is good. Why not?" The Maoris nodded. "Let him stand and speak. The dogs are too many. It is not a brave position to lie upon the ground. His beloved will laugh. Let her do so. She will weep for him to-morrow."

The Maori with the torch put his disengaged hand into Palliser's belt and extracted his revolvers, there-upon intimating that he might rise. He did so, and deliberately dusting himself, picked up his soft felt hat and replaced it on his head, while the natives looked on in silence. Then he turned to the one who seemed to be chief amongst them, and said:

"Have I come upon Matapihi in war? Give me my weapons and let me go in peace."

"He that approaches in the dark is at war," returned the Maori sternly. "Then what should we say to our fathers, who tell us, 'Matapihi swallows all its foes'? None shall come back from it."

"The lover is not the warrior," answered Palliser. "Who am I to come single-handed against Matapihi?"

"A woman may bear a fool to her husband," said the Maori again, "but the fool must die."

Palliser stroked his beard thoughtfully. He looked page 25round upon the faces that thronged him, illumined red in the light of the pine-knot. There was no chance of escape. Armed natives were in all his quarters, and even should he succeed in brushing through them, there was the cliff to descend or the stockade to swarm. Not even despair could wrest a chance from this environment. And there was no pity in these faces for an accursed Pakeha, of the race that had brought war upon them. His quest would be told to idle ears, seeing that Caryll had been hated of their chief. Palliser returned from the contemplation of contingencies, whereof but one was certain, and that one—death; but there was no change in the cool regard which he directed upon the Maori.

"Very well," said he, still at his beard, "let the fool die. But," he added, with a sardonic smile, "shall I not see the desire of my heart?"

"He is a brave man. Let him see her," murmured someone.

"Let him see her," said another voice. "He is a brave man, and she will weep for him. Let him not die unwept."

A name was passed from mouth to mouth in slowly rising tones.

"Aotea! Aotea! Aotea!"

Palliser shrugged his shoulders to himself; it seemed after all that he was mistaken, and the girl was not Ihirua.

There was silence in the group while one ran in search of Aotea; and presently he emerged from the page 26darkness beyond the torch, leading the girl by the hand. As she came into the ring Palliser saw that she regarded him with a startled look; she fixed upon him large brown eyes of bewilderment, in which was also a gleam of fire. Her guide, thrusting her forward towards the Pakeha, himself retired among his companions, leaving the two face to face. Aotea still stared unwinkingly at Palliser, who met her gaze serenely and with the suspicion of a smile. His last meagre hope had faded since he found she was not Ihirua. There was dead silence; then he spoke.

"The rat from the raupo is in the presence of her who has slain him with her beauty," said he. "Why is the beauty of the Maori maiden so great to lure men to their death? Behold, the Maniapoto have no need of weapons. Their daughters are nets for the eels."

He looked round upon the faces and paused.

"It is true," muttered a Maori. "They are snares. I have said so."

A puzzled expression held Aotea's face, and averting her head, she listened.

Palliser's lips were curling sardonically as he turned to her again. Death lay before, but wore a familiar aspect.

"Yet shall the eel die quietly. Does he not lie in the meshes? And I too have looked in the face of my beloved. Why should I fear death? Let me lie in her arms that I may be slain."

The irony of these words, which rang out in the silent night, was not caught by his hearers, and he was page 27ignorant how near he came to softening their hearts. To him it was a grim jest, the last and the grimmest of the many he had cracked with fate.

"Good," said the Maori in command. "Let him lie in her arms that he may be slain."

There was a murmur in the group which Palliser neither caught nor tried to catch; but above it and through it he heard the cry—

"Matapihi swallows all its foes."

It was their justification for the death of this man, whose heart and wit had been ravished by a daughter of their tribe.

One of the Maoris pushed Aotea to him, and Palliser, taking her by the hand, with a short laugh, drew her nearer and peered into her eyes, in which the torchlight was flashing. There was wonder, but neither fear nor anger in them now. He stooped to her till his face touched the coif upon her comely head; then dipping slowly, he kissed her.

"After all," he murmured in English, "this perhaps is better than Ihirua."

At the last word Aotea, who had stood passive to his kiss, started back, and once more her eyes glowed with some excitement which he did not understand. Stepping from her, he faced the Maoris and cried:

"Now, let the fool die, since it must be so. The Desire of his heart is cold, and disdains him. He has no longer wish to live. See, O Maniapoto, the folly of loving too much."

The chief of the Maoris raised his hand.

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"If he does not desire to die on her breast, let him die where he stands. He has grown fat with life, and would sleep."

He passed an order to the others. Through the torchlight Palliser saw the gleam of guns, but his eyes were not upon them: strangely enough at this last moment they had lighted upon Aotea and the golden chain about her neck. Yet he saw, or thought he saw, the Maori lift his arm as for a signal, and then suddenly a deep voice, as it were a tumbling wave, rolled in upon the silence.

"Is the sleep of Kaimoana death, that he is become as nothing in the tribe?"