We were going with a donkey-wagon, he and I, the wagon wherein she, my other friend, was riding. He had been in the Civil Service, and suffered much from fever; yet he was leaving the Service for other reasons as well as that particular one. He was traveling cross-country to his exit station, prolonging thus his pangs of farewell; he was making himself useful by escorting her on her desolate road. Moreover, I was making myself courteous by adding my own escort. I was under no delusion as to my being useful.
The donkeys were none too fat; they looked as if they had not been used well, and were far on in life. With their driver I differed as to beating them, but I will allow that they were dear to him on the whole, and that he made progress in by no means easy places. Indeed the road had been against us for many days before the day on which I left the wagon; and I as wagon conductor was to blame for the choice of it. I should have yielded myself patiently to go the mighty round that the main roads went. I had come almost due east at a venture, and when I had lost my first stake by being disappointed of the by-road I sought, I went on gambler-fashion. I had seen already how the wagon stuck in a big river's sand-bed. How many times we had dug out, how the whip and the driver's voice had plied, how we had filled up the ruts with sods and grass-tufts, striving to gain purchase for the wheels! And yet I was obstinately sanguine when I heard a tale of an ancient trading road. It would be wondrously direct, if one could win through by it. So along it, by my own decision, we went. That first night that we turned off by it, we stuck long in the waning light, trying to pull through a neck in the hills. It was grievously cumbered with boulders, and we were long in trying. Yet at last the driver rallied his team, and we slept on the right side of the pass, clear of the granite, ready for an early inspan next day. Then on the morrow we but crawled along, till at last we stuck fast in a spruit's spongy floor. That time we were not to pull out before we slept. Darkness drew in on the struggles of the dead-beat donkeys. We outspanned and went on with the struggle soon after sunrise, putting shoulders to wheels in wild earnest. At last we were through, but we had been delayed far into another day. That noon and afternoon the disused road traveled through bush-veld. It had been ridden over so little in the last few years, that there was much wood-cutting now to be done.
Our voorlooper was no scraggy piccanin, he was brawny and bearded, an expert Mashona woodman. Now the woods bowed beneath his sturdy stroke. But his labors took time. One shrank in shame from the reckoning of miles covered on those days. Sunday came to our rescue, and we lay encamped in the granite-country, very grateful for our rest. On the Monday, its results showed. We trekked gallantly for hours and hours, we pulled out of a swamp at the first attempt; we even essayed a dreaded ford before we outspanned. But we did not win our stake. Not till we had knocked under, and outspanned once more did we struggle through. The lady of the wagon waded barefoot to lighten it, she even helped to coax a wheel up the further bank. At last we were saved from relapse. But that night our travelers' joy flickered and faded. We stuck grimly at a crossing; stuck at a mean little stream; there we found odds against us, both rocks and also deep mire. So we camped, leaving our wagon jammed in the stream's bed.
Now I would tell you about that night and the next morning. We got the lady's mattress out of the wagon. She could not well sleep on it, where it was. There were many midges and mosquitoes about then, for March was the time of the year; so we made her bed on some high ground, close but not too close to our camp-fire. After supper we sat about the fire long, the branch-heaped blaze was comfortable after our chilly paddling. The wisdom or folly that we puffed and inhaled and toasted and sucked and munched over the fire is the making of my story. It is its best excuse for a yawning lack of plot.
Delia Moore, lady mission-worker, roasted monkey-nuts for us. When they were at last ready, we all three munched at them. But meanwhile Richard Anson and I smoked Shangaan tobacco, and Miss Moore ate sweets out of a screw-topped bottle.
Anson spoke about the charms of Mashonaland. He had been quartered in many parts of her those last ten years; his admiration had been consistent, it had also stood the test of her feverish dealings with him. He said that she was the only country worth inhabiting in a cursed world, that she was God's own country. Then I fanned his flame with my own home-sick talk. The wind was blowing chillily north-westward that night on the other side of our ant-hill shelter. A kindred wind was blowing just as steadfastly in my own soul. I had had my contrarieties lately, both of hard times and pastoral reverses; but, and that seemed to matter more, I was beginning to feel my age, its untimely growth as my work grew. Had I not done my share by now? I painted scenes in south-eastern England for my private view frequently now, scenes in cool greens and sober blues and restful grey scenes of weald and down-land, of hop-garden and country rectory. Over this last my fancy played and kindled ruddily in tiles and roses.
When I found words for these scenes they proved so many battlefields, for Dick gave battle to my panegyrics impartially, as I filed them up before him. He seemed to be very hard hit that night, savagely bludgeoned by his doom of banishment. He said that he hoped to come back someday. Anyhow, he said, would I try to remember that he had chosen his burial-place a place where two rivers commingled some two hundred miles north of where we were camping? I promised to try. It seemed to me a pity that we Could not interchange health and abiding-places he so ague-wrung, so plainly doomed to go, yet withal so keen to stay. I, on the other hand, full of home lust, England-amorous, yet so robust, so lacking in any decent excuse to give over my job and go in that green old age of mine. Then, at last, Delia Moore chimed or rather clashed in, when she had roasted her monkey-nuts and found a dish for them. She said that we were both wrong, we were both so clearly called to do just what we were doing, he to go his way, and I to stay on. But, contended she, her own move was a more than doubtful one; she had been made into a rolling stone, against her own judgment, by church despotism; the odds were against her gathering moss to any reasonable extent. 'O,' she appealed to me, 'look after my west-country work, whatever else you do. My going east bids you in honor to stay.' I allowed her plea with a nod. It was not till some while afterwards that I propounded Africa's apology, as I had guessed it. Dick had been talking, rather bitterly as well as floridly, about sighting the cold Northern Star and losing the Southern Cross. I lay back and gloated over the starry picture overhead through a crisscross picture-mount of ragged grass. I left the confutation of the scoffer to Miss Moore. There was an edge on many of her remarks that night, and I could trust her to deal with him. But what she said I have forgotten. Only I remember that he gave her best at last. Then, and not till then, I broke silence, submitting subjects for inquiry.
'Are not countries and subcontinents like men born under stars What star was South Africa herself born under? Not the Lyre surely, her poetry is comparatively so negligible. Not the Plough, nor yet Aquarius, for she is not blest with overmuch irrigation, nor brilliant at agriculture. Neither was it the Northern Star surely; constancy does not easily beset her. No, it was the Southern Cross. Take the cross as a symbol inclusive of more than Christian symbolism. Take it as a symbol signifying peine forte et dure. Is it not peculiarly characteristic of Africa to deal with us as she is doing? Does she not truly follow her star in banishing you, and shifting you, and detaining me'?
'That's all very well,' said Dick truculently, 'but I want to know what WE are going to do. Are we going to take it lying down?'
I sniffed. 'I suppose we had better,' I said. 'And if we want a decent handbook of procedure I am told that the Imitatio Christi is excellent.'
'Promise me you'll not leave the Station, so help you, at least not till I come back.' Miss Moore plunged for a particular shallow just when I was floating in gay generalities.
'Let me have till to-morrow,' I asked. Then I spoke in Africa's defense, setting out her case as well as I could. 'She's emphatically a feminine continent,' I said. 'I learned only the other day from a modern novelist that a woman's possibly at the height of her power with a man, just when her contact with him is but one of hope and memory. Surely that is true enough of some women and some men. Isn't Africa one of such women, and Dick one of such men? She knows her own business, and sends him to a distance, bidding him consecrate "a night of memories and sighs" to her. It's a doom that tends to bitterness on his part now. But trust him by and by to taste the bitter-sweet of it. It's the same sort of thing that I wrote raw verses about after I left Oxford behind: "Not until you go from her will she come to you" you know the sort of thing.'
Dick grunted. Miss Moore complimented me on my preaching. My lucidities, I feared, were missing fire.
A donkey saved the situation, one of the two that were not harnessed up for the night, there being no trek-gear for them. With a grassy mouth he was chewing at Miss Moore's pillow-slip. After many and shrill cries, it was rescued, but not before it had taken stains of a deep green color. After such a misfortune had been properly keened for, we sat down by the fire again.
'Go on,' Dick said. 'Let's have your peroration.'
'Well, as to Miss Moore Africa has shaken her up by shifting her, and by giving her a lesson in local values, just as the donkey has done about linen or calico, I forget which.'
That started the keening again.
'O,' said the mourner, 'my poor pillow-slip! But I'd give it by the dozen to get back just to the one place the same old Mission. You will promise to stop there till I come back, at any rate?'
Worn out by continual dropping-fire, I promised, starry Heaven being my helper. 'Let's go to bed after that,' I pleaded. 'I've soared in an airy disquisition and I've come to earth in a gross sort of pledge.'
'No, you're to go on,' Dick told me.
'What about yourself?'
'O, I'm led out on a string. I'm given trotting exercise by Africa within her own confines. I'm kept hanging about on her veld, while she delays my donkeys. Meanwhile she shows me out-of-the-way holes and corners where there's nobody to do the work she wants done. She appeals to my shame and pity, she has made a study of weak spots of mine. Has she not method? I meant to leave the wagon last week, but I'm lucky if I get off tomorrow. What with bad roads, spongy crossings, and indifferent donkeys, she's landed me in a pledge to-night a pledge to keep me hanging on. I'm in honor bound now to try to turn her night into day, just like a cock in one of her kraals. While all the time I want to be flitting North like one of her swallows this month of all months in the year.'
In the morning I renewed my pledge at a rock's altar a rock that lichen had stained bright orange. I professed resignation, as did the other two beside me. Then after breakfast, we shook hands. I gave Dick a motto about Africa:
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, For 'ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
I gave Delia a prayer to say for her westward return. 'Turn our captivity ... as the rivers in the south.' Then I knelt by the grey flat stone and prayed audibly, 'Give me a blessing; for Thou hast given me a south land; give me also springs of water.'
Soon I was striding away. There was little time to reach home by the hour when home wanted me. Pity and shame, pity pointing east and west, while shame spurns and aspires these two beams seem to make up my own Cyrenian's burden the burden of the Southern Cross for me. On the other hand, regret and adoration seem to supply the same office for Dick, if I may judge by his letters. As for Miss Moore, by far the most deserving of us three admittedly, doubtless her faith is firmly rooted wherever she is, and her sympathy spreads east or west, whichever way her duty calls her. Nevertheless she would be still glad should the Voice call and the Wind blow westward again, at least that is my own conviction. In our several ways we three are devoted to Africa: one way or another the Southern Cross is the constellation ascendant in each of our three careers.
OUR LADY OF THE LAKE
We had been dining on the bridge of H.M.S. Kampala the captain, the two ship's officers, the gunnery lieutenant and he who writes this story. We had come in as it grew dark that August evening, and anchored some few miles out from the German's great place. For that great place a big gun, rumored or real, commanded respect.
I suppose our main object on that patrol trip of ours was the stopping of rice-running, the preservation of our lake blockade. We had had some firing a few days ago at presumptive stores, also at a dhow and lighter dimly descried (they were in the papyrus-fringed labyrinth of a boat-passage). But of late we had been lying up for the most part off a lonely island. Perhaps they would think we were out of the way, perhaps not. We should see what we should see.' I suppose that the gunnery lieutenant was almost as sanguine of adventure as I was of humdrum peace in this after-dinner hour on the darkened bridge. Adventure, or at least what seemed to be its promising prelude arrived quite suddenly.
There was a sudden announcement to our captain about a light being seen, a brief one-sided discussion, the whistle blowing for 'Stations,' the rattle of arms as the Indian ship's-guard fell in. These all affected me with strange twinges of futile protest. Surely there was a time for all things, and this was the time for coffee and tobacco, not for disconcerting risks and detestable noises. I wanted never to hear our four-inch gun again by day. The idea of its shaking the peace of night to bits was preposterous. Yet a light was reported ahead, a moving light on the lake itself. 'You haven't much time, Craig,' I heard the lieutenant cry to our captain. The engine-room bells rang ominously, there was much puffing and spouting, then we were off. I stole into a safe sort of corner, as corners went, by the doctor's cabin. I edged out of the way of the Indian riflemen who were sorting themselves, making ready for action. We were running along somewhither. I didn't know much about our bearings, but I had misgivings as to whether that big gun of the Germans was not getting nearer. 'I've been thinking it may be a lure to draw us on,' hazarded the Eurasian doctor by and by. That was just what I'd been thinking. I was glad when the tension ceased suddenly, not so many minutes after it had started. The light had vanished; we were out of the hunt somehow it seemed; our captain meant to wait till morning, then possibly he would show us a thing. Meanwhile there were some hours to morning. We had had no night-firing after all. Nor did there seem to be much prospect of any. One might as well go to bed in the dark without delay.
Morning came and we hunted around, but drew blank. Then we started away to look for a supposed dhow in likely covers of creeks or inlets, but we drew these blank also. What was the vanished light? That of the resurrected German steam-tug? Possibly. Possibly it was not that of a dhow after all. Anyhow it was gone out of our ken. 'There's dirty work in there of night, Craig,' the gunnery-lieutenant had said with a stern eye on that German harbor. He spoke as a partisan. Was it such very dirty work if they did run a little food across to feed their own people? Anyhow their dirty work, whatever it was, had seemingly baffled our immaculate patrol under our white ensign, for that time at any rate.
I don't think there is anything strange about this story as it stands up to this point, do you? There may have been a dhow ahead of us that night in August, and it may have been its light that our watchman spied. Also it may have put out its light all of a sudden, and so we may have lost it in the darkness. That simple explanation sounds probable enough, doesn't it, when you come to think of it?
Nevertheless in the following week, a more romantic explanation was tendered to me it concerned a gramophone.
'That was the last tune before the light was seen,' a bluejacket told me solemnly. 'It's a good tune, you perhaps know it, sir, "Ave Maris Stella"'? We had fraternized over recollections of Hastings, that was his birth-place. I told him how I had been into his church there, which was not mine, Saint Mary's, Star of the Sea. I recalled the blue-circled chancel and its glittering stars with admiration. Now he was confidential about what had happened a few nights before. He seemed to regard the putting-on of that particular gramophone record at that particular moment as significant. I was sympathetic, but I only grasped his point vaguely. 'You mean,' I said. 'I mean that She may have meant it,' he said rather confusedly. 'She may have meant us luck. If we'd only gone in straight where Her light showed, we might have found our luck.' 'You mean we might have captured Muanza, I suppose,' I said rather skeptically. 'Well, we might have killed a lot of Germans, sir, and done a lot of good. But our captain's too cautious altogether.'
'It's possible,' I said. 'She may have meant to give us the tip,' he went on. 'I don't think it's likely, but you may be right,' I said with some detachment. The notion of Our Lady illuminating the lake that she might give us the tip to kill Germans was not so very convincing. I'm afraid I choked off the surmiser a bit with my Tolstoyite incredulity. He drew in his horns there and then; he confided none of his views to me again on similar subjects. He was to die at sea a year or so after. They had got him on to a ship from an island hospital, but he never reached the South African port they had shipped him for. I am glad now to think of his faith in Our Lady, Our Lady good at need.
It was before he went down to the coast, that we advanced and took a great island renowned for its rice commerce. Then the day came only a month or so after that our troops marched into Muanza. The main body of its German defenders had steamed away down that land-locked sound of theirs a little while before. We had not stormed the place from the lake after all, we had arrived by a back-door road among the kopjes. Yet there we were at last. It seemed curious to be in the place that I had peered at apprehensively on patrol. How mysterious its lights and its harbor had looked from a darkened bridge or a deck of old. Now I went to and fro in the glaring Boma square, climbed the road among the rocks to the Fort Hospital with the tower and its dummy guns, patrolled the palm-tree promenade where no band played, but lake-water provided placid music much more to my taste than that of drums and brass.
It was in the church above the bay, the church of the White Fathers, that I came upon my sequel, or at least what looks like the earthly sequel of my story. Afterwards, of course, I may hear much more. The White Father I had gone to see, took me into the church one morning and showed me Our Lady's altar. Over it was an altar-piece of familiar design I think it represented Our Lady of Good Counsel, but I am not sure. In front votive candles blazed, in very creditable profusion for those hard times surely. A silver star with about two-inch points caught my eye. There were other stars hung there too, much less conspicuous ones. There were also two or three little models of dhows or boats set on a ledge before that altar. I pointed to the silver star, and my guide answered my mute question: 'A gift to Our Lady, Star of this lake and these lake-shores,' he said. 'It was one night in August of last year that it happened, the miracle or whatever you wish to call it.' 'Did Our Lady appear on the lake?' I asked keenly, for memories began to stir in me. 'No, not quite that,' said the White Father. He had a brown beard, and a very white face, and he spoke clear-cut English. 'There was a light seen over the water.' Then it was that the surmise about the gramophone recurred to me. 'Do you really think,' I asked, 'that there was a light to be seen? If so, what was there strange about it?' 'Well, it was a miracle of sorts,' he said. 'I didn't believe about it at first, for I didn't see reason for it. They said it was a light given to lure the English within range. That was the talk of some of our Catholics in the town, but it wasn't good talk. I argued against it.' He paused. Then I told him, smilingly, the story of the gramophone. 'It's a parallel story,' I said. 'Our Lady was indeed divided against herself that night in her clients' estimation.' 'It shows the absurdity of war between Catholics,' he murmured. 'Yes, of war between so-called Christian nations,' I agreed. In an impulse I shook his hand. 'But there was a light,' I said: 'I saw it.' 'So did I,' he said. 'Was it the light of a dhow?' I wondered. 'No,' he said, surprisingly, 'the dhow was on the other side of your ship.' He pointed to the votive star. 'That star commemorates this sight of a light, or rather of a star,' he said. 'I veritably believe that the star light was Our Lady of the Lake's work. Yet she did not in the least mean to show the English where to land and slaughter us, nor on the other hand to lure them on to a fiery doom. Our Lady wants the salvage of men's lives not their destruction. Guess what happened that night.'
I was puzzled. I took the star into my hand and looked it over. It only had 'Muanza' graved upon it, 'Muanza' and the date of that August evening. No, I gave it up. So he told me his version of events. 'There was a dhow beating round the corner of an island. The Goanese skipper had no idea that you were there. It was a near thing. He was lucky, wasn't he, that the alarm of the light seen by your watch came just then? He was running almost straight for your war-ship. But you started off on a course that took you far out of his way, started off on a light's chase or rather a star's chase. He is a very pious man, that Goanese skipper; he was here for two Masses this morning. He has a great devotion to Our Lady, as I believe, and he knows how to pray. He vowed a silver star to Our Lady Our Lady of the Lake, if she would but bring him through with his ship safe. He made a fair voyage after all. But he thanked the star that led you off from him for it, say rather Her who kindled that star. He is a man of prayer, the sort of prayer that invites miracles.' I was very silent. I knelt before the statue a little. Then I said 'Good-bye.' When I had said it I looked at two of the stars (that were not silver) curiously. Were they not Belgian officers' stars, and were they not likely to have a tragical history? 'Ask the silver star-man, please,' I said, 'to pray for God's miracle of peace. It does seem to me as if his prayers might do a lot of good. I'd give Our Lady of the Lake a whole Southern-Crossful of stars should peace come before the year's out.' Did he forget to ask that star-man for his prayers?
[AFRICA AND HER GODMOTHER.]
With shoes of crystal peace and glee Christmas his clients proves: They're misfits for those masters pale And their white lady-loves; But O they fit black boys and girls Who clean their knives and stoves!
I slipt from out the white men's church, The northern chants rang cold, And with the preacher's war-time words My heart it would not hold, Gay hymns and I alike had grown In exile grave and old.
I said 'I'll wander from the town This cheerless Christmas Day.' A church stood up beside my road, And I turn'd in to pray. Buff-brick its walls were, and its roof Of ridg'd unlovely grey.
I enter'd in, and joy was there The Mass had just begun. They filled the place from screen to door The children of the sun. Me seem'd that southern sun was glass'd In eyes of ev'ryone.
The server-men had lawn and lace And crimson pageantry, And boys were in their best, and girls Wore kerchiefs bright to see. Me seem'd those bare brown feet were shod With crystal peace and glee.
The incense-smoke it skein 'd and spir'd, The vowell'd hymns rang clear, A shrill bell rung by a brown hand Said Christ was very near. Me seem'd a sun-tann'd Angel stoopt And caroll'd in mine ear.
I Bless God for this our Christmas Ball About our Christmas Board! Our Church that faery Godmother Her child hath not ignor'd, And Africa, with heart in sky, Is dancing to the Lord.
The Old World's and the New World's drudge Whom few would praise before Now from the kitchen hath been claim 'd, The stable and the store, Christ claims her heart to dance with his Where Europe's danced of yore.'
With shoes of crystal peace and glee Christmas his clients proves: They're misfits for those masters pale And their white lady-loves; But O they fit black boys and girls Who clean their knives and stoves!