Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Web of the Spider

Chapter IV. The Beginning of the Trail

page 44

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.

page 46

"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.

"He must himself die, the guilty one. I have said it. Let us find him. Yes, I will tell you that we may exact due penalty from the murderer when we find him. Hear me. I was the sister of Ihirua, the daughter of Takamaiterangi; we were of the hapu of Kaimoana, of the Maniapoto. Our father died, being slain in war. I was younger than Ihirua, who was beautiful and attracted the attention of Kariri. She became his wife and lived with him, and I was left alone, bewailing her loss. Yet I saw her often, and she was happy. The Pakeha had a large whare in the pah, but he was absent many times and for long. Sometimes Ihirua went with him. He was good to her and she loved him. But Kariri fell sick, and Ihirua put him to bed, and when he wanted to rise she forbade him. He was dying, she said. Why should a man trouble to walk down to Te Reinga? Let them come for him if they would have him. So Ihirua tended him. He lingered

* The Maori version of Palliser.

page 48long, but grew worse. I know nothing of why he was sick. He was a brave man. One day Ihirua came to me in the kumara grounds. She wanted me to go back to the whare with her. She said she had a long journey to go, and would be gone till the next day. She asked me to watch by Kariri till she returned. She was my sister; we were both daughters of Takamaiterangi, and one mother, the child of Mahanga. I went to the whare and watched. I sat by Kariri and gave him water when he asked. He asked often. I gave him food also; but he would not take it. He said nothing all day. Ihirua went in the morning, and I sat watching till the sun went down and the women returned from the kumara fields. He lay on his back in the whare, staring at the raupo and saying nothing. In the evening I slept and watched, for it is hard to stay awake when it is dark and there is no light. I could not see Kariri—there was no light. I heard him saying something, but it was not Maori. How, then, could I understand? I put out my hand and felt him, and he was cold. Once he spoke. He asked me if Ihirua had returned, and I said, 'No, for it is not yet dawn.' Then he said no more. In the morning I waited for Ihirua, but she did not come. Kariri asked again after her, but I said she had not come. He asked for water also, for water continually, so that I had to go out and fill the pot. I watched all day, but Ihirua did not come. Kariri grew restless. He rose from his bed, but I put him back as I had seen Ihirua do. A man must not walk to Te Reinga; let them come and carry page 49him. At last Kariri fell asleep; I was glad of that. I was tired of watching him stare at the raupo. He slept on till evening, and I sat by. Then I fell asleep. When I awoke there was a noise, and there was a light in the whare. I saw Ihirua with a torch; she had returned. I ran up to her and looked into her face, and it was white like the face of a Pakeha. The torch was trembling in her hand. I took it from her and examined her. There was blood on her mat, and one bare arm was covered with blood. I said, 'What is this? Who has done this to you?' At that moment Kariri awoke. He rose in his bed, and Ihirua ran towards him, staggering. She said, 'It is gone, my loved one; he has stolen it from me.' Kariri got up, and she fell down at his feet, and the bloody mat came unfastened from her shoulders. I rushed to her and Kariri bent over her. Her bosom was open; there was a deep wound in it. Kariri took her in his arms, which were not strong. 'Go quickly,' he said to me; 'bring water; she is wounded. Ihirua was looking up in his face with a smile. I ran swiftly out of doors for water as he said, for there was none in the whare. It is some way from the whare to the spring. I ran all the way. When I got back Ihirua was seated on the bed, and Kariri was up and dressed. I gave him the water, and washed the wound with it. It was a long and terrible wound above the right breast. I cried over it as I washed it, saying, 'Who has done this to you, my sister?' But she did not hear me; she was looking at Kariri, who was leaning upon the bed, his hands trem-page 50bling. Then he took his hat and went to the door. Kariri turned and said, 'You are wounded; stay, and I will return.' And Ihirua said, 'Shall I see my beloved go out to die alone? I will die with him. Let me also go.' Kariri put his hand on her shoulder and led her to the bed. 'Sit,' he said, 'I pray you; let me go alone; you are in pain. I will return when I have finished my work.' And Ihirua cried with a loud cry, 'Behold, you will never return. I will go with you through Te Tauru. You shall not die alone.' And Kariri, looking pale, went forth, and Ihirua, holding her hand to her breast, followed him, walking unsteadily. And I cried to them, 'Where is it you are journeying? It is not right to walk to Te Reinga. Let them come and carry you if they would have you.' But they paid no heed; they went both together. I saw them go into the night, walking unsteadily; and I came back and lay upon the floor, weeping; after which I slept."

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.