The Web of the Spider
Chapter IV. The Beginning of the Trail
Chapter IV. The Beginning of the Trail.
Aotea came out of the karaka-tree cautiously, with a furtive scrutiny of the ill-lighted cliffside, and stepped into the open till she was but a pace or two from Palliser's bush. At once he flashed out upon her, and twisting his arms round, held her tightly, disregarding her low cry of terror. The next moment she had recognised him and, nodding her head, said,
"Why do you frighten a guest who comes to see you?"
"How do I know my guests?" returned Palliser, at the game time releasing her. "Do you come to me with news?"
"I have no news. Has not the Pakeha news? Why does he cheat me? Must I ask him, 'Where is Ihirua?' Let him say."
"You think I have news of Ihirua," said Palliser. "Therefore you have come to me. I have no news. I know nothing. But I am looking for her. You, it is, who have news. Good. Let us go where we may talk, for it is night, and I am hungry."
At his words Aotea's face grew dull, and she hung her head.page 45
"Come," he said, "follow me;" and he passed into the bush, followed by the silent girl.
When they had reached the hollow, Palliser, brushing apart the thick leafage, pointed to his camp.
"I show the White Cloud* where I hide; see that she brings no storm upon me," he said.
She looked at him without speech, and then went through before him; and he saw that her face was occupied by a most distant expression, as though she had not heard him. He stirred the smouldering fire so that the ashes were seamed with flame, and Aotea, sitting down against the rock, gazed quietly over the smoke into the darkness, wearing an air of intense preoccupation. After one glance at her, Palliser set about his supper, to which, when ready, he invited her; but, shaking her head, she sighed, and then fixed her eyes upon his face. Palliser fell to with a rare appetite, and when he had done turned to his silent companion, and after some moments of scrutiny, said,
"Has my beloved nothing to tell me? What is Ihirua to her?"
Aotea looked him steadily in the eyes.
"Is it the friend of Kariri, or another?" she asked. "Who is it that calls 'Ihirua' in the night, scraping at the roof of my whare?"
"I am Kariri's friend, and the friend of his friends," said Palliser. "What do you know of him?"
"Are you the friend of Ihirua, who was Kariri's wife?" asked the girl.
* Aotea signifies White Cloud.
"Have I not said? Did I not creep into your whare to ask of her? What is the news of Ihirua? Is she, then, dead?"
Aotea lifted her voice into a wail.
"Is Ihirua dead? Alas! is the wife of the Pakeha dead? Have they cut her down as the thistle? My eyes are dry with weeping. What! shall I say to Takamaiterangi and our ancestors, 'Behold, your daughter is dead'?"
"Come," said Palliser, "tell me what you know. What is Ihirua to you, and why do you mourn her?"
"Listen," returned the girl, whose face was drooped and sullen. "I will tell the friend of Kariri what I know. When he came to me in the night, breaking through the roof as a thief, I was afraid, and I cried. I thought it was the taniwha; but I found it was a Pakeha who called 'Ihirua! Ihirua!' and I came down from the pah, thinking to learn of Ihirua, who was in the mouth of the strange Pakeha. How could the strange Pakeha learn of Ihirua save from Kariri? Therefore he is a friend of Kariri. And I said, 'Kariri has met him and spoken of Ihirua; therefore, if I go to him he will have a message for me from Ihirua. And I came; and lo, there is no message. Therefore am I dumb, remembering Ihirua."
"Why are you dumb?" asked Palliser soothingly; "seeing that we may find her. Look, Aotea; we have darkness, but it will be morning soon. Let us work till the morning comes, when we may rest. Listen you also; I am the friend of Kariri, a Pakeha, named page 47Pariha.* I am seeking Kariri and also Ihirua. Tell me what you know that I may be able to find them."
Aotea rocked herself.
"You will find nothing," she wailed. "There is no one left; they are dead; they have died and their bones are scattered. I looked for a message and none came. Behold, they are slain."
"Then," said Palliser softly, out of his large experience of the Maori, "if Ihirua is slain you must, have vengeance. He that hath slain her must be himself slain. Tell me, that we may discover the guilty one."
Aotea's eyes flashed.
* The Maori version of Palliser.
Aotea ceased, and as one overtaken by apathy, fixed her gloomy eyes upon the fire, while Palliser sat revolving her story in his mind. Her words bore the impress of truth, yet he saw his way even less clearly than before. From this narrative he was able to supplement his conjectures but not his plans. It appeared now that Caryll had not died before the arrival of the letter from Hawkes' Bay. The interpretation he put upon the incidents related by Aotea was as follows. Caryll, having received his letter, had, in accordance with his promise, sent off an answer; not, however, by page 51Parekura, but by Ihirua. Ihirua had been stopped and robbed with violence by someone who must have been aware she carried valuable information. If this were so, Palliser had still to discover the robber, and had added little to his knowledge beyond the assurance of Caryll's nocturnal journey. About this Kaimoana had told the truth, but this revelation was not enough to convince Palliser he had no hand in a great plot against his friend. Then, too, there was Parekura to consider. What had become of him?
"Who," he asked, lifting his face to the girl, "who was Parekura, and what was he to Kariri?"
Aotea glanced up.
"Parekura was the friend of Kariri," she answered dully. "Kariri ordered and Parekura obeyed. He was not of Maniapoto but of Ngatiawa, and he went home to his people."
"When did he go?"
"It is a moon since Kariri and Ihirua went; it is more than a moon since Parekura went. There was trouble in his tribe and he left."
"What happened after Kariri and Ihirua went?" asked Palliser again.
"What would happen? There was nothing. The Maniapoto ate and slept, and the women worked in the kumara-fields before. What should they do afterwards? I rose up and told my tale, and Kaimoana said, 'Let it be. They have gone together. We are well rid of them.'"page 52
"Ah," said Palliser, "then Kaimoana was an enemy to Kariri?"
"Once they were friends, and talked and smoked together; but afterwards they kept apart, and Kaimoana would say, 'Why is this Pakeha here?' He wished to drive Kariri out. Therefore he was glad when I told him, 'They are gone.'"
"Which way went they?"
"They went out by the gate on the river upwards to the south. I know nothing more, for the darkness was great and I could not see."
"But what said Ihirua?" asked Palliser. "What was this word of hers—'through Te Tauru'?"
"Behold," murmured the girl, "Te Tauru is a dark place; it is the forest of the west wind. Taniwha has his home in the caves. It is an evil place. Therefore are they dead in this evil place."
The man thought on in silence till his eyes fell upon the gold chain about her neck.
"Whence came this?" he asked.
Aotea, whom each question stirred from a sullen meditation, stared at him absently.
"It was in the whare of Ihirua," she said mechanically. "What use has a dead man for ornaments?"
Palliser rose to his feet.
"Tell me," he said, "O daughter, are you willing to have vengeance on the slayer of Ihirua? Will you show me the track which Kariri and Ihirua have left by the gate of the south, through Te Tauru, that I may search for them? and if I do not find them, perhaps I page 53shall chance upon some mark of the murderer who has caused weeping in your house."
Aotea also rose to her feet, her eyes glistening.
"Hearken to my words, O Pariha, hearken," she cried, "and you, O you ancestors of Takamaiterangi! If a man be slain shall not his kinsmen go forth and avenge him? His murderers shall be utterly destroyed. But it is different with the woman. If her sister be slain what shall a trembling girl do? Shall she slay also? It is too hard a task. But what shall she do who has no brothers and no sons to avenge her? There is a path through the bush to the river of weeping; let her follow this and find her dead, that they may be laid upon the stage and made tapu" (sacred). "Thus shall they be honoured though they are lost to her, and though the grub drill through their bodies. Alas, what else can she do? There is nothing. What else can she do? No, there is nothing; nothing for her who is brotherless in the hapu. Yes, there is one thing. Behold, O Pariha, I will follow the track that runs through the forest southwards, whether it lead by Taupo Moana or to steep Taranaki; I will follow to the evil place, the forest of Te Tauru, where the taniwha has his dwelling. I will put my face to the ground and follow; I will wriggle through the holes like the lizard; I will dodge through the under-wood like the weka; I will be cunning as the rat; I will be as the moon by night and the sun by day, watching the long track of Ihirua and the Pakeha, Kariri. And when I have found my dead, and seen page 54the murderer, I will return and say to my tribe, 'This is he who has killed Ihirua, who was with the Pakeha.' And I will cry for vengeance; and he shall die even as he caused Ihirua to die on her track in the dark places of Te Tauru. Is it not enough? I will go and seek him."
Palliser approached the fire.
"I am glad," he said softly, "that you have resolved not to dishonour Ihirua. We will go together. Come; eat that we may be gone, for in the morning Kaimoana's young men will range the bush, killing what they find."
Aotea nodded, and crouching with her knees in a bunch at her chin, ate the food he gave her, still staring at the darkness across the fire.
Palliser's scanty preparations were soon made, and packing his "swag" upon his back, he set off through the bush upon a detour to encompass the pah, Aotea attending him in silence.
It was not yet midnight, and as the air was cool and fresh, there was every chance of accomplishing a safe distance ere dawn. By then the river must be between them and Matapihi, for Kaimoana would keep his word and unleash his hounds upon the hither side. As they stole quietly through the bush, the vastness of its midnight solitude struck even the experienced bushman with amazement. Thick shadows lay in ambush about them, held by a profound silence. Through the heavy foliage not a breath now moved, for the wind had sunk and left the world to peace; not a note quivered in the page 55recesses of the darkness through which they marched. The voice of the weka had died with the wind, and the only sound in this graveyard stillness was the rustle of Aotea's garment against the bushes, as she slipped after him, deeper and deeper into the night. Yet for all this solitariness, Palliser was not rid of his old suspicion that someone was upon his track. He knew it for a fancy, the ghost of the impression he had had of Aotea's presence; but it troubled him at intervals. Had some sound crossed the universal silence it might have reassured him; he might have guessed that he was, as it were, in Nature's bedchamber. But her dead sleep ruffled him, so unnatural did her dreamlessness appear. He searched the smooth quietude for an alarm in vain; there was not visible the shadow of a danger; and yet his mind was clouded with the thought of someone following ever at his heels. He shook his head, and grew frightened at his own fears, as a strong man trembles to think his nerves failing him. Aotea, wrapped in gloom, pursued her way unheeding; and so, fain to do likewise, he cast off his doubts and strode faster along the narrow bushway.
Southward of the pah they halted and looked across the open. Aotea stretched out a hand.
"There," she said, "there is the gate by which Ihirua and Kariri came forth. There is but one track from the south gate of Matapihi, southward."
"Is my sister sure that Ihirua's word was 'through Te Tauru'?" asked Palliser.
"Have I not said? Southward and westward through page 56Te Tauru, which is full of evil places. Enough, Pakeha; this is the beginning of the road to death."
It was an hour's journey to the spot at which they were to cross the river, and it was close on two in the morning ere they reached it. Here the cliffs fell off on either side of the stream, and the track descended an easy slope to a wooded plateau, ten feet from the water-level, whence it was carried by a huge pine-trunk to the other side.
Palliser, crossing in the rear of his Maori, stopped for a moment midway upon the rude bridge. The deep roaring of the river, where it ran into the cañon below, filled the air with sound, refreshing after the stillness of the bush. As he stood facing the plateau, he thought he saw shadows moving in the darkness. It was but a suspicion, and so annoyed had he grown with his own wayward imagination that he dismissed it with cold disdain, though here at least he would seem to have sensual evidence of his alarming fancy.
Aotea had crossed and was ascending a wooded spur beyond; he turned and followed her.