The Witch's Head/Book II/Chapter X

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
The Witch's Head by H. Rider Haggard
Chapter X: A Way of Escape

When Mr. Alston, Jeremy and Ernest emerged from the back street in which was the house they had visited into one of the principal thoroughfares of Pretoria, they came upon a curious sight. In the middle of the street stood, or rather danced, a wiry Zulu, dressed in an old military great-coat and the ordinary native “moocha,” or scanty kilt, and having a red worsted comforter tied round one arm. He was shouting out something at the top of his voice, and surrounded by a crowd of other natives, who at intervals expressed their approval of what he was saying in deep guttural exclamations.

“What is that lunatic after?” asked Jeremy.

Mr. Alston listened for a minute, and answered:

“I know the man well. His name is Goza. He is the fleetest runner in Natal, and can go as fast as a horse; indeed, there are few horses that he cannot tire out. By profession he is a 'praiser.' He is now singing the praises of the Special Commissioner—'bongering' they call it. This is what he is saying:

“'Listen to the foot of the great elephant Somptseu (Sir T. Shepstone). Feel how the earth shakes beneath the tread of the white t'Chaka,[*] father of the Zulus, foremost among the great white people. Ou! he is coming; ou! he is here. See how the faces of the “Amaboona" (the Boers) turn pale before him. He will eat them up; he will swallow them, the huge vulture, who sits still till the ox is dead, who fights the fight of “sit down.” Oh! he is great, the lion; where he turns his eye the people melt away, their hearts turn to fat. Where is there one like Somptseu, the man who is not afraid of Death; who looks at Death and it runs from him; who has the tongue of honey; who reigns like the first star at night; who is beloved and honoured of the great white mother, the Queen; who loves his children, the Amazulu, and shelters them under his wide wing; who lifted Cetywayo out of the dirt, and can put him back in the dirt again? Abase yourselves, you low people, doctor yourself with medicine, lest his fierce eyes should burn you up. O! hark! he comes, the father of kings, the Chaka; O! be still; O! be silent; O! shake in your knees. He is here, the elephant, the lion, the fierce one, the patient one, the strong one! See he deigns to talk to little children; he teaches them wisdom; he gives light like the sun—he is the sun—he is t'Somptseu.'”

[*] The Zulu Napoleon, great-uncle to the last King of Zululand, Cetywayo.

At this juncture a quiet-looking, oldish gentleman, entirely unlike either an elephant, a lion, or a vulture, of medium height, with grey whiskers, a black coat, and a neat black tie fastened in a bow, came round the corner, leading a little girl by the hand. As he came the praiser lifted up his right hand, and in the most stentorian tones gave the royal salute, “Bayète,” which was re-echoed by all the other natives.

The oldish gentleman, who was none other than the Special Commissioner himself, turned upon his extoller with a look of intense annoyance, and addressed him very sharply in Zulu.

“Be still,” he said. “Why do you always annoy me with your noise? Be still, I say, you loud-tongued dog, or I will send you back to Natal. My head aches with your empty words.”

“O, elephant! I am silent as the dead: Bayète. O, Somptseu! I am quiet: Bayète.”

“Go! Begone!”

With a final shout of Bayète the Zulu turned and fled down the street with the swiftness of the wind, shouting praises as he went.

“How do you do, sir?” said Mr. Alston, advancing. “I was just coming up to call upon you.”

“Ah, Alston, I am delighted to see you. I heard that you were gone on a hunting trip. Given up work and taken to hunting, eh? Well, I should like to do the same.”

“If I could have found you when I came up here, I should have been tempted to ask you to come with us.”

At this point Mr. Alston introduced Ernest and Jeremy. The Special Commissioner shook hands with them.

“I have heard of you,” he said to Jeremy; “but I must ask you not to fight any more giants here just at present; the tension between Boer and Englishman is too great to allow of its being stretched any more. Do you know, you nearly provoked an outbreak last night with your fighting? I trust that you will not do it again.”

He spoke rather severely, and Jeremy coloured. Presently, however, he made amends by asking them all to dinner.

On the following morning Ernest sent off his letter to Eva. He also wrote to his uncle and to Dorothy, explaining his long silence as best he could. The latter, too, he for the first time took into his confidence about Eva. At a distance he no longer felt the same shyness in speaking to her about another woman that had overpowered him when he was by her side.

Now that he had been away from England for a year or so, many things connected with his home life had grown rather faint amid the daily change and activity of his new life. The rush of fresh impressions had to a great extent overlaid the old ones, and Dorothy and Mr. Cardus and all the old Kesterwick existence and surroundings seemed faint and far away. They were indeed rapidly assuming that unreality which in time the wanderer finds will gather round his old associations. He feels that they know him no more; very likely he imagines that they have forgotten him, and so they become like the shades of the dead. It is almost a shock to such an one to come back and find, after an absence of many years, that though he has been living his rapid vigorous life, and storing his time with many acts, good, bad, and indifferent; though he thinks that he has changed so completely, and developed greatly in one direction or another, yet the old spots, the old familiar surroundings, and the old dear faces have changed hardly one whit. They have been living their quiet English life, in which sensation, incident, and excitement are things unfamiliar, and have varied not at all.

Most people, as a matter of fact, change very little except in so far as they are influenced by the cyclic variations of their life, the passage from youth to maturity, and from maturity to age, and the attendant modes of thought and action befitting each period. But even then the change is superficial rather than real. What the child is, that the middle-aged person and the old man will be also. The reason of this appears to be sufficiently obvious: the unchanging personality that grows not old, the animating spiritual “ego,” is there, and practically identical at all periods of life. The body, the brain, and the subtler intellect may all vary according to the circumstances, mostly physical, of personal existence; but the effect that the passage of a few years, more or less active or stormy, can produce upon a principle so indestructible, so immeasurably ancient, and the inheritor of so far-reaching a destiny as some of us believe the individual human soul to be, surely must be small.

Already Ernest began to find it something of a labour to indite epistles to people in England, and yet he had the pen of a ready writer. The links that bound them together were fast breaking loose. Eva, and Eva alone, remained clear and real to the vision of his mind. She was always with him; and to her, at any period of his life, he never found difficulty in writing. For, in truth, their very natures were interwoven and the rapport between them was not produced merely by the pressure of external circumstances, or by the fact of continual contact and mutual attraction arising from physical causes, such as the natural leaning of youth to youth and beauty to beauty.

These causes, according to Ernest's creed, no doubt, had to do with its production, and perhaps were necessary to its mundane birth, as the battery is necessary to the creation of the electric spark. Thus, had Eva been old, instead of a young and lovely girl, the rapport would perhaps never have come into being here. In short, they formed the cable along which the occult communication could pass, but there their function ended. Having once established that communication, and provided a means by which the fusion of spirit could be effected, youth and beauty and the natural attraction of sex to sex had done their part. The great dividing river that rolls so fast and wide between our souls in their human shape had been safely passed, and the two fortunate travellers had been allowed before their time to reap advantages—the measureless advantage of real love, so rare on earth, and at its best so stained by passion, which will only come to most of us, and then perhaps imperfectly, in a different world from this.

Yes, the bridge might now be broken down; it had served its purpose. Come age, or loss of physical attraction, or separation and icy silence, or the change called death itself, and the souls thus subtly blended can and will and do defy them. For the real life is not here; here only is the blind beginning of things, maybe the premature beginning.

And so Ernest posted his letters, and then, partly to employ his thoughts, and partly because it was his nature to throw himself into whatever stream of life was flowing past him, he set himself to master the state of political affairs in the country in which he found himself.

This need not be entered into here, further than to say that it was such as might with advantage have employed wiser heads than his, and indeed did employ them. Suffice it to say that he contrived to make himself of considerable use to the English party, both before and after the annexation of the Transvaal to the dominions of the Crown. Among other things he went on several missions in conjunction with Mr. Alston, with a view of ascertaining the real state of feeling among the Boers. Also, together with Jeremy, he joined a volunteer corps which was organised for the defence of Pretoria when it was still a matter of doubt whether or not the contemplated annexation would or would not result in an attack being made upon the town by the Boers. It was a most exciting time, and once or twice Ernest and Jeremy had narrow escapes of being murdered. However, nothing worthy of note happened to them, and at last the long-expected annexation came off successfully, to the intense joy of all the Englishmen in the country, and to the great relief of the vast majority of the Boers.

Now, together with the proclamation by which the Transvaal was annexed to her Majesty's dominions, was issued another that was to have a considerable bearing upon Ernest's fortunes. This was none other than a promise of her Majesty's gracious pardon to all such as had been resident in the Transvaal for a period of six months previous to the date of annexation, being former British subjects and offenders against the English criminal law, who would register their name and offence within a given time. The object of this proclamation was to give immunity from prosecution to many individuals, former deserters from the English army, and other people who had in some way transgressed the laws, but were now occupying respectable positions in their adopted country.

Mr. Alston read this proclamation attentively when it came out in a special number of the Gazette. Then, after thinking for a while, he handed it to Ernest.

“You have read this amnesty proclamation?” he said.

“Yes,” answered Ernest; “what of it?”

“What of it? Ah, the stupidity of youth! Go down, go down on your knees, young man, and render thanks to the Power that inspired Lord Carnarvon with the idea of annexing the Transvaal. Can't you very well see that it takes your neck out of the halter? Off with you, and register your name and offence with the secretary to Government, and you will be clear for ever from any consequences that might ensue from the slight indiscretion of having shot your own first cousin in a duel on British soil.”

“By Jove, Alston! you don't mean that!”

“Mean it? Of course I do. The proclamation does not specify any particular offence to which the pardon is to be denied, and you have lived more than six months on Transvaal territory. Off you go!”

Ernest went like an arrow.