The Witch's Head/Book III/Chapter I
It was an April evening; off the south coast of England. The sun had just made up his mind to struggle out from behind a particularly black shower-cloud, and give that part of the world a look before he bade it good-night.
“That is lucky,” said a little man, who was with difficulty hanging on to the bulwark netting of the R.M.S. Conway Castle; “now, Mr. Jones, look if you can't see them in the sunlight.”
Mr. Jones accordingly looked through his glasses again.
“Yes,” he said, “I can see them distinctly.”
“See what?” asked another passenger, coming up.
“The cliffs of old England,” answered the little man, joyously.
“Oh, is that all?” said the other; “curse the cliffs of Old England!”
“Nice remark for a man who is going home to be married, eh?” said the little man, turning to where his companion had stood.
But Mr. Jones had shut up his glasses, and vanished aft.
Presently he reached a deck-cabin, and entered without knocking.
“England is in sight, old fellow,” he said, addressing somebody who lay back smoking in a cane-chair.
The person addressed made a movement as though to rise, then put up his hand to a shade that covered his eyes.
“I forgot,” he answered, with a smile; “it will have to be very much in sight before I can see it. By the way, Jeremy,” he went on, nervously, “I want to ask you something. These doctors tell such lies.” And he removed the shade. “Now, look at my eyes, and tell me honestly, am I disfigured? Are they shrunk, I mean, or have they got a squint, or anything of that sort?” and Ernest turned up his dark orbs, which except that they had acquired that painful, expectant look peculiar to the blind, were just as they always had been.
Jeremy looked at them, first in one light, then in another.
“Well!” said Ernest impatiently. “I can feel that you are staring me out of countenance.”
“Hamba gachlé,” replied the imperturbable one. “I am di—di—diagnosing the case. There, that will do. To all appearance, your optics are as sound as mine. You get a girl to look at them, and see what she says.”
“Ah, well; that is something to be thankful for.”
Just then some one knocked at the cabin-door. It was the steward.
“You sent for me, Sir Ernest?”
“O yes, I remember. Will you be so good as to find my servant? I want him.”
“Yes, Sir Ernest.”
Ernest moved impatiently.
“Confound that fellow, with his everlasting 'Sir Ernest'!”
“What, haven't you got used to your handle yet?”
“No, I haven't, and I wish it were at Jericho, and that is a fact. It is all your fault, Jeremy. If you had not told that confoundedly garrulous little doctor, who went and had the information printed in the Natal Mercury, it would never have come out at all. I could have dropped the title in England; but now all these people know that I am Sir Ernest, and Sir Ernest I shall remain for the rest of my days.”
“Well, most people would not think that such a dreadful misfortune.”
“Yes, they would, if they had happened to shoot the real heir. By the way, what did the lawyer say in his letter? As we are so near home, I suppose I had better post myself up. You will find it in the despatch-box. Read it, there's a good fellow.”
Jeremy opened the box, battered with many years of travel, and searched about for the letter. It contained a curious collection of articles, prominent among which was a handkerchief, which once belonged to Eva Ceswick; a long tress of chestnut hair tied up with a blue ribbon; ditto of golden, which had come—well, not from Eva's locks; a whole botanical collection of dead flowers, tender souvenirs of goodness knows who, for, after a while, these accumulated dried specimens are difficult to identify; and many letters and other curiosities.
At last Jeremy came to the desired document, written in a fair clerk's hand; and having shovelled back the locks of hair, &c., began to read it aloud:
“22nd January, 1879.“Sir,—”
“You see,” broke in Ernest, “while we were fighting over there at Isandhlwana, those beggars were writing to tell me that I was a baronet. Case of the 'bloody hand' with a vengeance, eh?”
death, on the 16th of the present month, of our esteemed client, Sir Hugh Kershaw, Bart., of Archdale Hall, Devonshire, and of the consequent devolution of the baronetcy to yourself, as only son of the late Sir Hugh's only brother, Ernest Kershaw, Esq.
“Into the question of the unhappy manner in which you came to be placed in the immediate succession it does not become us to enter. We have before us at this moment a certified copy of Her Majesty's pardon, granted to you under the Transvaal Amnesty Act of 1877, and forwarded to us by Reginald Cardus, Esq., of Dum's Ness, Suffolk, which we have neither the wish nor the will to dispute. It is clear to us that, under this pardon, you are totally free from any responsibility for the breach of the law which you perpetrated some years since; and of this it is our duty to advise you. Your title to succeed is also clear under the original patent.
“As was only to be expected under the circumstances, the late Sir Hugh did not bear any feeling of good-will towards you. Indeed, we do not think that we shall be exaggerating if we say that the news of your free pardon materially hastened his end. On the attainment of full age by the late Hugh Kershaw, Esq., who fell by your hand, the entail of the family estates was cut, and only the mansion-house of Archdale Hall, the heirlooms, which are numerous and valuable, therein contained, and the deer-park, consisting of one hundred and eighty-five acres of land, were resettled. These consequently pass to you, and we shall be glad to receive your instructions concerning them, should you elect to honour us with your confidence. The estates pass, under the will of the late Baronet, to a distant cousin of his late wife's, James Smith, Esq., 52 Camperdown Road, Upper Clapham. We now think that we have put you in possession of all the facts connected with your accession to the baronetcy, and, awaiting your instructions, have the honour to remain,
“Your obedient servants, “Paisley &Paisley.”(Signed)
“Ah, so much for that!” was Ernest's comment. “What am I to do with Archdale Hall, its heirlooms, and its deer-park of one hundred and eighty-five acres, I wonder? I shall sell them if I can. Mine is a pretty position: a baronet with about sixpence halfpenny per annum to support my rank on; a very pretty position!”
“Hamba gachlé,” replied Jeremy; “time enough to consider all that. But now, as we are on the reading lay, I may as well give you the benefit of my correspondence with the officer commanding Her Majesty's forces in Natal and Zululand.”
“Fire away!” remarked Ernest, wearily.
“First letter, dated Newcastle, Natal, 27th January, from your humble servant to officer commanding, &c.:
Adjutant Kershaw, of Alston's Horse, at present incapacitated bylightning from doing so himself——'
“Very nearly put that, I think,” interpolated Jeremy.
“Very. Go on.”
to check the flanking movement of the Undi Corps, proceeded to try and do so. Coming to a ridge commanding the advance of the Undi, the corps, by order of their late commander, Captain Alston, dismounted, and opened fire on them at a distance of about three hundred yards, with considerable effect. This did not, however, check the Undi, who appeared to number between three and four thousand men, so Captain Alston issued an order to charge the enemy. This was done with some success. The Zulus lost a number of men; the corps, which passed right through the enemy, about twenty troopers, Captain Alston, and his son Roger Alston, who acted as his aide-de-camp. Several horses and one or two men were also severely wounded, which crippled the further movements of the corps.
“'Lieutenant and Adjutant Kershaw, on taking command of the corps, determined to attempt to retreat. In this attempt, however, he failed, owing to the presence of dismounted and wounded men; to the detachment of a body of about three hundred Zulus to intercept any such retreat; and to the presence of a large body of Zulus on the farther side of the pass leading to the valley through which such retreat might be conducted.
“'Under these circumstances he determined to fight the remains of the corps to the last, and dismounting them, took possession of a fairly advantageous position. A desperate hand-to-hand encounter ensued. It ended in the almost total extermination of Alston's Horse, and in that of the greater part of the attacking Zulus. The names of the surviving members of Alston's Horse are—Lieutenant and Adjutant Kershaw, Sergeant-Major Jeremy Jones, Trooper Mazooku (the only native in the corps).
“'These ultimately effected their escape, the enemy having either been all destroyed or having followed the track of the Undi. Lieutenant and Adjutant Kershaw regrets to have to state that in process of effecting his escape he was struck by lightning and blinded.
“'He estimates the total loss inflicted on the enemy by Alston's Horse at from four hundred to four hundred and fifty men. In face of such determined bravery as was evinced by every one of his late gallant comrades, Lieutenant Kershaw feels that it would be invidious for him to mention any particular names. Every man fought desperately, and died with his face to the enemy. He begs to enclose a return of the names of those lost, the accuracy of which he cannot, however, guarantee, as it is compiled from memory, the papers of the corps having all been lost. Trusting that the manoeuvres attempted by Lieutenant Kershaw under somewhat difficult circumstances will meet with your approval, I have, &c.—By order of Lieutenant Kershaw,
(Signed) “'Jeremy Jones,“'Sergeant-Major.'
“Then follows the reply, dated Maritzburg, 2nd February:
Adjutant Kershaw, and the surviving members of the corps known as Alston's Horse, the high sense entertained by the Officer, &c., of the gallant conduct of that corps in the face of overwhelming odds at Isandhlwana on the 22nd of January.
“'2. It is with deep regret that the Officer, &c., learns of the heavy misfortune which has befallen Lieutenant Kershaw. He wishes to express his appreciation of the way in which that officer handled the remnants of his corps, and to inform him that his name will be forwarded to the proper quarter for the expression of Her Majesty's pleasure with regard to his services.[*]
“'3. I am directed to offer you a commission in any of the volunteer corps now on service in this campaign.—I have, &c.,(Signed) “'Chief of the Staff.'”
[*] It may be stated here that, if this was ever done, the War Office did not consider Ernest's services worthy of notice, for he never heard anything more about them.
Then comes a letter from Sergeant-Major Jones, gratefully acknowledging the expression of the high opinion of the Officer, &c., and declining the offer of a commission in another volunteer corps.
Next is a private letter from the Officer, &c., offering to recommend Sergeant-Major Jeremy Jones for a commission in the army.
And, finally, a letter from Sergeant-Major Jones to the Officer, &c., gratefully declining the same.
Ernest looked up sharply. The raison d'ètre of the movement was gone, for he could no longer see, but the habit remained.
“Why did you decline the commission, Jeremy?”
Jeremy moved uneasily, and looked through the little cabin-window.
“On general principles,” he answered presently.
“Nonsense! I know you would have liked to go into the army. Don't you remember, as we were riding up to the camp at Isandhlwana, you said that you proposed that if the corps did anything, we should try and work it?”
“Well, I said we!”
“I don't quite follow you, Jeremy.”
“My dear Ernest, you can't go in for a commission now, can you?”
Ernest laughed a little bitterly.
“What has that to do with it?”
“Everything. I am not going to leave you in your misfortune to go and enjoy myself in the army. I could not do it; I should be wretched if I did. No, old fellow, we have gone through a good many things side by side, and, please God we will stick to each other to the end of the chapter.”
Ernest was always easily touched by kindness, especially now that his nerves were shaken, and his heart softened by misfortune, and his blind eyes filled with tears at Jeremy's words. Putting out his hand, he felt about for Jeremy's, and, when he had found it, grasped it warmly.
“If I have troubles, Jeremy, at least I have a blessing that few can boast—a true friend. If you had gone with the rest at Isandhlwana yonder, I think that my heart would have broken. I think we do bear one another a love 'passing the love of women.' It would not be worth much if it didn't, that is one thing. I wonder if Absalom was a finer fellow than you are, Jeremy? 'from the sole of his foot even to the crown of his head there was no blemish in him.' Your hair would not weigh 'two hundred shekels after the king's weight' though” (Jeremy wore his hair cropped like a convict's); “but I would back you to throw Absolom over your shoulder, hair and all.”
It was his fashion to talk nonsense when affected by anything, and Jeremy, knowing it, said nothing.
Just then there came a knock at the door, and who should enter but Mazooku, and Mazooku transformed. His massive frame, instead of being clothed in the loose white garments he generally wore, was arrayed in a flannel shirt with an enormous stick-up collar, a suit of pepper-and-salt reach-me-downs several sizes too small for him, and a pair of boots considerably too large for his small and shapely feet; for, like those of most Zulus of good blood, his hands and feet were extremely delicately made.
To add to the incongruity of his appearance, on the top of his hair, which was still done in ridges, Zulu fashion, and decorated with long bone snuff-spoons, was perched an extremely small and rakish-looking billycock hat, and in his hand he carried his favourite and most gigantic knobstick.
On opening the cabin-door he saluted in the ordinary fashion, and coming in, squatted down on his haunches to await orders, forgetting that he was not in all the freedom of his native dress. The results were most disastrous. With a crack and a bang the reach-me-down trousers, already strained to their utmost capacity, split right up the back. The astonished Zulu flew up into the air, but presently discovering what had happened, sat down again, remarking that there was “much more room now.”
Jeremy burst out laughing, and having sketched his retainer's appearance for the benefit of Ernest, told him what had happened.
“Where did you get those things from, Mazooku?” asked Ernest.
Mazooku explained that he had bought the rig-out for three pound ten from a second-class passenger, as the weather was growing cold.
“Do not wear them again. I will buy you clothes as soon as we get to England. If you are cold, wear your great-coat.”
“How is 'The Devil'?” Ernest had brought the black stallion on which he had escaped from Isandhlwana home with him.
Mazooku replied that the horse was well, but playful. A man forward had been teasing him with a bit of bread. He had waited till that man passed under his box, and had seized him in his teeth, lifted him off the ground by his coat, and shaken him severely.
“Good! Give him a bran-mash to-night.”
“And so you find the air cold. Are you not regretting that you came? I warned you that you would regret.”
“Ou ka Inkoos” (“O no, chief"), the Zulu answered, in his liquid native tongue. “When first we came upon the smoking ship, and went out on to the black water out of which the white men rise, and my bowels twisted up and melted within me, and I went through the agonies of a hundred deaths, then I regretted. 'O, why,' I said in my heart, 'did not Mazimba my father kill me rather than bring me on to this great moving river? Surely if I live I shall grow like a white man from the whiteness of my heart, for I am exceedingly afraid, and have cast all my inside forth.' All this I said, and many more things which I cannot remember, but they were dark and heavy things. But behold! my father, when my bowels had ceased to melt, and when new ones had grown to replace those which I had thrown forth, I was glad, and did eat much beef, and then I questioned my heart about this journey over the black water. And my heart answered and said, 'Mazooku, son of Ingoluvu, of the tribe of the Maquilisini, of the people of the Amazulu, you have done well. Great is the chief whom you serve; great is Mazimba on the hunting-path; great was he in the battle; all the Undi could not kill him, and his brother the lion (Jeremy), and his servant the jackal (Mazooku), who hid in a hole and then bit those who digged. O yes, Mazimba is great, and his breast is full of valour; you have seen him strike the Undi down; and his mind is full of the white man's knowledge and discretion; you have seen him form the ring that spat out fire so fast that his servants the horsemen were buried under the corpses of the Undi. So great is he, that the 'heaven above' smelled him out as 'tagati,' as a wizard, and struck him with their lightning, but could not kill him then. And so now my father wanders and wanders, and shall wander in the darkness, seeing not the sun or the stars, or the flashing of spears, or the light that gathers in the eyes of brave men as they close in the battle, or the love which gleams in the eyes of women. And how is this? Shall my father want a dog to lead him in the darkness? Shall his dog Mazooku, son of Ingoluvu, prove a faithless dog, and desert the hand that fed him, and the man who is braver than himself? No, it shall not be so, my chief and my father. By the head of Chaka, whither thou goest thither will I go also, and where thou shalt build thy kraal there shall I make my hut. Koos! Baba!”
And having saluted after the dignified Zulu fashion, Mazooku departed to tie up his split trousers with a bit of string. There was something utterly incongruous between his present appearance and his melodious and poetical words, instinct as they were with qualities which in some respects make the savage Zulu a gentleman, and put him above the white Christian, who for the most part regards the “nigger" as a creature beneath contempt. For there are lessons to be learned even from Zulu “niggers,” and among them we may reckon those taught by a courage which laughs at death; an absolute fidelity to those who have a right to command it, or the qualities necessary to win it; and, in their raw and unconverted state, perfect honesty and truthfulness.
“He is a good fellow, Mazooku,” said Ernest, when the Zulu had gone; “but I fear that one of two things will happen to him. Either he will get homesick and become a nuisance, or he will get civilised and become drunken and degraded. I should have done better to leave him in Natal.”