The Witch's Head/Book II/Chapter VII

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The Witch's Head by H. Rider Haggard
Chapter VII: Over the Water

Mr. Alston and Ernest carried out their plans as regarded sport. They went up to Lydenburg and had a month's vilderbeeste and blesbok shooting within three day's “trek” with an ox-waggon from that curious little town. The style of life was quite new to Ernest, and he enjoyed it much. They owned an ox-waggon and a span of sixteen “salted” oxen, that is, oxen which will not die of lung-sickness, and in this lumbering vehicle they travelled about wherever fancy or the presence of buck took them. Mr. Alston and his boy Roger slept in the waggon, and Ernest in a little tent which was pitched every night alongside, and never did he sleep sounder. There was a freshness and freedom about the life which charmed him. It is pleasant after the day's shooting or travelling to partake of a hearty meal, of which the pièce de résistance generally consists of a stew compounded indiscriminately of vilderbeeste beef, bustard, partridges, snipe, rice, and compressed vegetables—a dish, by the way, which is, if properly cooked, fit to set before a king. Then comes the pipe, or rather a succession of pipes, and the talk over the day's sport, and the effect of that long shot, and the hunting-yarn of which it “reminds me.” And after the yarn the well-known square bottle is produced, and the tin pannikins, out of which you have been drinking tea, are sent to the spring down in the hollow to be washed by the Zulu “voorlooper,” who objects to going because of the “spooks” (ghosts) which he is credibly informed inhabit that hollow; and you indulge in your evening “tot,” and smoke your pipes, and talk or ruminate as the fancy takes you. At last comes the splendid African moon like a radiant queen rising from a throne of inky cloud, flooding the whole wide veld with mysterious light, and reveals the long lines of game slowly travelling to their feeding-grounds along the ridges of the rolling plain.

Well “one more drop,” and so to bed, having come to the admirable decision—so easy to make overnight, so hard to adhere to when the time comes—to “trek from the yoke” at dawn. Having undressed yourself outside the tent, all except the flannel shirt in which you are going to sleep—for there is no room to do so inside—you stow your clothes and boots away under your mackintosh sheet—for clothes wet through with dew are unpleasant to wear before the sun is up—creep on your hands and knees into your little tenement, and wriggle between the blankets.

For awhile, perhaps, you lie so, your pipe still between your lips, gazing up through the opening of the little tent at two bright particular stars shining in the blue depths above, or watching the waving of the tall tambouki-grass as the night-wind goes sighing through it. Behold! the cold far stars draw near, grow warm with life, and change to Eva's eyes—if unluckily, you have an Eva—and the yellow tambouki-grass is her waving hair, and the sad whispering of the wind her voice, which speaks and tells you that she has come from far across the great seas to tell you that she loves you, to lull you to your rest.

What was it that frightened her so soon? The rattling of chains and the deep lowing of the oxen, rising to be ready for the dawn. It has not come yet; but it is not far off. See, the grey light begins to gleam upon the oxen's horns, and far away, there in the east, the grey is streaked with primrose. Away with dreams, and up to pull the shivering Kafirs from their snug lair beneath the waggon, and to give the good nags, which must gallop vilderbeeste all to-day, a double handful of mealies before you start.

Ah neu-yak-trek! the great waggon strains and starts, and presently the glorious sun comes up, and you eat a crust of bread as you sit on the waggon-box, and wash it down with a mouthful of spirit, and feel that it is a splendid thing to get up early.

Then, about half-past eight, comes the halt for breakfast, and the welcome tub in the clear spring that you have been making for, and, after breakfast, saddle up the nags, take your bearings by the kopjé, and off after that great herd of vilderbeeste.

So, my reader, day adds itself to day, and each day will find you healthier, happier, and stronger than the last. No letters, no newspapers, no duns, no women, and no babies. Think of the joy of it, effete Caucasian, then go buy an ox-waggon and do likewise.

After a month of this life, Mr. Alston came to the conclusion that there would now be no danger in descending into the low country towards Delagoa Bay in search of large game. Accordingly, having added to their party another would-be Nimrod, a gentleman just arrived from England in search of sport, they started. For the first month or so, things went very well with them. They killed a good quantity of buffalo, koodoo, eland, and water-buck, also two giraffes; but to Ernest's great disappointment did not come across any rhinoceros, and only got a shot at one lion, which he missed, though there were plenty round them.

But soon the luck turned. First their horses died of the terrible scourge of all this part of South Africa, the horse-sickness. They had given large prices for them, about seventy pounds each, as “salted" animals—that is, animals that, having already had the sickness and recovered from it, were supposed to be proof against its attacks. Still they died one after another. This was only the beginning of evils. The day after the last horse died, the companion who had joined them at Lydenburg was taken ill of the fever. Mr. Jeffries—for that was his name—was a very reserved English gentleman of good fortune, something over thirty years of age. Like most people who came into close relationship with Ernest he had taken a considerable fancy to him, and the two were, comparatively speaking, intimate. During the first stages of his fever, Ernest nursed him like a brother, and was at length rewarded by seeing him in a fair way to recovery. On one unlucky day, however, Mr. Alston and Ernest went out to try and shoot a buck, as they were short of meat, leaving the camp in charge of the boy Roger. For a long while they could find no game, but at last Ernest came across a fine bull-eland standing rubbing himself against a mimosa thorn-tree. A shot from his express, planted well behind the shoulder, brought the noble beast down quite dead, and having laden the two Kafirs with them with the tongue, liver, and as much of the best meat as they could carry, they started back for camp.

Meanwhile one of the sudden and tremendous thunderstorms peculiar to South Africa came swiftly up against the wind, heralding its arrival by a blast of ice-cold air, and presently they were staggering along in the teeth of a fearful tempest. The whole sky was lurid with lightning, the hills echoed with the continuous roll of thunder, and the rain came down in sheets. In the thick of it all exhausted, bewildered, and wet to the skin, they reached the camp. There a sad sight awaited them. In front of the tent which served as a hospital for Jeffries, was a large ant-heap, and on this ant-heap, clad in nothing but a flannel shirt, sat Jeffries himself. The rain was beating on his bare head and emaciated face, and the ice-cold breeze was tossing his dripping hair. One hand he kept raising to the sky to let the cold water fall upon it; the other the boy Roger held, and by it vainly attempted to drag him back to the tent. But Jeffries was a man of large build, and the little lad might as well have tried to drag an ox.

“Isn't it glorious?” shouted the delirious man, as they came up. “I've got cool at last!”

“Yes, and you will soon be cold, poor fellow!” muttered Mr. Alston, as they hurried up.

They got him back into the tent, and in half an hour he was beyond all hope. He did not rave much, but kept repeating a single word in every possible tone. That word was:

“Alice!”

At dawn on the following morning he died with it on his lips. Ernest often wondered afterwards who “Alice” could be.

Next day they dug a deep grave under an ancient thorn-tree, and reverently laid him to his rest. On his breast they piled great stones to keep away the jackals, filling in the cracks with earth.

Then they left him to his sleep. It is a sad task that, burying a comrade in the lonely wilderness.

As they were approaching the waggon again, little Roger sobbing bitterly—for Mr. Jeffries had been very kind to him, and a first experience of death is dreadful to the young—they met the Zulu voorlooper, a lad called Jim, who had been out all day watching the cattle as they grazed. He saluted Mr. Alston after the Zulu fashion by lifting the right arm and saying the word “Inkoos,” then stood still.

“Well, what is it, boy?” asked Mr. Alston. “Have you lost the oxen?”

“No, Inkoos, the oxen are safe at the yoke. It is this. When I was sitting on the kopjé yonder, watching that the oxen of the Inkoos should not stray, an Intombi (young girl) from the kraal under the mountain yonder came to me. She is the daughter of a Zulu mother who fell into the hands of a Basuto dog, and my half-cousin.”

“Well!”

“Inkoos, I have met this girl before, I have met her when I have been sent to buy 'maas' (buttermilk) at the kraal.”

“Good!”

“Inkoos, the girl came to bring heavy news, such as will press upon your heart. Secocoeni, chief of the Bapedi, who lives over yonder under the Blue Mountains, has declared war against the Boers.”

“I hear.”

“Sikukuni wants rifles for his men, such as the Boers use. He has heard of the Inkosis hunting here. To-night he will send an Impi to kill the Inkosis and take their guns.”

“These are the words of the Intombi?”

“Yes, Inkoos, these are her very words. She was sitting outside the hut, grinding 'imphi' (Kafir corn) for beer, when she heard Secocoeni's messenger order her father to call the men together to kill us to-night.”

“I hear. At what time of the night was the killing to be?”

“At the first break of dawn, so that they may have light to take the waggon away by.”

“Good! we shall escape them. The moon will be up in an hour, and we can trek away.”

The lad's face fell.

“Alas!” he said, “it is impossible; there is a spy watching the camp now. He is up there among the rocks; I saw him as I brought the oxen home. If we move he will report it, and we shall be overtaken in an hour.”

Mr. Alston thought for a moment, and then made up his mind with the rapidity that characterises men who spend their lives in dealing with savage races.

“Mazooku!” he called to a Zulu, who was sitting smoking by the camp fire, a man whom Ernest had hired as his particular servant. The man rose and came to him, and saluted.

He was not a very tall man; but, standing there nude except for the “moocha” round his centre, his proportions, especially those of the chest and the lower limbs, looked gigantic. He had been a soldier in one of Cetywayo's regiments, but having been so indiscreet as to break through some of the Zulu marriage laws, had been forced to fly for refuge to Natal, where he had become a groom, and picked up a peculiar language which he called English. Even among a people where all the men are fearless he bore a reputation for bravery. Leaving him standing awhile, Mr. Alston rapidly explained the state of the case to Ernest, and what he proposed to do. Then turning, he addressed the Zulu:

“Mazooku, the Inkoos here, your master, whom you black people have named Mazimba, tells me that he thinks you a brave man.”

The Zulu's handsome face expanded into a smile that was positively alarming in its extent.

“He says that you told him that when you were Cetywayo's man in the Undi Regiment, you once killed four Basutos, who set upon you together.”

Mazooku lifted his right arm and saluted, by way of answer, and then glanced slightly at the assegai-wounds on his chest.

“Well, I tell your master that I do not believe you. It is a lie you speak to him; you ran away from Cetywayo because you did not like to fight and be killed as the king's ox, as a brave man should.”

The Zulu coloured up under his dusky skin, and again glanced at his wounds.

“Ow-w!” he said.

“Bah! there is no need for you to look at those scratches; they were left by women's nails. You are nothing but a woman. Silence! who told you to speak? If you are not a woman, show it. There is an armed Basuto among those rocks. He watches us. Your master cannot eat and sleep in peace when he is watched. Take that big stabbing assegai you are so fond of showing, and kill him, or die a coward! He must make no sound, remember.”

Mazooku turned towards Ernest for confirmation of the order. A Zulu always likes to take his orders straight from his own chief. Mr. Alston noticed it, and added:

“I am the Inkoosi's mouth, and speak his words.”

Mazooku saluted again, and turning, went to the waggon to fetch his assegai.

“Tread softly, or you will wake him; and he will run from so great a man,” Mr. Alston called after him sarcastically.

“I go among the rocks to seek 'mouti'“ (medicine), the Zulu answered with a smile.

“We are in a serious mess, my boy,” said Mr. Alston to Ernest, “and it is a toss-up if we get out of it. I taunted that fellow so that there may be no mistake about the spy. He must be killed, and Mazooku would rather die himself than not kill him now.”

“Would it not have been safer to send another man with him?”

“Yes; but I was afraid that if the scout saw two men coming towards him he would make off, however innocent they might look. Our horses are dead, and if that fellow escapes we shall never get out of this place alive. It would be folly to expect Basutos to distinguish between Boers and Englishmen when their blood is up; and besides, Secocoeni has sent orders that we are to be killed, and they would not dare to disobey. Look, there goes Mr. Mazooku with an assegai as big as a fire-shovel.”

The kopjé, or stony hill, where the spy was hid, was about three hundred yards from the little hollow in which the camp was formed, and across the stretch of bushy plain between the two Mazooku was quietly strolling, his assegai in one hand and two long sticks in the other. Presently he vanished into the shadow, for the sun was setting rapidly. After what seemed a long pause to Ernest, who was watching his movements through a pair of field-glasses, he reappeared walking along the shoulder of the hill right against the sky-line, his eyes fixed upon the ground as though he were searching among the crevices of the rocks for the medical herbs which Zulus prize.

All of a sudden Ernest saw the stalwart form straighten itself and spring down into a dip, which hid it from sight, with the assegai in its hand raised to the level of its head. Then came a pause, lasting perhaps for twenty seconds. On the farther side of the dip was a large flat rock, which was straight in a line with the fiery ball of the setting sun. Suddenly a tall figure sprang up out of the hollow on to this rock, followed by another figure, in whom Ernest recognised Mazooku. For a moment the two men, looking from their position like people afire, struggled together on the top of the flat stone, and Ernest could clearly distinguish the quick flash of their spears as they struck at each other; then they vanished together over the edge of the stone.

“By Jove!” said Ernest, who was trembling with excitement, “I wonder how it has ended?”

“We shall know presently,” answered Mr. Alston coolly. “At any rate, the die is cast one way or another, and we may as well make a bolt for it. Now, you Zulus, down with those tents and get the oxen inspanned, and look quick about it, if you don't want a Basuto assegai to send you to join the spirit of Chaka.”

The voorlooper had by this time communicated his alarming intelligence to the driver and other Kafirs, and Mr. Alston's exhortation to look sharp was quite unnecessary. Ernest never saw camp struck or oxen inspanned with such rapidity before. But before the first tent was fairly down, they were all enormously relieved to see Mazooku coming trotting cheerfully across the plain, droning a little Zulu song as he ran. His appearance, however, was by no means cheerful, for he was perfectly drenched with blood, some of it flowing from a wound in his left shoulder, and the rest till recently the personal property of somebody else. Arrived in front of where Mr. Alston and Ernest were standing, he raised his broad assegai, which was still dripping blood, and saluted.

“I hear,” said Mr. Alston.

“I have done the Inkoosi Mazimba's bidding. There were two of them; the first I killed easily in the hollow, but the other, a very big man, fought well for a Basuto. They are dead, and I threw them into a hole, that their brothers might not find them easily.”

“Good! go wash yourself and get your master's things into the waggon. Stop! let me sew up that cut. How came you to be so awkward as to get touched by a Basuto?”

“Inkoos, he was very quick with his spear, and he fought like a cat.”

Mr. Alston did not reply, but, taking a stout needle and some silk from a little housewife he carried in his pocket, he quickly stitched up the assegai-gash, which, fortunately, was not deep. Mazooku stood without flinching till the job was finished, and then retired to wash himself at the spring.

The short twilight faded rapidly into darkness, or rather into what would have been darkness, had it not been for the half-grown moon, which was to serve to light them on their path. Then a large fire having been lit on the site of the camp to make it appear as though it were still pitched there, the order was given to start. The oxen, obedient to the voice of the driver, strained at the trek-tow, the waggon creaked and jolted, and they began their long flight for life. The order of march was as follows: Two hundred yards ahead of the waggon walked a Kafir, with strict orders to keep his eyes very wide open indeed, and report in the best way possible, under the circumstances, if he detected any signs of an ambush. At the head of the long line of cattle, leading the two front oxen by a “reim,” or strip of buffalo-hide, was the Zulu boy Jim, to whose timely discovery they owed their lives, and by the side of the waggon the driver, a Cape Hottentot, plodded along in fear and trembling. On the waggon-box itself, each with a Winchester repeating rifle on his knees, and keeping a sharp look-out into the shadows, sat Mr. Alston and Ernest. In the hinder part of the waggon, also armed with a rifle and keeping a keen look-out, sat Mazooku. The other servants marched alongside, and the boy Roger was asleep inside, on the “cartle,” or hide bed.

So they travelled on hour after hour. Now they bumped down terrific hills strewn with boulders, which would have smashed anything less solid than an African ox-waggon to splinters; now they crept along a dark valley, that looked spiritual and solemn in the moonlight, expecting to see Secocoeni's Impi emerge from every clump of bush; and now again they waded through mountain-steams. At last, about midnight, they reached a plain dividing two stretches of mountainous country, and here they halted for a while to give the oxen, which were fortunately in good condition and fat after their long rest, a short breathing-time. Then on again through the long, quiet night, on, still on, till the dawn found them the other side of the wide plain at the foot of the mountain-range.

Here they rested for two hours, and let the oxen fill themselves with the lush grass. They had travelled thirty miles since the yokes were put upon their necks—not far according to our way of journeying, but very far for cumbersome oxen over an almost impassable country. As soon as the sun was well up they inspanned again, and hurried forwards, bethinking them of the Basuto horde who would now be pressing on their spoor; on with brief halt through all that day and the greater part of the following night, till the cattle began to fall down in the yokes—till at last they crossed the boundary and were in Transvaal territory.

When dawn broke, Mr. Alston took the glasses and examined the track over which they had fled. There was nothing to be seen except a great herd of hartebeest.

“I think that we are safe now,” he said, at last, “and thank God for it. Do you know what those Basuto devils would have done if they had caught us?”

“What?”

“They would have skinned us, and made our hearts and livers into 'mouti' (medicine), and eaten them to give them the courage of the white man.”

“By Jove!” said Ernest.