"I rather expected to meet a couple of old fossils, but to my agreeable surprise I found John and Hector Montrose both younger men than myself and I was under thirty then. Fine young fellows they were too, nearly of an age, and as much alike as two peas. Of medium size, well-knit, and muscular, they were exactly the type of man for a rough trip such as that which we were soon planning. For all my scruples went by the board within ten minutes of our first meeting, and I fell absolutely under the spell and charm of their virile personalities. Splendid chaps, both of them: I never met their like. I can see them now as they sat listening to me. I discussed the trip, and described the kind of country we should have to cover. Their dark, keen, eager faces were so absolutely alike that, except when they laughed, I could scarce tell which was which. Hector, the elder, had had the whole of his front teeth so stopped and plated with gold dentistry that there was but little ivory to be seen, and when he laughed this gave him a strange and rather unpleasing appearance.
"Within a week we were on the veld, and two months later were within fifty miles of where we are sitting now farther up the Orange, where the Great Fish River runs into the larger stream. It is a wild and desolate spot to-day, and there are hippo still on the islands, but twenty years back scarce a white man had ever seen it! We had followed the Orange from its mouth in a leisurely, dawdling manner, spending a few days, or perhaps a week, at those few spots where we found Hottentots or Bushmen. The elder brother seemed to comprehend these wild men by intuition, and the extraordinary 'click' language which I had long since despaired of ever learning seemed to him the simplest thing on earth. Day after day he conversed with them more and more, until his mastery of both tongues was complete. The natives looked up to him as a sort of god, and if he had allowed it would have worshipped him. Hour after hour he would sit conversing with them and questioning them, taking copious notes all the time and gathering from their folklore, legends, traditions, and beliefs; and every day, as he became more engrossed, his brother and I saw less of him. John and I had plenty of sport, for the country teemed with game in those days; but after a time, as Hector grew more and more engrossed in the natives, until he rarely spoke to us, John became anxious, and at last spoke to me. 'Look here, Jason,' he said one day when we were miles from camp after klipbok for the pot, 'I don't like the way Hector's going at all! He scarcely ever speaks now, and he's so queer when he does talk. He wanders in his sleep a lot, and last night he kept on all night talking the most abject nonsense about proving to the world that Darwin was right in his theory of evolution. It's some yarn these infernal Bushmen have told him, I suppose. I wish something would crop up to divert his thoughts in another direction.'
"Well, something happened only too soon. One day, in passing through a narrow ravine, we came suddenly at close quarters with a troop of the biggest baboons I have ever seen. They looked and grunted a few times to each other, and made off in a leisurely manner, evidently in no fear. They were the first we had seen, and Hector was all excitement. He spoke rapidly to the two Bushmen who were with us, and then shouted some clicking, unintelligible gibberish after the retreating animals. At the call the whole troop halted, and their hoarse barks came back in reply. Again Hector shouted, and once again the baboons voiced a grunting mocking answer that John and I looked at each other in amazement! 'Look at Klaas!' he whispered.
"Klaas was a Hottentot who had been with the missionaries at Bethany, and spoke English. He spoke the Bushman 'click' too, but seldom had anything to do with the 'wild men,' as he called them. Now he stood listening to Hector's shouts to the baboons, and as he listened a look of the most abject terror came into his face, and he stood livid and trembling, staring in the direction of the beasts. Again Hector called; and then a shrill scream burst from the Hottentot's lips: 'No! no!' he shrieked. 'He is calling them back!' he gibbered, turning to us; 'they will tear us to pieces!!'
"The Bushmen were cowering in fear too; and still Hector, heedless of us all, called to the baboons; and their grunts came back in reply. And now the brutes were turning back towards us, and a thrill of fear came to me too, for there were at least a hundred of them, and a combined attack would have made short work of us, notwithstanding our Winchesters. I unslung mine; but John was before me a shot rang out, and the big leader flung up its long arms and fell dead. The troop halted, and then, before I could shoot, Hector sprang to where we knelt aiming and ordered us imperiously and passionately to stop. 'You fools!' he shrieked, 'you have spoiled all! How can I ever gain their confidence, how can I ever learn their speech and gain the proof of all that Darwin taught, if you murder them? Already from these Bushmen I have learnt much, and can make these wild men [he used the native expression quite naturally] understand, but much more is needed. Put up your guns: they shall come back!' Whilst we paused irresolute the baboons, picking up their fallen leader, made off across the mountain, in silence and with never a response to Hector's calls.
"From that time our leader's conduct became even stranger in fact he was as a man obsessed. He rarely spoke to us, but spent his whole time with the Bushmen, wandering away into the mountains and the thick jungle bordering the river, refusing our company, and no longer even carrying a rifle in a country at that time teeming with wild animals. His sole desire was to come into contact with the baboons, but for some days we saw nothing of them. He offered the Bushmen all sorts of rewards if they could capture and bring in a young one, but they had wild tales of raids by these strange beasts; of native women and children carried off by them, and becoming wild like their captors. At length, however, Hector's promises had effect: one evening the two Bushmen returned to camp dragging between them a half-grown baboon. It was surly, vicious, and so strong that they could scarce master it, but within twenty-four hours Hector had the animal subject to his will, and now the Bushmen were neglected for this strange new companion. That he could make himself understood to it was perfectly obvious; and they would wander away together, grunting and clicking all the time.
"The heat all this time was terrific, and the thought often came to me that possibly Hector had had a touch of sunstroke. Even his craze for finding a proof of Darwin's theory could, I thought, scarcely explain his half-mad conduct! He ate but little; his habits, once so precise, became careless and in fact almost brutal; and his brother's pained remonstrance with him only made matters worse. 'The Proof! the Proof!' he would answer us, fiercely and angrily; 'I am getting nearer to it every day. What matters what you think or care! But this one is too young. I must have an old one. He will tell me!' John and I had serious thoughts of taking him out of the wilderness by force; but whilst we hesitated the end came.
"One night, after a day of terrific heat, we were lying under a thorn tree on the hot sand, and hoping for the rain that had been threatening but would not fall. There was a moon; but its light was fitful, and the dark thunder-clouds occasionally obscured it. Away over the Tatas Berg Mountains the lightning was flickering, and John and I lay watching it, and wishing the storm would break for us too. Suddenly we heard the bark of a baboon from a peak near us. It was answered from the other side, and soon a harsh chorus resounded on either hand. We listened. They seemed to be narrowing in upon us. Klaas crept near us. 'Master,' he whispered in a frightened voice, 'they will kill us all or worse!' We looked at each other in the gloom. It might well be, and we had better be prepared. Without a word we rose and hurried to the tent, and there made ready our rifles. Then the same thought came simultaneously to us. Should we speak to Hector? He had of late used the smaller tent, a short distance away from our own his companion, the cursed baboon! We hurried towards it. It was empty. 'Hector! Hector!' John called out, softly at first, then loudly, frantically. But no answer came, except that now the mocking din of the baboons seemed to jeer at us. They appeared to be gathered near us, all together. As we ran towards the sound the moon burst through a rift in the clouds. There ahead of us, stark naked, and running swiftly towards the baboons, we saw the figure of Hector, his body gleaming white in the moonbeams, and by his side the grey figure of his baboon companion.
"We shouted, as over rocks and through scrub and thorns we ran and scrambled, gaining upon the fugitive. When he was but fifty yards ahead, he paused and turned, and the moonlight gleamed upon his gilded teeth as he laughed at us in maniac mockery. Then, even as we sprang towards him, a grey circle surged round him, and together they came towards us. For a time we were hard set to beat them off. When our Winchesters were empty a ring of dead lay around us, and then the moon was blotted out and dense darkness fell as the thunderstorm burst over us. Between the peals of thunder we could hear the hoarse barks of the main troop getting farther and farther away, but to follow was impossible. We expected to find the mangled body of Hector in the morning. Daylight showed no trace of him, however, and though we spent months searching the locality we never saw him again."
Jason stopped, and knocked his pipe out on his boot. I thought his tale was finished. "Horrible! horrible!" I said. "Little wonder you hate baboons! What became of his brother?"
"Wait!" said Jason, "that is only the first chapter of my story. John went back to England a morose, sad man. The incident had deeply affected me also, and we had become the closest of friends. Old Klaas came to Cape Town with us, and as we saw John waving to us from the fast receding mailboat the Hottentot said something I never forgot. 'Master,' he said, 'his brother I do not think he is dead! Something worse has happened to him: Klaas believes he is there in that strange place the Hottentots have all heard of there in the Tatas Berg, in the baboons' secret place.'
"Well, ten more, fifteen years passed, and I often heard from John. He had thrown up sport, and strangely enough had devoted himself entirely to the same scientific research that had been his brother's bane. Then his letters became fewer and fewer, and I heard nothing for many months when one day he walked into my room in Cape Town. He had just arrived from England, and after our first warm greeting he asked me eagerly if I were free to accompany him again to the scene of our awful experience. I was free enough, but reluctant. Why revive the horrors of that awful night! But he persuaded me, and a month later we were in the same region, and moreover had found old Klaas alive and hearty. John had become proficient in the Bushman and Hottentot tongues, as his brother had been; though where and how he had studied them I never knew. Would he, too, I wondered, try to obtain the Proof, as his poor mad brother had done? And when we first came in contact with the baboons I watched him closely. But he betrayed no madness only an intense interest in and hatred of them. Peculiarly enough, I thought at the time, although he shot the smaller ones mercilessly I never saw him shoot at the huge beasts we often saw watching us from the peaks. He must have noticed me watching him, for one day he turned and looked me full in the face, sadly and wistfully, as though reading my thoughts: 'No, no, Jason; never fear, old friend; I shall never seek the proof as Hector did. And yet, and yet, it is there!' I soon found that all his inquiries among the natives tended in one direction: he sought the whereabouts of the secret place of the baboons in which they all believed. But none could tell him, till one day in the wild and remote region between the Great Fish River and the Tatas Mountains we came upon Jantje, an old Hottentot, who told us that he had seen the place. He had been hunting for honey in the almost inaccessible mountains of that wild spot, and had one day found himself in a narrow gorge, looking down into what appeared to be a large crater. The sides were precipitous except at one spot where a narrow and tortuous canon made it possible to enter. And here, he assured us, was the stronghold of the baboons. Huge ones bigger than men, he told us and hundreds of them. And for a new gun and some powder and shot he would take us to the place. But he would not enter!
"Jantje got his gun; and three days later John, myself, and Klaas stood upon a mountain-top and looked into the spot he had described. It was at least five hundred feet deep, and perhaps a hundred yards across the bottom, which was flat and sandy. Even as we first looked into the place the baboons, several hundred strong, were surging through the gorge of which Jantje had spoken, away towards their feeding-ground by the Groot River. We watched them through our glasses. Many of them were of a man's size, and they were not like the ordinary baboon.
"John was all excitement. 'We will wait till they are clear away, and then we'll go down,' he said. I warned him that there were sure to be some left behind. But he was insistent. We were well armed, he urged, and he could see none. He badly wanted to see the place, and at last I consented. We each had a hundred rounds of ammunition, and if it came to a fight the three of us Klaas was also well armed could almost exterminate them. So, leaving the old man behind, we ventured down the narrow cleft clinging, scrambling, and occasionally using the rope. At length we stood in the open arena.
"At the bottom there was nothing living to be seen. A trickling stream issued from the rock on one side, and we drank before starting to explore the place. We found a piece of tattered clothing, and paused and looked at each other in dismay. There had been men there! But we discovered nothing else of importance as we continued our circuit of the crater. We had been engrossed in our investigations, however, and when we had finished it became clear that we had started our descent too late. The rapidly failing light showed us that the day was nearly at an end. The baboons might return at any time, and to fight them in the narrow ravine, without proper light, would be madness. Then came a warning shot fired by Jantje on the height above: the beasts were returning. To find some kind of hiding-place and lie there until the morrow was our only hope of safety. Luckily we discovered a sort of shallow cave that hid us well, with a huge boulder at the entrance that would if need be form a barrier. The cave might be the sleeping-place of one of the baboons; but it was our only chance, and we had barely taken possession before the advance guard of the baboons came hooting down the ravine and made for the drinking-place. Night was now falling fast, and it was dark before the main troop entered the crater. We could only dimly make out their forms, but their harsh barks were continuous. They did not come near us, and we sat and watched, and whispered to each other, and waited for the moon, which seemed long in coming. At last its bright light struck full into the crater, and we could see the baboons sitting together in a mass at the farther side. But not for long; for as we waited there was a movement among the animals, and two long files of them left the main body and came slowly towards the part in which we lay hidden. Tense with apprehension we sat and gazed, expecting that they would make a dash for us. They kept steadily on, however: two long lines of huge beasts a few yards apart, and between them a bigger one that walked almost erect. Within twenty yards of our cave they formed into a circle, the big one in the centre. He was as big as a man! Was he a man? But no, the clicking, grunting sound that issued from his throat was that of a baboon, though of a species different to the others. When the moonlight struck more fully on the shaggy head and face, they looked almost human! How the fangs glistened in the moonlight!
"The gestures of this strange animal became more excited, and the guttural speech if speech it was more passionate. I heard Klaas muttering he was praying. 'God have mercy!' I heard him say, 'they know we are here, they Oh! master, master, hold him, hold him!' But it was too late: John, with a wild scream of 'Hector! Hector!' sprang from the shelter of the cave, and, casting aside his rifle, ran straight at the strange figure in the middle of the circle. Had he gone mad? Who could save him now? Fast and furious Klaas's rifle and my own rang out, and in the dense group of animals the execution was so terrible that in a few minutes the bulk fled back to the farther end, and I ran to where John lay crushed in the arms of the baboon leader. The vile beast had its fangs fixed in his throat when I reached them. I fired a bullet through its head, and released my poor dead friend; and as the monster's shaggy head rolled back, and the moon's bright rays struck upon its glistening teeth, I saw with horror that they were of gold!"
Author's note: The principal incident in the first part of this story, the shooting of the German soldier who found diamonds in German South- West Africa before they were heard of in Luderitzbucht, actually occurred, and the pocket-book containing the route to the oasis, now known as "Bush-man's Paradise," is still in existence. Names and localities have been altered, naturally, and the second part of the story is pure fiction.
Jim Halloran was bored to death. With a natural curiosity he had drifted into Walfisch Bay, bitten as it were out of the huge expanse of German South-West Africa, vaguely expecting something out of the ordinary from such a queer locality. But he had found literally nothing to do. A few white officials and storekeepers, too slack even to be sick of their surroundings, and a few degraded families of Bushmen of uninteresting habits and extremely filthy, constituted the inhabitants. There was but little game in the small strip of British territory, and Halloran had made one or two abortive attempts to arrange a shooting and exploring trip into the German hinterland. Every one had warned him of the extreme peril from the shifting sand-dunes. Moreover, the war between the Germans and the Hereros was at its height, and the lieutenant in charge of the small garrison at Swakopmund had cautioned him not to venture beyond the limit of their patrols. There was no steamer for ten days, so that it was a veritable godsend to him when late one evening he received a message from the same friendly lieutenant to the effect that if he cared, he was welcome to accompany a patrol party which was to leave early the following morning in the direction of the little-known Geiesib Mountains. He might bring his rifle, as there was a chance of some buck.
Daylight found Halloran in the saddle on his way to the German quarters. The patrol consisted of ten troopers in addition to his friend the lieutenant, who explained that two of his men who had been sent on patrol in that direction a few days previously had not returned, and that he hoped to find traces of them. "What do you think has happened to them?" Halloran asked. The German shrugged his shoulders. "A hundred things may have happened," he said "the Hereros or the Bushmen they may be under one of the shifting dunes or they are lost and may be dying of thirst who knows?"
The heat was terrific: the vibrant atmosphere over the red-hot sand looked as though it had become molten, and the glare to the eye was almost insufferable. There was not a breath of air stirring. Indeed, it was due solely to this fact that the patrol had ventured to cross the shifting dunes. Later, when the wind blew, it would be courting death to attempt it.
A few hours' sharp trot brought them to the nearest spurs of the mountain, where water had been found, by digging in the sand, bitter brak, but still drinkable, and here they had hoped to have found the lost troopers. But no trace of the missing men was to be seen. And over a hasty lunch Haussmann, the lieutenant, expressed his fear that they might never be found, but would go to swell the list of men who from time to time had disappeared from their little garrison. "In two years," he said, "I have lost nine men. First there were Schmidt, Muller, and Brandhof, who were lost in the colossal and never-to-be- forgotten storm soon after I arrived; then my orderly Goertz went, and with him another. Then Kramer yes but Kramer, that was different!"
Halloran was curious. "What happened to Kramer?" he asked. And the German told him a strange story. Kramer was a queer mountebank sort of a chap who before conscription claimed him had been clown in a circus, and his antics and gymnastic feats had made him very popular with his fellow-troopers. He had been a good soldier too; and when he had become separated from his fellow-trooper in a sandstorm a day or more south of Swakopmund, and his companion had struggled through without him, no effort had been spared in searching for the missing man. But to no purpose; months passed and he had been almost forgotten. And then, to every one's surprise, he had one day turned up, safe and sound, at the camp. He was nearly naked, and bore traces of having lived like a savage, and the lieutenant believed that he had become affected by his privations and was slightly mad. At any rate, he had told a strange and improbable story. Lost in the drifting sands, he had struggled on he knew not whither until his horse dropped, then on foot, and, with all sense of direction utterly lost, he had staggered on till tired nature gave out and he sank to the ground in a dead faint. The storm must have abated shortly after, for he woke to find himself nearly buried but with the air clearer, and, somewhat refreshed, he had again moved on, until, water gone and nearly dead, he had eventually staggered clear of the sands and right into the arms of a number of Bushmen. For some reason they had spared his life. Later his acrobatic feats had made him even popular with them. His story went on to tell of a well-wooded oasis where the Bushmen lived, with water and game in plenty.
"All this is probably true," said the lieutenant, "but his brain must have been somewhat turned, for he declared that in this oasis the Bushmen's children made playthings of big rough diamonds the size of walnuts!" Kramer had watched for an opportunity to escape, but when it came he had had no chance of bringing away any of the stones, as the Bushmen had a vague idea that the white men valued them highly and that if they knew of their presence in the oasis their refuge would soon be lost to them. "He stuck to his tale," said the lieutenant, "and his great idea was that I should help him to go back with a strong expedition as soon as his time of service expired, and he would make me a rich man. Of course," he continued dogmatically, "there are no diamonds in this country, worse luck! so Kramer was laughed at by everybody." He became madder than ever, sullen and morose. He thought of nothing but his mad dream of diamonds. A few months previously his discharge had come, and within a few days he had again disappeared into the unknown. He had bought a mule, and had gone away laden with water- bags, laughed and jeered at by his late comrades. He had never been heard of in the interval. "But," said the lieutenant abruptly, "we must be off, as we must go on at least two or three hours further east, and I should suggest, Mr. Halloran, that if you care to do so you could stay here till our return. You are likely to get a shot here by the water."
Halloran agreed, and the patrol trotted away over the thick sand that skirted the mountains eastward. The tale told by Haussmann had a strange fascination for him. Himself something of a prospector, the story of the diamonds did not appear so wild and improbable to him as it did to the matter-of-fact Teuton. He had often wished for a chance to prospect the slopes of these very mountains, which looked very promising for gold but diamonds! Was it possible? Choosing a spot among the rocks where he was somewhat sheltered from the sun and could command a view of the little pool and its approaches, he sat down to muse over the story and to await the chance of a possible shot. A couple of hours passed. The stillness and intense heat combined to make him drowsy, and he woke with a start to find he had been dreaming of diamonds as big as tennis balls. "Bad sportsman," he yawned. "I shall never get a shot this way," and, rubbing his eyes, he peered cautiously round in search of game. Not a thing in sight in any direction. Stop! was that a speck moving on a distant spur of the mountain? The atmosphere was deceptive, but surely it was some animal approaching in his direction. He had up till then forgotten his binoculars, but he was now wide awake and, looking first to his rifle, he got out his glasses and twisted them into focus upon the moving object in the distance. A startled exclamation rose to his lips as the field-glasses covered the moving spot; it was a man. Yes running, stumbling, crouching and at times almost crawling the object which he saw was a white man, naked except for a few rags. His desperate haste and the glances he threw back continually showed that he was being pursued. Even as Halloran gazed, figure after figure came running into view over the slope behind the forlorn and desperate-looking fugitive blacks these, and by their diminutive size he knew them for Bushmen. There were seven or eight of them in sight. How many more were behind he could not of course guess, nor did he stop to look, for every manly instinct in his body sent him flying out of his shelter towards the hunted man. He must shoot quick, for it was plain the Bushmen were gaining on their quarry. So, shouting with all his might, Halloran ran forward. A couple of hundred yards' sprint and they were within range. Down he went on one knee, and crack, crack went the sporting Mauser. The vibration of the hot air was sufficient excuse for bad shooting, and it was not until he had emptied his magazine that he had the satisfaction of sending the leading Bushman sprawling. But the others did not pause, and as Halloran thrust another clip into the magazine and ran forward again, shouting and using some very bad language in his excitement, he saw the leading figure throw up his hands and fall forward upon his face. He had the range better now, and was getting near. A second and a third Bushman fell dead, but the others made no attempt to retreat, and appeared to be rifling the body in frantic haste. Again Halloran paused, and sent a bullet into the bunch. Now they were flying away, leaving four of their number behind them. Shot after shot was sent after them till they were out of range, beyond the ridge, by which time Halloran had reached the fallen white man. There he lay, stone dead, with a Bushman's poisoned arrow between his shoulders and his body already swollen and horrible from the deadly poison. A white man without doubt, his feet bare and bleeding from his awful flight, his few poor rags almost torn from his body by the Bushmen. Though tanned almost black he had been a fair man, and his blue eyes stared horribly. He was beyond all succour, whoever he was, and Halloran turned savagely to the remnants of the murderous band. They had paid dearly. Three were stone dead. A fourth lay dying where Halloran had brought him down in his flight, and near him lay a tattered pocketbook. Halloran picked this up. He knew what name he should find in it before he glanced at the contents. Yes, there was the name: "Heinrich Kramer." It was the man who had gone back for the diamonds. This, then, was why the Bushmen had followed and killed him and rifled the body. Halloran searched also, but the natives had done their work well. Nothing was to be found. However, as he turned to look at the wounded Bushman, who was in his death-agony, there fell from the stunted black fingers a pure and flawless diamond, lustrous and dazzling in the burning sunshine, and so perfect that it might just have left the hands of the cutter. . . . So it was true, after all!
Half an hour later the patrol came back at a gallop, having heard the continuous firing. A few words explained all. It was Kramer right enough. As it was useless following the Bushmen, poor Kramer was buried and the patrol returned to Swakopmund, having found no trace of the men for whom they had been searching. In the presence of the men Halloran had not mentioned the pocketbook or diamond, but that night he told Haussmann all. The pocket-book contained many details, and although much was in cypher, the route taken by Kramer in reaching the oasis the second time was clearly noted. And between them a plan was formed.
Six months later Halloran arrived in Cape Town, having spent the interim in Europe, where he had made certain arrangements. He was met by his friend (and partner in the venture) the lieutenant on three months' sick leave and between them the expedition was organised which was to make both their fortunes. From Europe, Halloran had shipped half a dozen camels, and these ungainly beasts, in charge of two Arab drivers, formed an important item in his scheme. A small tug was chartered for three months, and a week after sailing from Cape Town the party landed on a wild and desolate part of the coast a hundred and fifty miles south of Walfisch Bay. The reason for choosing this spot was that, according to the directions in the pocket-book, it appeared clear that by striking inland due east from thereabouts they would reach the oasis much quicker than by the actual route followed by Kramer. But they knew it to be a waterless waste for at least four days' journey how much more it was impossible to say hence the camels, and hence also the numerous small barrels of water which formed an equally important part of the tug's cargo. There were four white men in the party Halloran, his younger brother Frank, Haussmann the German lieutenant, and a friend of the latter named Haupt. From Swakopmund, Haussmann had brought two Hottentots who could speak the extraordinary Bushman "click" language. These, with the Arab camel-men, made the actual number up to eight. Each was well armed, for Halloran, though he hoped to get the diamonds without violence, had a notion that in an extreme case a good deal could be done by eight determined men armed with Mausers and with plenty of ammunition. The tug with its crew of six men was to remain anchored in the little cove, keeping a sharp look-out shorewards. Halloran had chosen his time well. The windy season was at an end and there was no great probability of the much- dreaded sandstorms arising. The moon was nearly at its full and they would thus be able to keep a sharp look-out at night, and travel if they wished to. Five of the camels were laden with water casks, which were to be buried at intervals along the route, accurate bearings of each spot to be taken, and thus a safe line of retreat would be provided should such prove necessary. Speed was unnecessary on the outward journey, and the party walked, the sixth camel carrying their stores, ammunition, and a large assortment of Manchester trading goods likely to appeal to the aesthetic taste of the Bushmen. And so one evening as the last flaming rays of the setting sun were being vanquished by the soft moonlight, the venturesome party waved farewell to the watchers on the little tug and started on their journey over the seemingly illimitable sand-dunes. They trekked in single file and by the aid of the stars and a compass easily kept their eastward course. The murmur of the surf grew fainter and fainter until not a sound broke the stillness, the soft footfall of the camels being inaudible even to the men who led them. Halloran had enjoined silence for some reason, and he stopped his brother irritably when that usually irrepressible youth started to whistle feebly. With an occasional rest the expedition made slow but certain headway during the night, halting for the day when the rapidly brightening east warned them that old Sol would soon have to be reckoned with. A barrel of water was buried in the sand, a bamboo brought for the purpose being planted upright near the spot, and after a hasty breakfast the tired men were soon asleep under a light awning carried for the purpose; one man, however, being constantly on watch. By noon the heat had become intolerable. Roasting in the sun seemed preferable to stewing under the canvas, and by three o'clock the party were on their way again. They rested at midnight, and rested better. The fourth night found them still on the sand-dunes, and by this time the weird journey was beginning to tell upon the white men. The silence and mystery of the night, the vast expanse of sand shown so vaguely in the moonlight, the soft-treading, grotesquely-shaped camels, which seemed far less real and tangible than the black shadows thrown by them across the sand, and by day the blinding glare of the sun thrown back from the all-surrounding sand so fiercely that in spite of their sun-goggles they were nearly blinded, combined to make them high- strung and irritable. On the fourth night it fell to young Frank Halloran to take first watch. He had grumbled at it as unnecessary, for so far they had seen no living creature not even a bird. But though he grumbled he kept a sharp look-out, for he was conscious of a queer uneasy feeling that someone or something was watching him in turn. The moon was bright, but a slight haze seemed to hang over the sand, making objects a short distance away look vague and indistinct. He could see nothing, peer as he would into the soft, dim distance, but he could not shake off the uneasy feeling. Time wore on, half his watch was over. What was that? Surely something moving? His rifle came to his shoulder, the report rang out, and his comrades were awake instantly. Nothing could be found. His brother rated him for shooting at what was probably a jackal, if, indeed, it had not been pure imagination. But daylight, though it showed nothing to the white men, showed something to the wonderfully trained eyes of the Hottentots. "Bushman!" said Gert, the elder of the two. The spoor came from the east and led back in the same direction. Halloran was quite elated. He took it for proof that they were on the right track. . . .
All this can be gathered from the notes in Halloran's handwriting, which are to be found in the pocket-book that had belonged to Kramer. The book had had a strange fascination for him, and he had used it for his own diary. Indeed, these short and sometimes disconnected sentences are the only real record of the grim tragedy that followed.
The little caravan got through the sand-belt safely in six days, and without further alarms from the Bushmen. Then came stony kopjes with stunted bush, and here and there traces of game and lions. Water could not be far off. On the tenth day they had found the oasis, and by sending the Hottentots on ahead with presents they had met with no open hostility from the Bushmen. There was plenty of water. Halloran seems to have tried to get the diamonds by bartering goods for them, but for some days the Bushmen had kept up the pretence that there were no diamonds there. Then force was threatened and a demonstration made as to what could be done with eight repeating rifles. Finally Halloran seems to have laid violent hands on the chief and to have held him to ransom against the production of the stones. But from this time the pocket-book speaks best for itself.
"August 13th. They have given in. Gert has taken the chief's message, and they have brought us a skin-bag full of the stones. These are diamonds right enough fine big stones of eight or nine carats, nearly all the same size and we are rich men. The sight of them made us greedy, and we told the chief they were not enough. He told us through Gert that we had broken our word. Have we? Of course we did not tell him for how many diamonds we would let him go. Besides, we will give him all the trading goods in return. He said something to his wives which even the Hottentots could not understand, but they came again with a dozen very large diamonds, and we let him go.
"I do not like the look of things. Every Bushman has disappeared. Do they intend to attack us later? We shall water the camels as soon as it is cool enough, fill our water-bags and start on our return journey. Luckily we have buried water all the way back, we can travel lightly and rapidly.
"What shall we do? They have poisoned the water-pools. One of the Arabs, the younger Hottentot, and three of our camels are dead. Lucidly, the poison was swift, and they fell dead before Gert and the other camels could get to the pool. We must fly as best we may, our nearest cask is only twelve hours away.
"14th. We are resting the camels for a short spell about three hours from the first cask. We have neglected the camels in our anxiety for the diamonds. They have had no water for three days. We must give them most of the first cask. It is awful work riding two on a camel, but we can get through in four or five days, and then—-
"I am almost too stunned to write. We found the cask. We had not thought of its being tampered with. My poor brother Frank drank the first pannikin greedily, and fell dying at our feet as he drank. The fiends had found the water and poisoned it. As the poor boy lay dying in my arms the water ran unheeded into the sands. A camel sucked it up eagerly. It is dead also. We must on again. Surely they cannot have found the other casks.
"17th. I am alone. The others are all dead all. We tried the water in the other casks by giving some first to the camels. It had all been poisoned. They are following us too, but too far off to shoot them. Gert went mad and drank the water it was so bright and clear. Each time we hoped they might not have found the next cask; but so far they have found them all. There are three more. The young German turned back to die fighting the black devils. We heard him shooting for a long time, but he must be dead too. The Arab was missing in the night. He too had gone back. . . . We have dragged on till within eighteen hours of the coast, but I can go no further. When the lieutenant and I dug up the last cask we cast lots as to who should try it. It fell to him. I wished him to sip it only, but once his lips were wet I could not tear him away. . . . He cursed me as he died. ... I have all the diamonds now and would give them all for a drink of pure water. . . . Surely they cannot have found the other casks. I will win through yet. It is but six hours to the next cask.
"Another cask but I dare not. It is bright and cool and clear; but so were the others! And yet I am dying of thirst. I can go no further. . . . They are creeping nearer. They know my rifle has gone, and I know that if I do not drink they will shoot me as they did that other man through the back with a poisoned arrow. But I will not wait for that. This water looks so cool and clear, surely . . ."
The diary ends abruptly, A week later the engineer and skipper of the little tug, venturing across the sands in the hope of meeting the party returning, found Halloran's body by the side of the water-cask. Near by lay the fatal pocket-book. But the diamonds had gone.
"THE DRINK OF THE DEAD"
A LEGEND OF BUSHMANLAND
This tale was told me over a camp-fire in lonely Bushmanland.
A wild and desolate land it is, but little known except to the occasional nomad "trek-boer," who in the seasons when rain has made it possible wanders from water-hole to water-hole with his scanty flocks and herds; or to the mounted trooper on his long and lonely patrol; or the even more infrequent prospector in his search for the mineral wealth that abounds in the district, but which scarcity of water and cost of transport have so far rendered useless. A land with a character all its own of wide stretches of low grey bush, intermingled with the vivid-green patches of luxuriant "melkbosch," giving deceptive promise of non-existent moisture; of level plains, gay with brilliant flowers, from which long humped ranges of granite rise in serried lines.
A common necessity had drawn two of us white men to a distant and isolated water-hole, which to our dismay we had found dry and empty. Neither of us knew of other water within twelve hours' trek, our beasts were tired, and it was a great relief when Karelse, my Hottentot driver, declared he knew of good water only about four hours away. I wondered I had never heard of it before, but Karelse, who knew every inch of the country, was confident that though he had never been to the spot we should find plenty of water there; and, sure enough, nightfall brought us to the place, and there was water in abundance. Here we shared coffee and biltong, and afterwards sat smoking and yarning by the cheerful blaze of the dry fire-bush.
The night was wild and stormy, and a cold wind blew in sharp gusts round the fantastic pile of rocks that rose abruptly from the small deep pool of black-looking water, sending the sparks swirling upwards and causing the flames to leap fiercely, whilst the flicker of the fire shone on the glittering "baviaan-spel" of the rocks, and the black shadows danced to the whistle of the wind.
Overhead the sky seemed charged with rain the heavy, hurrying clouds lowered and trailed and seemed as though at any moment they might launch a deluge upon the parched and yearning veldt; but the promise was ever an empty one, for not a drop fell, and the rain-charged phalanxes sped onward and ever onward, to shed their precious burthen upon distant and more-favored fields. . . .
Jason I had met before. Like myself he was a prospector, and had known many lands. He was a reserved, reliable man, who possessed a habit of silence rare amongst men of our fraternity. Our talk had been of Brazil, where we had both spent many years of our youth, and almost unconsciously we had fallen into Portuguese a language we both spoke fluently.
It was then that the Other Man appeared. Suddenly, silently, and alone he stepped from among the flickering shadows of the rocks, so abruptly as to cause both Jason and I to start up with an exclamation. By the uncertain light of the fire he appeared to be an elderly man of medium size, swarthy, weather-beaten, and bearded to the eyes. He strode to the fire, extended a limp, cold hand to Jason and I in turn with an almost inaudible greeting, and crouched down by the dying blaze, his dark eyes bent upon the glowing embers. Naturally expecting him to be Dutch, both Jason and I had greeted him in the usual manner by giving our own names in self-introduction. He had made no reply; but though our hearth was but a campfire in a wild country, we felt that whoever he was he was in a measure our guest, and therefore we made no immediate attempt to find out who or what he was. Still he did not speak. He put aside our proffered coffee, gently but without a word, and sat glowering and gazing into the fire.
At last Jason spoke to him direct first in Dutch, and, getting no reply, in English.
"Come far?" he queried.
There was no sign that the man had heard. Jason looked at me with a lift of the eyebrow. Then I tried.
"Farming?" I asked.
Still no answer.
"Man's dumb!" grunted Jason.
But he was muttering now. Gradually his words became clearer, and to our amazement he was speaking Portuguese!
"Pesquisadores pesquisadores," he murmured, "como nos outras dos tempos antigos." (Prospectors searchers for wealth, like we others of the olden days.) "... Searching for that which is not yours, but mine, mine by every right. . . . But you will never find it or if you do your bones will lie beside those others beneath the black water, where the dead drink . . .!"
His mutterings became again inarticulate. I looked at Jason. He sat staring open-mouthed at our strange visitor. For my own part I confess I was puzzled and somewhat startled. Jason's eyes left the stranger abruptly, and met my own, and mutually and silently our lips framed the word "Mad!" Yes, surely he must be mad, this strange man who spoke of the "ancient days" in a tongue rarely heard in this part of Africa; but what was he doing here, here, alone, in this desolate spot, full fifty miles from human habitation.
And as we looked at each other in doubt and hesitation the stranger began again to speak, first in broken, disconnected sentences. But gradually the strange, far-away tone like that of a man talking in his sleep became clearer and more connected, and soon Jason and I were gazing at him as though spellbound, and drinking in every word of the queer archaic-sounding Portuguese in which he told his weird story fragment, delirium, wanderings of a madman, call it what you will.
"... There were Bushmen, then wild dwarf men who shot with poisoned arrows, and had seen no white man before . . . .
"Alvaro Nunes had still five charges for his arquebus, and I as many for my hand petronel. . . . When they heard the thunder of the powder they cast aside their weapons and crawled to us on their knees, taking us for gods. . . . And bearing in mind all that the shipwrecked Castilian we had found at Cabo Tormentoso had told us of the mine of precious stones, we hastened to propitiate them in every way. . . . The gauds we had brought, gay beads, bright kerchiefs, and the like with these we won our way to their goodwill. They hunted for us; of buck and of wild game they brought us abundance; but though months passed we were no nearer that which we sought the mine of bright stones such as the Spanisher had shown us and the whereabouts of which these strange black, dwarfish people alone knew. Never could we master their strange tongue like to the creaking and rustling of dry bones upon a gibbet more than the speech of humans and time and patience alone showed us a way. Their man of magic held great power over them. He was of another race, of our own stature, and with a yellow skin. He had another tongue than these dwarf men of the bush, and this Alvaro and I learnt when his suspicion of us gave way and he found that we wished not to alienate the tribe from his authority. . . . For the Spanisher had said: 'Their magician, because of his black magic, he alone hath the secret of the mine of stones like unto those of Golconda.' . . . Little did we fear his magic we who feared nothing in heaven or earth or in the waters beneath Alvaro and I, old freebooters of the Spanish Main; but they others Luiz Fonseca, Jose Albuquerque, and Antonio Mendez brave men, but ignorant shipmen, they were fearful of the witch-doctor and his black art.
"Then when N'buqu, the witch, had heard all of the wonders of our land across the great water, he would fain plot to come with us and see all these wondrous things of which we spake. And cunningly Alvaro led him on day by day until he was all impatient to leave this tribe of dwarfs, who were not even his own kinsmen. Then when all was ripe he told him that with us there were no wild lands full of buck for those who cared to shoot them, that our wealth was in red gold and shining stones! And at long last he showed the stone taken from the Spanisher at the Cape of Storms. . . .
"At night when the moon was full N'buqu took us to the black water-pit lying deep and dark at the foot of the rocky hill. Ten fathoms deep was it and full to the brim with icy water. Many times had we drank from it, for though all around the land lay parched in the torrid heat the black water-pit was always full to the brim. . . .
"But what magic was this? Here was no water, but a yawning shaft gaped black and dismal where the pool had been. The shipmen shrank back in dismay. 'Here is magic!' they muttered fearfully, crossing themselves. N'buqu laughed. He also had learnt something of our tongue, and understood. 'No magic is here,' said he, ''tis but a spring from yonder hill that fills this pool, and it needs but to turn the stream aside and the water will all drain away. Later I will show!'
"From a fire-stick he had brought he lit a torch of dry wood. By its glare we saw that a hide ladder dangled from an overhanging rock into the deep pit. Down it N'buqu led the way, followed by us all in turn the shipmen with many muttered prayers and misgivings. . . . Slimy and dank was the fearsome place, but the bottom was firm and rocky, and from it there branched a cavern wide enough for us all to walk abreast. Gently it led upward . . . and then we stood in a broader cavern, where the light from the torch in every direction flashed back from a myriad dazzling points: ceiling, walls, every rock protuberance, even the very floor gleamed and scintillated till the whole place blazed as though on fire. N'buqu thrust the torch into Alvaro's hand. 'Look!' he cried, and smote with a spear he carried at the wall of the cavern. At the light blow a handful of the flashing points fell to the floor. We picked them up. They were the 'bright stones' of the Spanisher they were diamonds! Here was wealth beyond conception wealth beside which the fabled Golconda would be as nought, wealth untold for us all. But on the floor among the flashing gems there lay many white bones the bones of dead men. . . . Wealth, vast wealth for us all, and yet we quarreled there as to the division of the stones, and as to how we were to get them away. 'Get all we can at once and flee this very night!' urged the shipmen. 'And die of thirst in the desert places!' said Alvaro for it was the season of drought! 'Stay only until we can fill our water- skins,' they counseled. But Alvaro and myself we were wiser.
"N'buqu his must be the plan. He knew the best paths back to the Cape of Tempests, he knew the water-holes; we must be guided by his counsel. And we forced them to listen. Yes, he had a plan. Three nights hence we must flee. He would have water ready in skins. Meanwhile each night he would divert the water, and we must descend and collect the stones so that we should have enough for all. At night the tribe believed that the spirits of the dead came to the black water to drink, and always avoided the spot. . . . And by the light of the flickering torch we broke down showers of the glittering stones from the soft blue rock in which they were embedded till our pouches were full and the torch had burned out. Then we stumbled and groped our way over slime and bones till we came to the shaft, and one by one we climbed up and out into the fair white moonlight. . . .
"Fools! fools! The shipmen quarreled over the stones the first day. Alvaro lent them dice and they gambled with each other for their new- found wealth. And as Alvaro wished, they quarreled; and Albuquerque and Fonseca drew steel upon each other, and there in the sunshine stabbed each other to death. 'The more for us,' said Alvaro, and we divided the stones they fought for.
"That night we four went again to the black water. Once more we loaded our pouches and climbed out one by one. I the first, for I was faint with the air of the cavern. Then came N'buqu. But Alvaro came not, nor Mendez the shipman. Impatiently I shook the ladder: it was near dawn. Then at length came Alvaro. He was ghastly in the moonlight. And at the top he began to pull up the ladder he had climbed by. 'But Mendez?' I muttered. He answered not, but still hauled the hide rope. Then I seized him by the shoulder and looked in his face. There was blood upon him. 'He struck me from behind,' he said; 'my vest of mail saved me; he is dead. The more for us!' I liked not Alvaro's face, and looked to my dagger lest to-morrow he should say 'The more for me.' . . .
"That third night Alvaro and I for the last time descended the black shaft. Well watched we each the other. He had both dagger and arquebus, and I my hand petronel and dagger too. N'buqu came not down with us, feigning that he must prepare all things that we might flee as soon as we had loaded our pouches for the last time. . . . There he left us in the black shaft my life-long comrade and I; and by reason of the lust of wealth that came upon me and because of the fear of that which I saw in Alvaro's eye I struck him unawares as he knelt for the last gem. Deep behind the neck my dagger drank his blood. His vest of mail did not save him from me! ... And turning to flee hastily with all the stones, I found the ladder drawn up and N'buqu laughing at me from above. "'Ho! ho! white man, white wizard!' he called. 'Ye who would show me the wondrous things of thine own land. How fares it with ye now? Surely thou hast enough of the bright stones now thy dead comrade's share and all he had taken; thou hast them all! Handle them, gaze on them, eat of them, drink of them; for of a surety naught else will there be for thee to eat and drink! Ho! ho! surely the black man's magic is vain against the wisdom of the white!'
"And thus he taunted me, whilst vainly I strove by means of my dagger to cut footholds in the slimy walls of the shaft and thus climb to freedom. But the holes crumbled as soon as my weight bore on them, and after falling again and again I desisted in despair. . . . And ever the yellow fiend above taunted me, and it was abundantly clear that he had but feigned to fall in with our scheme the more fully to encompass our destruction. . . . Dawn found me raving in terror of my coming fate alone with the bodies of the friend whom I had slain and the shipman who had been by him slain. Terror had helped to parch my tongue with thirst, and both shaft and cavern, though moist, were drained too dry to afford one mouthful of the precious fluid. Yet though longing for water I knew well that when N'buqu should choose again to direct the stream I should drown like any rat. The day passed. I heard the frightened mutterings of the dwarf men as they crowded round the mouth of the shaft seeking the black water that had vanished; but at my first hoarse shout they fled, yelling in alarm. Day turned to night, and I had become as one dead. The ghosts of dead Alvaro and Mendez and a thousand others crowded round me, gibing, and mouthing, and seeking too for the black water. Again day, and again night came and went. Still the water I longed for and yet feared came not. I suffered the tortures of the damned, and fain would I have scattered my throbbing brains with that last charge of my hand petronel; but ever as I raised it dead Alvaro caught my hand in an icy grip and I could not die. . . .
"Then again I heard N'buqu, and with him certain men of the dwarfs he ruled. And in their whistling, creaking tongue I heard him hold forth: 'Lo! ye who doubted me, thus do I show my power. These other white gods that came from afar, ye thought them stronger than I, yet have I caused their utter destruction. But because of the little faith ye had in me, and as a sign of my power and displeasure, have I also caused the spirits that dwell in the black pool to take away the water that is life to ye all!'
"Then I heard them moaning and begging for the water, and the voice of the witch-doctor ordering them to lie flat on their faces and look not up whilst he forced the spirits to bring back that which they had taken. Then he called to me in my own tongue loudly: 'Ho! thou white god! eat thou thy fill of the bright stones; of water thou shalt soon drink plenty!' And I knew that he would soon move that rock whereby the water could be diverted back to the pit. But even as he gibed at me, leaning over the brink, dead Alvaro's ice-cold hand guided my petronel till it covered the black fiend's body, and the iron ball struck full and true below his throat. Down at my feet hurtled the body, and at the report I could hear the dwarfs shriek and fly away from the spot in fear.
"Not dead, but dying was he, for his magic was naught against the weapons of the white man. Yet magic had he, and as he died so did he curse me and cast over me a spell of terror: 'Thou shalt guard well thy bright stones, oh, slayer of thy friend!' he shrieked. 'Water shalt thou have, and yet shall never quench thine awful thirst; hunger shall consume thee and thou shalt not eat; thou shalt long for death, yet shalt thou not die!' And cursing thus he died; and his ghost joined the band of weird watchers in the cavern of bright stones. . . .
"And the tribe of dwarfs one by one died of thirst, for it was a year of fearful heat, and they knew of no other water. Day by day they came shrieking and praying to the spirits of the black shaft to give them back the water. Day by day they flung living men into the pit as sacrifice to join the spirits below, till all, all were dead. Yet could I not die! . . .
"Over their bleached bones the black water again runs. Below, guarded by the dread watchers, lie the bright stones. Seek not the spot, ye white men who speak the old tongue, lest ye too watch for ever; for the place is accursed! . . ."
The strange narration ended as it began, not abruptly, but in indistinct mutterings.
Half fascinated, Jason and I had followed every word of the strange archaic Portuguese. The rhythmic sentences seemed to have had an almost hypnotic effect upon us, for neither of us afterwards remembered how and when we fell asleep.
I was awakened by Karelse shaking me. It was just break of day. I felt heavy, sleepy, and confused, and for a moment remembered nothing.
"Coffee, baas," said the Hottentot; and as I sipped it I remembered. I looked round. Jason was sleeping like a log. Our strange visitor had gone. "Where is the other baas?" I inquired of Karelse. He stared at me, and then looked over at Jason. "No, no," I said impatiently, "the old baas that came in the night?" Karelse's face was a study. He had evidently seen no one, though the boy's fire had been not twenty yards from our own. Had I dreamt the whole thing? I strode over and roused Jason. He woke with a startled exclamation. His first words assured me the old man had been there. "Damn that mad chap," he said. "His horrible old yarn made me dream badly. Where is he?" Karelse stared from one to the other, his yellow face a queer ashen grey. He was plainly frightened. "Come," said I to Jason, "let us go and have a sluice: there is water in plenty." I led the way to the pool. It had been too dark for us to see it properly when we had arrived the evening before. We bent over the dark, clear water. Sheer and black the pit went down, and it was plainly of great depth. And from the brink the granite kopje rose abruptly. Jason and I looked at each other, then at Karelse.
"Karelse," I asked, "have you ever been here before?"
"No, baas," he faltered; "there is always plenty of good water here, they say, but the place has a bad name and no one comes here. They say it is haunted."
"What do they call the place?" I asked.
"Dood Drenk," he said "the Drink of the Dead!"
THE WATERS OF ERONGO
North-East of Swakopmund, and somewhere where the line that runs the copper ore down from Otari has a station called Omaruru, there stands a mass of huge table-topped mountains. At the time of which I write they were known as the Erongos, so named after a famous chief of the Gainin Bushmen, who had made something of a stand there against the invading Damaras that eventually "ate up" both him and his tribe.
Even in that land, where most mountains are table-topped, and where the flat plateau above and the plain beneath represent geological epochs that are divided by aeons of years, these Erongo Mountains are remarkable; for they have never been climbed. From their base thick vegetation can be seen crowning the inaccessible summit, and in several places water flows in gushing cataracts down the steep cliffs that frown upon the plain on every side.
This mountain had always had a great fascination for me; and once or twice, in the old days, before the railway came, and when we used to water our transport animals at these same streams, I attempted to climb its steep sides, full of curiosity to see what the top might be like.
But I never got within a thousand feet of it, for the crowning bastions are almost sheer, and would need a better cragsman than myself to negotiate.
Isolated, and rising straight from the plain to a height of about 3,000 feet, it formed a prominent landmark for those few traders or prospectors who, in the old days, returned from their trips to the north to Walfisch Bay by this route; and I was glad indeed to see its huge bulk towering up one day more years ago than I care to remember when trekking in from a long expedition in the Kaokoveld for it meant that my long journey was nearly finished.
With my wagon I had as cook and roust-about an old Englishman named Jim Blake, who had ran away from his ship at Walfisch Bay many years before, and who had traversed the country in all directions, since then, as few men had. In spite of the many years he had spent there, and the fact that he spoke many of the native dialects well, his Cockney accent was as pronounced as ever it could have been when he first shipped at Limehouse; and he had, apparently, a wholesale contempt for everything, and everybody, but himself.
As his employer, he tolerated me, and as he was invaluable in many ways, I tolerated him in return, but he had one habit that always annoyed me immensely. In season and out of season he would say: "Yer don't know heverythink if yer thinks yer does!"; and I could never break him of it.
Well, the evening that I speak of, we outspanned under the cliffs of Erongo, and the oxen drank deep.
We had had a very successful trip, and I felt at peace with all mankind, as I sat smoking, and watching the setting sun turn the tall rocks from gold to crimson, and thence through a whole gamut of purples, violets and mauves to the cold grey of twilight.
"Pritty, 'aint it?" said a voice at my elbow. It was old Blake. His mahogany face shone with the effects of the first soap and water he had been able to use for weeks, for we had been very short of water; and even his arms showed the tattoo-marks that were usually hidden by the grime inseparable to life in the desert.
"Yes," I answered, "it's beautiful, the most beautiful mountain I know in Africa. I wonder what's on top? I've had a go at climbing it myself several times but, of course, it can't be done. The Bushmen couldn't, Erongo himself only had his werf half-way up when he fought the Damaras. No one has ever climbed it!"
"You don't know heverythink if yer thinks yer does," sniffed old Jim; "you're wrong. I've bin up it meself!"
"Rubbish, Jim!" I said; "don't talk rot. How far have you been up, anyway? As far as the bottom of the big fall, I suppose?"
"To the top and all over it," said old Jim. "Oh, I knows yer don't believe. But it's gospel. You don't know heverythink!"
"No, that's true, Jim," said I meekly, for I wanted his yarn. "I know you sailormen can climb better than I ever shall but how did you do it? Ropes? Ladders? . . . How?"
"No," he answered slowly, turning his quid in his cheek, and spitting with great precision at a blue-headed lizard that had emerged from a crack in the rock and sat eyeing us. "Got yer!" he went on as the small reptile retired in considerable discomfiture.
"No, neether ladders nor ropes. If yer reely wants ter know, I were carried up!"
"Oh, you can chuckle, but so it were! Twenty year or more agone I came here fust. There was four of us white men; me as cook, two prospectors, and the perfesser.
"He was a queer bloke, that perfesser, clever, too, but bless yer he didn't know heverythink! I'd bin with him a long time, and he used ter tell me more'n he tole the other fellers . . . a clever sort of chap . . . but he didn't know heverythink. And he 'ad one great pecooliarity: he was everlastingly afeard of getting old! He must ha' bin well over fifty, but he used ter get himself up outrageous young: and when I docked his shavingwater he cussed most wonderful!
"'Cleanliness, and stric' observance of rules of life that is the only way ter keep young, Blake,' he would say ter me.
"Well, in them days, bein' young, I didn't see much in what he said, and if I got a wash once a month I was werry well satisfied; and arter a while this 'ere washing business of his got on my nerves. 'Cause, as yer know, when water's been used fer a bath, yer can't werry well use it fer anything but washing up, or biling pertaters, or sich like, and he was the wastefullest man I ever had to cook for. Well, we comes up here on our way to the Koaka Velt on some kind of scientific trip er other I dunno, and it didn't matter as long as I was paid and the two prospectors they brings in gold, and tin, and copper, and all sorts of muck, and the perfesser was busy 'blow-piping' and 'classifying' and what not, and every day he gets more 'centrick. Then he gets sick only a bit of fever, but it laid him out bad for a time: and he couldn't shave, and he couldn't bath, and that hurt him wuss'n the fever. We was here, then; jist in this same camp. And when he got well enough to talk again I took him his cawfee one morning, and sees him a-looking at himself in a little glass: and he looked fair frightened! He'd got a week's bristles on, and they was grey, o' course he weren't no chicken, anyway! And he says to me pitiful like 'Blake, I surely don't look as old as all that?'
"'You've bin ill, perfesser,' I says, 'and it don't make a man look younger. You'll be all right when you've had a bath there's plenty o' water now.'
"Well, I could see 'e weren't satisfied, because he gives a bit of a groan, and looks at hisself in the glass agin. But a day or two arterwards he was well enough to get up, and when he sees Erongo for the fust time, with the water a-pouring down that big fall, he brightens up at once.
"'Just the very place the very place. Who knows but it may be true? Never to be old! . . . Never to be old!' I hears him a-saying, over and over again; but nat'rally, I on'y thought he was a bit off his napper, same as half these 'ere perfessers is, wot think they know heverythink! Anyhow, as soon as ever he was able, oft he goes and bathes in the stream, farther up, a goodish way from the camp, and a power o' good it seemed to do him, for he comes back a-looking ten years younger. Next day he sends the two prospectors out fer a long trip and then he calls me.
"'Jim,' says he, ''ow do you think I look?'
"'Look?' I says for I was fair mazed at the look of him, 'why ten years younger than ever I seed yer!'
"'Just so,' says 'e. . . . 'It's true then!'
"'Wot's true,' I says.
"'The water of life,' says he; 'I have searched for it fer years!'
"'Take some quinine,' says I, 'and back yer goes to bed,' for I'd seen fever patients that way afore.
"'You don't know heverythink, Blake,' he says he 'ad a nasty way o' using that there expression; 'it isn't fever it's joy. For if the stream below has such an effect, wot will the source be like?'
"Well, it wasn't much good taking notice of what he said, but anyhow, next day 'e'd gone!
"The boys said he'd gone upstream towards the big fall, and arter a while I follered him. As you know, that there waterfall takes a lot of reaching, but I gets there at last, and there he was a-sitting in the stream. Lord, I 'ardly knew 'im, he looked so young and vigorous, and full o' life. He wanted me to bathe, but I'd had a wash on'y a day or two before, and I wouldn't. But, my word, he seemed to keep getting younger; and as fer strength, why on our way back he jumped over rocks like a klipbok I never seen the like! Next mornin' he'd gone agin, and this time he stays away fer two days, and I gets scared. The prospectors was away, and there was on'y me and the boys and I couldn't get 'em to go far up Erongo, for they said it was full of devils. P'raps they was right them there boys knows a lot though they don't know heverythink! Third day I gets up early and goes right up the side o' the stream, till I gets to the waterfall, but no sign did I find. And I sits there a-pondering, till all of a sudden I 'ears a voice a- calling 'Jim!'
"I turns round, and there 'e was at least I s'posed it was him! He hadn't a stitch o' clothes on, and his skin shone like a babby's. Look young? Why the only thing I knew about 'im was his voice! And he came a-bounding over the rocks as if he was made of injy-rubber. And his face was all a-shinin' it made me think o' pictures o' hangels to see him.
"'Jim! Jim!' he sings out; half a-laughing and 'alf sobbing, 'it's true! it's true! look at me I'm young agin! I'm immortal!'
"'You're naked,' I says, 'and you ought to know better at your time o' life and in this 'ere 'ot sun too!'
"He laughs like a madman.
"'Ye old fool,' he says (nice it was, and on'y yesterday he'd bin a lot older than me!). 'Don't you see it's true? I've been to the top, man, and bathed in the source there, and I'm immortal!'
"'You're barmy,' I says, though I was a bit scared, for never have I seen such a difference!
"'Come with me to the top and bathe,' says he, 'and see fer yerself!'
"'Who's to take me?' I says. 'I ain't a bird!'
"'I will!' he shouts; and before you could 'a' said 'Jack Robinson,' he grabs 'old of me in a clove hitch!
"I was strong and a bit useful in them days, but I was like a babby in the arms of a giant, and he tucked me under one arm and 'eld me like a parcel. And then well! I know yer don't believe it, but yer don't know he very think. He jist went up the side of that there cliff like a klip-springer, catching on to little points of rock, and a-springing from place to place, as if I didn't weigh more'n a feather; with me under his arm a-hollering blue murder, and a-lookin' down sick and dizzy, and a-praying for him not to let me fall! Right up that there cliff as you can see from here we went, and almost afore I knew what had happened, I was on top. There was thick grass, and bush, and flowers, and tall trees and fruit I'd never seen afore, and butterflies everywhere, and he sat me down jist close to the brink, and there I sat a-gasping. And then he laughed and what a laugh it was jist like a trumpet ringing out, and he says again: 'Come and bathe, man, and be immortal, like me!'
"And then he hustles me off into the wood, flustered and frightened, and a wondering when I should get down to terra-cotta agin. That there mountain ain't flat on top, its cup-shaped, and it's only the rim you can see from here; and there's trees and water everywhere, and birds a- singing, and flowers a-blooming and butterflies a-flitting, and if there'd o'ny bin a nice little pub up there, like wot I knows of there at 'ome in Lime'ouse, it would 'a' bin Parrydise and I'd 'a' stayed. We sees no animals and no snakes, and we goes along the banks of the stream, and at last we conies to a deep pool that bubbled and fizzed up like soda water, all over.
"'The Source!' he says; 'the Source!' an' you could ha' 'eard 'is voice a mile off; 'the Water of Life! I bathed here this morning look at me! Come, bathe, old fool, and be young, and a companion fer me, and we'll stay here fer ever!'
"'Course, I knew he must be barmy though 'ow he got me up that cliff certainly is a mystery! Any'ow, I thought I'd better 'umour 'im a bit. So I starts to undress; and then I pauses.
"'Any beer here?' I asks.
"'Beer, what do you want vile beer for, when there's necktie fit fer the gords to drink?' says 'e.
"'Baccy?' I asks agin knowin' he 'ated it.
"'Phaw,' he says, 'your filthy smoke what need is there of it?'
"'Wimmen!' I says, thinkin' that would be a clincher fer him.
"'Yes,' he shouts; 'beautiful nymphs, spirits as immortal as myself!'
"'I don't see 'em!' says I.
"'They are in the water,' says he; 'beautiful water nymphs and wood nymphs lurks there among the trees! Bathe, fool, and your eyes will be opened!'
"That settled it. I'd got an argyment fer 'im now.
"'Not me,' I says, putting my shirt on agin. 'No beer; no baccy; no wimmen but a lot o' shameless huzzies a-hiding and a-waiting to watch a feller bathe! Not me. I go back besides, I 'ad a bath on'y a few days ago.'
"Well, 'e was that wild I thought 'e'd chuck me in, but I 'umored and coaxed 'im for I had to get 'im to take me down again; and at last 'e did. How he did it I don't know, for when he took me up, like a kid, I shut me eyes, and never opened 'em agin till he put me down at the foot of the waterfall.
"'Good-bye, fool,' he said; 'some day you'll be sorry!'
"Well, we never seen 'im agin, and when I told the prospectors wot I'd seen, they told me to put more water in my grog. And at last the whole outfit went back and reported the perfesser lost or dead.
"But I knows better: he's up there yet! Look! see that smoke on the top? Well, who's a-goin' to make a fire on Erongo if it ain't 'im? You don't know heverythink, if yer thinks yer does."
Printed in Great Britain by Wyman & Sons Ltd., London and Reading