To his relief. Venning dropped off once more into a deep slumber, and he bent forward, alert in every fibre. He was not mistaken. There was a light over in the dark, not a light that sparkled, but a greenish glow, not unlike the eye of an animal as seen at night in the reflection of a bull's-eye lantern. It moved, too, like the eye of an animal, and presently other lights gathered around and at the back, giving off no radiance, not bright enough to throw up into relief the objects that produced them, but watchful, like the eyes of a pack of wild-dogs regarding their prey. The Hunter tried an experiment. Feeling for his great knife, he struck a stone, and watched to see if there was any movement of surprise which would indicate that there were living creatures aware of his presence. There was no such movement. Like bits of dull green glass with a light behind, these mysterious points remained as they had been, moving gently as if to the action of respiration. He raised his rifle, tempted to fire under the feeling of nervous suspense that tried his iron nerves, but lowered it at once, with a glance down at the dark form at his side. He would wait; and he sat watching the things, whatever they were, that seemed to be watching him with such cold and silent intentness. Then he made out that they were not animals. The eyes of animals blink, and these did not. Moreover, any animal, however fierce, would turn its eyes away at times; but these remained staring. What were they? He had seen fungus glow like that in the forest, but never so many together. And then he strained his ears to gather from any sound an inkling of their nature, but, beyond the bellowings and the sullen roar, he could hear nothing. How long could he stand the suspense? Already he felt a strong impulse to jump up, to shout, to break up that fixed regard, to come to the death-grapple, if need be, rather than sit there in doubt. The minutes slipped by slowly; each slowly spun its time out, as if every minute were an hour, each hour a week, and the moisture gathered on his brow, when at last the tension was broken.
"Sisters, I smell smoke!"
"Thank God," was the man's thought, "they are living." The suspense fell from him. He pulled himself together, and was ready for anything.
"Smoke!" The voice reached him in sharp shrill accents that pierced the continual growling of the waters. "Who is here?"
"Ngonyama!" was the reply uttered by several.
"He is terrible, sisters. Hear the thunder of his voice. Let us fly, lest he tear us." And the speaker laughed.
"That is not his voice! He is afraid; he crouches like the panther in the trap, trembling. His strength has gone from him."
"I heard a lion was in the plains, and the cows ran together in a cluster, for they were afraid."
A shrill laughter was the response, but the dull lights remained where they were, and again there was a long spell of silence, as far as the voices were concerned. Then the lights went out. The Hunter stooped forward, listening, but he could hear no footfall. He put the gun down, and grasped the knife in his right hand, for he could use it with better effect in a sudden assault.
"I smell meat!"
The voice came now from another quarter, and then the lights shone out one after another.
"What meat is this, sister?"
"Wow! There are fat pickings on the bones of the great one; but he is powerful. I hear his trumpeting."
"Haw! it is the voice of the unseen, mother. Indhlovu has fallen into the pit that was set for him. His power has gone."
Again the voices ceased, again the strange lights were dimmed; but the Hunter was ready, for he knew now they were quartering the cave in search of him. He had no fear, only a feeling of intense disgust, coupled with a determination to scare the lives out of these ghouls, if they ventured on an attack. By-and-by he beard faint rustlings, and then breathings; but it was impossible to see, and he sat perfectly still. Then the voices broke out again at another point.
"He is here, my sisters."
"Wow! We are hungry; let us eat. We are thirsty; let us drink."
"Sisters, terrible is the power in the arm of Indhlovu. He strikes, and lo! as a falling tree sweeps a passage through the forest, so would he sweep us away. Let him weaken; let hunger fasten on his vitals, and fear trouble his brain."
"We are wolves; we would tear him down in his strength, while his blood is red."
"Terrible is the trunk of Indhlovu, and terrible is the arm of Ngonyama. In his hand is a broad knife, and with one stroke will he split a head. Let the darkness hold him."
"We hunger, and he will go. The wizard will claim him for his own; the dark waters will drag him down. Give him to us."
"He watches over his cub, and who so fierce as the lion who protects his young? The cub will sicken. The sound of the waters will trouble his brain; his spirit will fly before the terror of the darkness. Wait, my sisters, till his cub be dead."
"Demons!" cried the Hunter, his patience gone in a storm of fury. "Away!" He sprang forward with a roar, and his knife, whistling through the air, fell upon the gleaming cone, and struck from it sparks of fire.
With cries of fear the women—if women they were—fled, their lights showing again from the second exit, where was the beaten footway, and then out of the dark tunnel came a peal of fiendish laughter. Then silence, or, rather, a relief from the mocking voices; but there was a reminder of their presence in one of those pale greenish lights. He strode towards it, saw it had been dropped, picked it up, and found that it came from some substance held in a bag of open network. With a short laugh he saw it was fungus, a discovery that took all the mystery out of the recent performance, and since it appeared that the only thing formidable about his persecutors was their trickery in making the most of the terrors of the dark, he remade the fire, for there was no mistaking the chillness of the air. As he thought over the fantastic doings of the visitors, he laughed again, and presently feeling the warmth of the fire, he yawned and closed his eyes.
"Only a parcel of women," he muttered, and was asleep.
And as he slept, believing there was no danger, the shadows closed in as the fire dwindled—closed in, taking queer shapes. Across the smooth, gleaming surface of the cone these shadows came, like stooping forms, with long lean arms. There were whisperings, too, "clicks" made by the tongue, and Venning, opening his eyes, suddenly heard these sounds at once, notwithstanding the walls of the cavern trembled to the hollow thunder of the waters. His eyes fell upon something beyond-the fire. He did not move, or cry out, or wonder where he was; his mind was focussed like his wide-opened eyes on that object. It was like a face, and yet he could not make out whether it was the face of man, or bird, or beast, or reptile. One glance at the thing by any one else would have been more than enough, so terrible it was; but Venning's overpowering curiosity as a naturalist mercifully blotter-put the horror. He was trying to identify it, and made mental notes such as these:—
"Forehead low, receding; brows contracted; eyes small, deep-set, venomous; lower part of face banded black, and undecipherable; neck long, skinny, vulture-like; rest of body not visible."
"Snake, or wild-cat," he said.
"Eh?" said Mr. Hume, waking at once.
There was a ring of metal, a sudden babel of fierce cries, the flash of a rifle-shot, and the clap of the report, followed by shrieks.
"It's all right, lad," shouted Mr. Hume, as Venning straggled to rise; "keep down."
There was a sharp hissing. Something struck the rock above the Hunter as he was stooping over Venning, and fell down into the fire. It was a barbed arrow. He fired again, scattered the fire with a kick, and crouched over the boy. Several arrows rang viciously against the rock. He felt for Venning's carbine, swung it round with one hand, and emptied the magazine, firing at different points. With yells of disappointment, rage, and fear, the creatures of the night fled once more.
"Are you all right, my boy?"
"Yes; but what does it mean? What were they? I thought the thing was a snake."
"What did you see?"
"Something staring out of the shadows. I could not make out what it was, and as you awoke it seemed to jump forward and strike."
"Ay, the blow fell on my belt. Thank God, you warned me; but it was my fault. I should have kept awake. They're only women, lad. Don't let any fancies come into your head."
Venning sniffed. "Smell anything? Seems to me like sulphur."
"It's the gunpowder fumes, hanging low."
Venning sat up. "What is that booming noise?"
"The sound of falling water."
The boy was silent for some time, while the Hunter reloaded the carbine and his Express.
"So—-we are still down below."
"But I know the way out, and as soon as it is daylight we'll get back into the valley. Have no fears."
Venning's hand went out to feel for his companion. "I must have given you a lot of trouble. You've got your coat off."
"I didn't want it, and it came in handy as a pillow."
"Put it on," said Venning, "and give me my gun."
Mr. Hume laughed cheerily. "Feeling yourself again—eh? Well, that's good. And now we'll put an end to this nonsense."
"I certainly smell sulphur," said Venning; "and what is that blue streak there?" He took a step towards the smooth cone. "It is sulphur!" he cried. "See, it's burning."
Mr. Hume stepped to his side, and saw the unmistakable blue flame given off by burning sulphur, while a whiff of the fumes made him choke.
"You're right; it's a mass of sulphur. The burning wad front the cartridge must have set it alight." He sliced off the burning patch with his knife. "We don't want to be fumigated, or to die of suffocation. Now, if you feel strong enough, we'll explore the cave."
"Is it safe? I mean, are there any chasms?"
"Smooth as a floor. Keep close by me."
They examined the cavern carefully by means of the strange lantern filled with fungus, and Mr. Hume halted by the second exit.
"This is where they enter," he said, "and I think our best plan will be to build a fire in the mouth. We should then have the advantage over them, as we should see them once they came into the reflection."
They set about collecting wood, when Venning had a thought.
"Which way does the draught set in the tunnel—away from the cavern or into it?"
"Because, if the current of air blows away from us, we can easily keep them out."
"It blows from the cave into the tunnel. I found that out before."
"Then we have got them, whoever they are. Make the fire in the passage, pile up blocks of this sulphur on the inner side, and the wind will carry the fumes down into the tunnel."
"A splendid plan," said Mr. Hume; and very soon it was carded out, a couple of shots being fired into the dark passage as a warning to the enemy to keep off. As the flames caught the sulphur, a thick smoke rolled away. "That will stop them; and now we can wait in peace till the morning."
The rest of the night passed for them in peace as far as their assailants were concerned, but the chilling damp of the vaults got into their bones, and Venning was pinched and shivering when the first ray of sunshine struck slanting down through the mist-laden atmosphere, bringing with it a message of hope from the bright outer world.
THROUGH THE VAULTS
They shared the goats'-milk remaining in the calabash, and at once entered the first exit, that was to lead them, as they ardently hoped, into the warmth and light of the day. Venning went first, carrying only the strange lantern, and Mr. Hume a foot behind, ready to support the boy with a helping hand if he were again overcome by dizziness. Their progress was slow, owing to the dark, but the going was easy enough with a gradual ascent. What pleased them very much was the dwindling of the hubbub made by the waters—a sign that they were going away from that source of danger. In silence and in darkness they kept on up to a point where the walls widened out, and where there was a familiar hut-like smell, necessitating a pause for investigation. Mr. Hume struck a match—for the fungus-lamp shed no ray—and holding it up, disclosed a slab of rock with a pile of white ash on it. Blowing upon this, he started a glow from the still live embers beneath, and placing on a few half-burnt sticks, soon made a fire. By its light they saw a couple of rush-mats, such as the natives make, on the floor, and these, added to the fire, made a blaze which lit up a cavern bearing evidence of frequent use; for there were other mats on a ledge, together with several calabashes, and an earthen pot of native make. Seeing where the passage continued, they hurried on, for these human belongings reminded them forcibly of the existence of beings they had no wish to meet in those dark passages.
"How do you account for people living down here?" asked Venning.
"They may be outcasts from the village, afflicted either by disease or madness, or they may be members of some dark superstition."
"Ugh! I wonder if the Inkosikasi has any connection with them?"
"I rather think so, and when we get out we will have a word with her."
"When we get out! But it will be fine to see old Dick again, and to see the birds and insects on the move in the sun. Halloa! the path turns again—bends to the left."
"Keep on slowly."
As they went the noise of waters again reached them, growing in volume; and when the path turned abruptly to the right, they looked out through a small opening on billows of mist that rolled upwards out of sight.
"Seem to have reached a spot above last night's resting-place."
The wall on their left was very thin, and shook to each report; but presently the passage made a bend to the right, which took them away once more from the mist-laden vault, and then, through a narrow doorway, opened into one of the best-lighted caverns they had yet entered. The light which streamed in from the wall beyond was very welcome to them, but the taste of earth in the air blowing through the crack was better. The first thing they did was to run across to the crack and look out.
"The river—and the valley!" cried Venning.
Below them was the green of the valley bathed in sunshine, the river glittering like silver, and the scene like a glimpse of Paradise after the gloom of their vast prison.
"There goes the eagle we saw when we first arrived, and right away yonder I can see a flock of goats among the rocks."
"Perhaps we could get through and climb down." Mr. Hume thrust an arm through, and spread his fingers to the wind. "We are on the south-west side of the cliff, nearly overlooking the entrance to the canon."
"It is very steep there. We should want a rope—and a long rope, too."
"Yes, I am afraid we must keep on; but, at any rate, it is a comfort to know where we are."
They stepped back and turned to examine the cavern. The floor was dry, the roof high, and it would have made a good room. And a room in occupation it was; for, now they took stock of it, there were signs of the occupants everywhere—a stack of wood in one corner, several karosses rolled up, sleeping-mats, cooking-pots, wooden spoons, a bundle of reeds for arrow-making, and a half-shaped bow, and other odds and ends. But what fixed their attention were a number of white objects on a ledge.
"Look like ostrich eggs," said Venning, reaching up "No, they're not. Skulls—Ethiopian."
"Pah! Drop it," said Mr. Hume.
"Why?" said Venning, who had no qualms in these matters. "You can see it is Ethiopian from the receding forehead, the high cheek- bones, the heavy under-jaw and strong teeth. No white man ever has teeth like that."
"Drop it," said Mr. Hume, sternly.
"Look at this." Mr. Hume pointed to a square block in the centre of, the room—a block all stained with dark streaks that came from a basin in the centre. Venning approached it. "Blood—perhaps a sacrificial stone."
"And this," said Mr. Hume, pointing to a bone projecting from one of the pots. "They are man-eaters."
Venning put down the skull and looked with a white face at his companion.
"Cannibals! That is why they tried to kill us last night."
The Hunter nodded his head. "I did not want to tell you, but I could not stand a lecture on skulls."
"Let us go."
"First let us take a couple of these mats. Cut up, they would serve as torches at a pinch." He tied one on Venning's back and one on his own. "Forward!"
When they wished to proceed, however, they could not find the continuation of the passage, and, to their dismay, it seemed as if they would have to retrace their steps in search for another way out, when behind a hanging mat in the left-hand corner they found a narrow opening. It was not inviting, but they were glad of any path that led away from that evil place, and away also from the lower depths. So, though the way became more and more difficult as they advanced, they continued to press on, now up, now down, at another place going on their hands and knees, and further on having to wriggle between cracks which sorely nipped the Hunter as he forced his heavy frame through. And in the end they came out on the verge of the vast vault, which appeared to fill so much of the space below; emerged on a wind-swept platform, with a sudden din after the quiet of the tortuous passage as of demons shrieking through the air.
Here Venning gave up. He had been now over twenty-four hours underground without one good meal, except the drain of goats'-milk, and after the shock of the previous afternoon, when he hung in mid- air, the disappointment at coming upon another forbidding pit was too much for him. He crouched back against the rock, and sat down.
Mr. Hume spread the mat under the boy, wrapped the kaross over him, and made him comfortable as could be, and then he looked anxiously about. Little comfort did he gain. They had evidently pursued a false trail, and the platform was the end, standing sheer on the edge of that very vaulted space, down which, far down, the jets of water shot out through the blow-holes. Their windings had brought them, after all, to an impasse, and the only retreat was through the chamber of the skulls, where perhaps the savage beings of the underground vault were already collected. Looking over and down, he could see the jets of water shooting out to fall in a mantle of spray, on which the arrow-like shafts of sunlight sparkled in iridescent hues, and through the spray he could see the white waters of the cataract. Above his head there was a jutting rock, which shut out the wall immediately above, but outside the rock he saw the roof of the vault, gaunt ribs of rock pierced at intervals by fissures, through which shone the blue of the sky. Turning to Venning, he saw that the boy's eyes were fixed on those openings with a longing in his look that wrung the man's heart.
Clearly there were only two courses open. They must either go back by the path they had entered by—making up their minds to cross that dizzy ledge in the darkness—or he would have to leave the boy somewhere while he went for help. He gave up the latter alternative at once, and set his mind on the first.
"We will rest for an hour," he said. "Then we will go down."
"To look for another way?" asked the boy, wearily.
"Or to follow the track we entered by."
"I couldn't," whispered the boy.
"Then we will try another passage—the one 'they' went down by. Of course"—and the Hunter's voice gained in cheeriness—"that is our plan, and if we hurry we shall be outside in no time."
"Very well," said the boy, jumping up with a sudden flush in his cheeks, showing a return of feverishness.
"Rest awhile, lad; it is morning yet. See how the sun's rays slant towards the west. At noon they will be vertical, and then we shall have the whole afternoon."
They sat down with their eyes turned up to the specks of blue, and watched the sun-shafts dip from the west towards the centre till they poured their white light straight down. Then they started for the long downward track, Mr. Hume this time leading the way with his rifle ready.
When they came again to the cavern of the skulls, the Hunter paused before pushing the mat aside. For some seconds he stood listening; then, cautious still, with the point of his knife he forced apart a couple of the rush strands and peeped through. The place seemed as it had been, and he was about to step in when he remembered that Venning had placed the skull on the block of stone. There was the block, but there was no skull upon it. Standing back, he whispered to Venning to keep where he was; then, with his rifle ready, he quietly moved the mat aside.
There was a howl, as some creature, squatting on the floor, turned a lined and hideous face towards the corner, and then scuttled out of view. Mr. Hume leapt to the floor, and ran to seize the creature who had taken refuge under a hanging mat. His hand, however, met with no resistance, and, brushing the mat aside, he saw an opening leading down.
"It went down there," he said, as Venning, showing a startled face at the opening, called out to know what had happened.
Venning jumped down, and looked into the new outlet. "Let us follow," he said eagerly.
Mr. Hume shook his head. "We know one has gone. There are probably others; and we don't know that it would lead us out. The other way would."
"It makes me ill to think of the other way," said Venning, vehemently.
"It looks like a rabbit-hole."
"I'll go first."
"It may mean another night, if it takes up much time."
"I'm sure it's right," persisted the boy.
"Very well, here goes;" and the Hunter submitted against his judgment, because he feared beyond anything the breakdown of the boy's nerves.
He was obliged to slide down this black opening, and when he found a footing in a dark, cellar-like place, he at once struck a match under the belief that he stood in a mere pit and nothing else, but a puff of wind blew the match out.
"Come along; there is an opening."
The opening they found, and, as they entered it, they heard a shuffling noise behind.
"It's that hag gone up into the room," cried the Hunter, "and she'll give the alarm. We must go after her."
Venning, however, pushed on. "This is the way," he said wildly; and Mr. Hume could do no less than follow, frowning as he went.
But it did seem that the boy was right. The little black hole of a passage suddenly opened out into light that almost blinded them by its brilliancy. It was a broad track. On the right was the wall of the cliff pierced with little holes, through which they looked down again on the canon itself, the opposite walls seeming very near.
"Wasn't I right?" asked Venning, with an excited laugh. "We can't be very far above. I fancy I can hear the river."
"Well, there is this about it, if the worst comes, and we can't find a way out, we can signal from one of these holes to people in the valley."
"And Dick would find a way to rescue us—Dick and Muata. Hurrah! Then we won't have to go down into that awful darkness."
"No; but we may as well see where this leads to."
They had to skirt a Y-shaped fall in the track, and this accomplished, their course, after many windings, terminated at a totally unexpected spot, no less than a point high up the face of the cliff rising sheer up from the Deadman's Pool. They stepped out from the passage into broad day, and raised their hats to let the wind blow upon them, but they found that they were as far off from escape as before. Below, the cliff sank hundreds of feet; above, it rose like a wall without foothold; but they were thankful for the sunlight, for the far view over the dark forest, for the privilege to look once more on the unruffled sky. Now that they were in the light, they could take stock of each other, and found it in their hearts to start a feeble laugh at the covering of mud, smoke, and green mould that almost disguised their identity.
But it was a comfort to stretch their aching limbs in the sun, to take the pure air into their lungs, to look restfully away over the trees that marched unbroken to the uttermost horizon. They dozed under the influence of the sunlight, blinking their eyes like cats, and when Mr. Hume stirred at last, the sun was slipping down the western slope.
"We must be going," he said, looking down.
"I suppose so," said Venning, wearily.
"There's something astir down there. Men are moving up the slope towards the gorge—and, by George, they are Hassan's men too!"
Venning stood up, and looked down upon a file of little figures breasting the slope.
"Good thing I had that wall built. Dick will be having his hands full. Come along; we may get out in time yet to take a share in the fight, for his sake."
Venning remained staring down, with a look in his face that brought the Hunter back.
"What do you see?"
"Of all the idiots," said the boy—"of all the miserable, shortsighted, thick-headed, addle-pated duffers and asses we are the worst! We took pains to find a way into a fiendish maze of tunnels, pits, and caverns, occupied by vampires and enveloped in darkness, in search of a thing that was never there."
"Look there!" and the boy pointed down. "There's our boat—down there, out in the broad daylight."
"You're mistaken, lad."
"There—straight down—in that patch of reeds on the right of the pool."
"That's her, right enough," said Mr. Hume, excitedly.
"And to think we've been wandering about in fear of our lives on a false scent."
"It makes me feel bad; but the mistake has been made, and now we've got to get out, and get out in time to help Dick."
"Oh, Dick's all right," said Venning, crossly. "He's got plenty to eat, and a warm bed."
"Chew this;" and the Hunter handed his last bit of biltong.
Venning took it, and followed on into the passage, chewing and growling over their folly.
"We will laugh over our troubles," said the Hunter, patiently, "when we get out."
"When we get out! I don't believe there is a way out. Anyhow, I am not going a step further beyond the place where we found the loopholes."
Mr. Hume made no reply.
"I have been thinking over it," Venning went on.
"The place cant be very high above the level of the ground outside. We could easily attract attention by filing a shot out. Then we would make a rope out of the rushes in these mats, lower it with a bit of stone at the end, on which we could write directions to Dick with a bit of burnt stick, to hitch on a rope. We would haul in the rope, make it fast, and then shin down."
"But suppose Dick is busy beating off the attack of Hassan's men?"
"Then we'll wait. I'm not going further—not a foot. If you like, sir, you can go, but I will stay. I am not going down into those horrible caves." His voice rose to a shout.
"All right," said the Hunter, soothingly. "In any case, I am afraid we have left it too late."
"Late or early, I'll not go on."
When they did reach the loopholes, they found on looking out that the valley on that side was already in the shadow.
"We will stay, then," said Mr. Hume. "Let me unstrap the mat from your shoulders."
Venning had already sat down with a dogged look in his face, and Mr. Hume had to lift him up to loosen the mat. The boy—there was no disguising the matter any farther—was ill, and it would clearly be dangerous to excite him by opposition.
After making the boy comfortable, Mr. Hume sat smoking his pipe, the first time for many hours, in lieu of food. He himself was feeling the effect of the long period of anxiety, for he had scarcely eaten a mouthful, beyond his drink of milk, as he had given his little store to his young friend, who was in more need of it. But it was not of himself he thought. He had a new anxiety about Dick, and bitterly blamed himself for having so blindly followed the woman into this horrible place, that was one succession of death-traps.
"I'm very thirsty," muttered the boy.
Mr. Home leaned over him. "Keep quiet," he said, "and I'll bring you some water."
Taking only his Ghoorka knife and his match-box, the Hunter went on to the Cave of Skulls. Luckily for the denizens of that ominous place, none of them were there to bar his entrance, for he was in a grim mood, so making a bonfire of some of the mats, he looked about. One calabash contained water, and this he carried back, together with something equally precious—a bunch of bananas that were black with smoke, yet fit to eat by any one who was very hungry or did not see them. The boy was sitting up waiting with burning eyes.
"You were so long," he muttered.
"But I won't go away again, old chap. I've brought you quite a feast."
Venning took a long drink, ate the bananas, and fell back on his pillow, while the Hunter resumed his seat to watch through another night. It seemed as if they were to be left in peace. Since that solitary, withered, and scared creature dived out of the cave they had seen no one. But still he sat on guard as the hours slipped slowly by, and then there came a surprising thing.
Just the tinkle made by a drop of water falling into a pool!
It came at regular intervals, incessant, musical, and he began to count it, wondering at the height it fell, and marvelling at the noise it made.
And then he leapt to his feet, and stood a moment in breathless amazement. A single drop of water to be heard above all that multitudinous clamour! What did it mean? It meant a silence so profound that from the black depth of the yawning cavity the tiny tinkle could reach him. It meant that the roaring torrent was stilled!
LETTING IN THE RIVER
The river was no longer thundering through the underground passage, and as the sudden silence following the stopping of engines on a passenger steamer will awaken every sleeper even more quickly than the roaring of a gale, so this lull in the tremendous din aroused Venning.
"What is the matter?" he asked, starting up.
"The river has stopped."
They sat straining their ears for the swift roar of the waters, but out of the slumbering depths below there came only the regular splash and tinkle of the falling drops.
"I don't understand it," muttered the Hunter.
"I do," said Venning, with a shout. "Hassan has blocked up the mouth of the canon."
"Nonsense, boy; how could he?"
"Look out of the loophole."
Mr. Hume put his face to the hole. "The water has risen, I think, from the noise."
"You remember what Muata said about the drowning of the valley? Well, that is what is happening. The Arab has blocked the mouth by blasting a mass of rock which overhung the river. That's what!"
They pondered over this new phase.
"If we had food, this would be the safest place, after all, then."
"Food, Dick, and a way out."
"Dick, of course. Anyhow, sir, it is a relief to have silence; the noise made my head throb so, I did not know what I was doing."
Before, they had to shout into each other's ears, now they spoke in low tones, but even so the echoes seemed to people the dark with whispers, and they desisted from talk. In the silence they heard presently the swirl and lapping of waters out in the canon, then the sound of men talking, and, what was strange, a noise as of paddles, These outside sounds were muffled and indistinct, but as the night went on they heard a laugh ring out from below, loud and shrill, followed by a confused murmuring, which quickly gained distinctness in the form of a wild chant. The denizens of the underground world were on the move. Looking down over the parapet they saw a spurt of flame, and as the fire made for itself a ring of red light far down in the dark, they could make out dimly the forms of people sitting round in a circle. Then the smell of smoke reached them, and, after an interval, the strong odour of burning flesh.
"Go to sleep, lad," said Mr. Hume; "they will not disturb us. They have other prey, found, perhaps, on the scene of the fight in the gorge."
Venning shuddered, and sought his mat, while the Hunter continued to look down on the unholy feast in the bowels of the earth, with an itch to send a bullet smashing into the midst of the circle.
"Come and rest," said Venning. "Don't you ever feel tired?"
"Tired enough, lad; but I don't like this news about the river rising;" and ha went to the loophole.
"We're safe enough, sir—safe enough for to-night. There are six miles at the back of the dam, and it would take a lot of water to rise a foot an hour in the canon, and we are more than thirty feet above the normal level, I dare say. Do rest."
Mr. Hume sat down, and closed his eyes, but when he heard the regular breathing of the tired boy, he was up again. It was the thought of Dick that filled him with sleepless anxiety, and he leant on the parapet, fuming over plans in his mind with wearying reiteration. He was staring straight before him, when a light appeared on his own level, accompanied by the ring of metal on rock. Instinctively his rifle was levelled, and, with his finger on the trigger, he sighted a foot below the light, which was now quite stationary, but, obedient to a sudden overmastering impulse, he as quickly lowered the rifle.
A moment the light remained fixed; then it was raised, lowered, and moved from side to side as if the holder were examining the ground; then it advanced.
"Stop!" thundered Mr. Hume. "Stand back. There is a chasm at your feet."
He had suddenly remembered the platform on which he and Venning had emerged on their first attempt after leaving the Cave of Skulls, and somehow he felt that the person who held that light had strayed to that very place in ignorance.
He heard a startled exclamation, saw the light fall from the person's band, and marked its swift descent, before the flame was extinguished by the rush of air; then it was his turn to fall back.
"Who are you?"
"It's Dick," shouted Venning, with a sob in his voice.
"Dick," muttered the Hunter, cold to the heart at the thought of the falling light.
"Hurrah!" There was no mistaking that shout. "Where are you? How can I get to you?"
"For God's sake, don't move!" cried the Hunter, in a shaken voice. "Stay where you are. We'll join you."
From below there came a shrill clamour, but the Hunter, never pausing to give the creatures a thought, lifted Venning in his arms and felt his way to the cave, clambered up through the hole, found the other exit hidden by the mat, and crept down the broken passage beyond. In a turn of the passage they saw Compton's face peering out under a lighted candle, the one visible object in the darkness, set in a strained expression, in which were blended joy, anxiety, and wonder.
They gripped hands in silence, then—
"We've found the boat," said Venning.
"What is that noise down below?" asked Dick.
"Have you got any food?" This from Mr. Hume.
"Then let us eat first of all."
They sat down there and then and ate, and when they had eaten they were silent, because the creatures below were silent too, and Mr. Hume knew that then they were dangerous. He went back to stand behind the mat knife in hand, ready to attack, for now that he had got his two boys back, he said to himself grimly that he would stand no nonsense. Back in that dark passage Dick sat with his friend's head on his shoulder, and one limp hand grasped in his, marvelling much at the mystery of the place and at the providential meeting. He had cause to wonder how Venning had borne the horrors of the underground as well as he had, for towards the morning it seemed as if those ghouls of darkness vied with each other in producing the most appalling shrieks, howls, and bursts of mirthless laughter. They played ventriloquial tricks in the passages and caverns, making the sounds come from different points after varying intervals of silence; and all the time, as could be gathered from occasional words in the incoherent gabble, uttering threats against the white men.
Then, at the very break of dawn, after a couple of hours of silence, the plot they had formed was put into shape.
Mr. Hume stepped out on to the platform. "Who calls?"
"It is I, the Inkosikase."
She was standing at the very parapet where he himself had leant when he saw the light borne by Dick on the spot where he now stood. She stood up boldly on the canon side of the great cavity, about fifty yards away.
"Your life was forfeit, Ngonyama, but I spared you—I spared you."
"You are but a mouse in these earth runs, Indhlovu."
The Hunter laughed, and the unseen creatures took up the laugh, flinging it back till the hollow places rang with the wild noise.
"Hear, and take heed. Take heed lest they fall on you. Wow! Ye have seen my power and the strength of my medicine in the stilling of the waters."
"It was Hassan who stilled the waters. Say on."
"Yoh!" The woman paused, taken aback. "See, my medicine tells me you came here to search for the shining canoe. Maybe I can tell you where it is hid by the wizards."
"I know, wise woman. Say on."
"Wow! But," she said triumphantly, "ye do not know the way out, and ye are helpless till I tell you."
"Then why do you stay here?"
"Enough! I know the way out. What is your message to me?"
His confidence staggered her, and it was some moments before she could speak.
"But there is the young chief. Ye would save him. I will make a bargain with you for his life."
"He is here, woman."
Dick stepped out from the shadows, and she threw up her arms with a wail.
"Say what you have to say," said Mr. Hume, sternly, "for I see you would have some service of me, and had hoped to buy me with news I have no want for."
"Ngonyama, great white one, I am but a woman, and ye are too strong for me."
Mr. Hume nodded.
"I am a woman; only a woman."
"Was it a woman's task to set those ravens upon me and the young chief?"
"I am a mother, Indhlovu, and a mother's heart is strong for her child. I feared you because of my son. You were strong, and he trusted you. He was away, and you were left to do as you wished—to take his place, to destroy him. It is the way of men to use power for themselves."
"It is not my way."
"O great white one, give me counsel. The Arab thief has truly stopped the river, and the waters rise in the valley—rise among the gardens; and when Muata returns he will see water where there was grass."
"Ay, Muata will ask how this thing happened. And they will answer, because a woman interfered with his plans. The son will know that it was his mother who brought this evil on the place because she thought she could do better than Ngonyama."
"It is true; it is true," she wailed, beating her breast. "So tell me, great one, how this evil may be put right, but it must be done quickly, for the Arab has brought canoes up, and his men are in the valley ready to seize the women and children."
This was startling news indeed. "Canoes in the valley?"
"In the valley itself; and our men are scattered here and there on the ridges at the mercy of these wolves, though they fight hard. Ngonyama, tell me!"
"There is only one thing to do," said Venning, joining in.
"I listen," she cried, leaning forward. "Quick, wise one. You who played with the little ones at the huts, you who talk to the ants, tell me."
"The one thing to do is to let the water in."
"Ye mock me," she cried fiercely.
"Let in the water, and the canoes will be dashed to pieces; the women and the little ones saved." "But how can this be done?"
"You know this place and the secrets of it. Those holes behind you that look out on the valley were made by hands. Is there no place where the wall is thin?"
The woman lifted up her hands and shouted a cry of exultation, then she ran swiftly, and they saw her presently standing above the V- shaped wedge in the wall, a deep scar in the cliff made by the fall of a portion of the rock. With wonderful agility she climbed down to the apex and set to work on the face of the rock with a kind of maniacal fury. When she climbed out to the top they saw she had drawn a square, with a mark at each corner plainly visible.
"Ngonyama, for the sake of the little ones and the women, for your own sakes, if ye wish to live, send a bullet to each mark."
"By Jove!" said Venning, "that's a good notion. The rock must be thin there, and the force of the bullet should crack it."
"Quick, white one. I can hear the death-song of our warriors. Quick, if ye would see the sun again."
Mr. Hume raised his Express. He saw the need as well as she for swift measures, and he planted each smashing shot on the little white mark at each corner of the square.
The square was starred with cracks from side to side, and before the echoes of the reports had ceased to roll and rumble through the vaults, there was a dark stain on the rock.
The water was coming through, but the woman, in her mad impatience, could not bear the delay. Clambering down, she worked feverishly at the cracks with a spear-head, and with a sharp hiss a stream of water like steam shot out.
"Climb up," roared Mr. Hume.
"Another thrust, Indhlovu, and a woman will have won. One blow for the sake of my child—the chief." Her long sinewy arm flew back, and she drove the spear-head into the crack.
Then came a tremendous report. The block of loosened stone flew out as if propelled from a big gun, whizzed far out, and after it, with a deafening roar, flashed a white column, that widened as it leapt forward. Spreading his arms, the Hunter threw himself back, bearing his companions with him, as a mass of water struck the platform on which they had stood. As the flood poured through the opening, tearing and screaming like a thousand furies, other fragments of rock were torn out and sent whirling down, to increase the terrible din rising up from the cauldron below, where the waters once again rushed and boiled through the dark tunnels, after their terrific leap. The whole upper space of the great vault was filled with a mist, which condensed and fell in a fine rain upon the three crouching figures, deafened by the uproar, and expecting every moment to be involved in one complete break-up of the interior walls under the smashing blows of the flood. As they crawled back into the passage for safety, some solid object crashed against the rock near them, and the broken blade of a canoe paddle shot past them into the passage.
It was sign of the terrible fate that must have overtaken those of Hassan's men who had entered the valley by canoe. It served as a spur to urge them to escape.
They crept into the Cave of Skulls, and there finding some relief from the uproar, Mr. Hume asked Compton if he knew the way out. Compton nodded, lit the last of his candles, and, guided by marks he had made on the wall, led the way out and down to a spot where he pointed to a hole several feet above the ground. They passed through that, and after a long and wearying march—during the last part of which the Hunter again carried Venning—they crawled out into the old cave, and through that on to the ledge overlooking the valley.
A glance took in the position. Muata's people were gathered on the tableland where stood the new village, watching the sinking of the river, as unaccountable to them as had been the swift rising in the night that had cut them off and marked them out as easy victims to the men in the canoes, which Hassan, in his great cunning, had brought up to complete his plan for the complete destruction of the community. Of Hassan's men, and the canoes, carried up through the forest with so much labour, there was no trace. Men and canoes must have been sucked into the canon, dashed to pieces, and swept down into the dark, probably to emerge in the Deadman's Pool.
Mr. Hume gave a hail to the people below. "Bayate!" they shouted, recognizing him. Some of the men swam across and came up.
They made a humble salute to the white men. "Great ones, the people are afraid. The earth shook and the water arose, and out of the dark came men in canoes. We were afraid. It was witchcraft. Again the earth shook, the waters sank, and the canoes were swept away."
"Say to the women they may go about their work in peace, for the white chiefs keep watch, and all is well. And say to the headman to send up food, fruit, milk, and the flesh of a kid."
These orders were promptly obeyed, and the three were soon busy at a good meal, that put life and strength into them, so that when they feasted their eyes upon the wonderful beauty of-the garden-valley, the horrors of the underground world swiftly faded into the background, phantoms of reality.
And while they rested in the afternoon, Muata came out of the gorge chanting his song of triumph at the head of the picked warriors who had gone down into the forest to hang on the trail of the wild men.
His song died away as his eye fell upon the still swollen river, on the sheen of pools gathered where the ground was flat, on the banks of debris showing the highwater mark far up the little side valleys.
"And to you, chief."
"My brothers have not slept." The young chief's eagle-glance dwelt swiftly on the three friends. "They have looked on great trouble."
"You have come from victory, chief; your men are fresh."
"Ohe! they are fresh, for the fight was short."
"Then send some of them up the cliff on the other side, so that they may overlook the place where the river goes under."
Muata looked down into the valley again, and asked the question which he had been burning to ask all the time, but could not for fear of showing anxiety.
"So Hassan has tried to drown out the valley?"
"The river rose and the river fell! While he sent some men to attack the gorge, he found the river-gate unguarded, and seized it, blocked the course of the river with a great rock loosened from above, and then, as the water rose, lowered canoes on the inside, and sent his men forward to eat up your village."
"Where was Ngonyama when the gates were unguarded?"
"In the caverns under the cliff."
"The wise woman led us there. She left us there, fearing I, Ngonyama, would supplant you, her son; and on the second morning, when she found that Hassan was too cunning, she came with an offer of liberty if we would destroy his plan. We told her the way. It was to let the water in."
"It was a good plan. Haw!"
"She let the water in to save the people of the valley, and Hassan's men were lost utterly; but the first victim was your mother, Muata."
"It was a good death," said Muata, after a long pause.
"Ay, it was a good death, chief. Now send your men up the cliff, so that they overlook the river-gates."
"I will see to it, Ngonyama;" and Muata went down with his band to the village once again, chanting the deep-chested song of victory.
The jackal, who had accompanied Muata on the new trail, remained with his white friends. He was thin, he was famished, and he sat with his left front paw lifted. Venning, who had a fellow-feeling for one in distress, being himself worn out, took the paw, discovered a nasty cut on the pad, washed it out with warm water, treated it with carbolic, bound it up, and gave the animal the pot to dean, which he did, polishing it out with his long red tongue.
The boy and the jackal stretched themselves on a kaross to the sun, while Mr. Hume and Compton went away off to make sure about the Okapi; for, as they said, they were in no mind to lose the boat, after all their exertions, just because they were a little tired.
In the drowsy noon the tired boy slept, and through the afternoon, opening his eyes for a moment occasionally as the voices of the women rose to a higher pitch in a mournful dirge they were singing over the missing, and at intervals the jackal would raise his sharp muzzle and sniff the air. There was some note in the dirge that disturbed the boy, and there was some taint in the air that made the jackal uneasy. Once it stood up as if to explore, but the sight of its bandaged foot brought a pucker to his brows, and it curled itself up again after an intent look into the face of his human companion.
For the rest of the day the dirge went on, rising and sinking like the murmur of the sea in its flow and ebb on a still day. At dusk the two came back from their long march to the Deadman's Pool, bringing the report that they had recovered the missing boat, and concealed it in a place of their own choosing this time. Venning awoke to hear the news, but he heard it without enthusiasm, just as they had imparted the news in tones of weary indifference.
The sickness of the forest was on them all—its monotony, its vastness, and its brooding silence—and it caught them when they were most liable to the attack; that is, when they were tired out, with all the spring gone from mind and sinews.
"My poor father!" muttered Compton, as he sat down with his back to the rock. "No wonder he looked upon this as a prison, placed as it is in this wilderness of trees."
Mr. Hume nodded, and sat with his arms resting on his knees, smoking, and staring at nothing.
Muata joined them, but his coming did not rouse them.
"I have looked down on the gates, Ngonyama. As you said, the river was blocked by Hassan; but there is no sign of the thief, only some canoes dropped by his men in their flight."
He sat down and smoked, too, with the same listless look on his face.
The jackal rose at his master's coming, and stood whining and sniffing the air.
No one took any notice of him but Venning, who coaxed him to him, and placed an arm round his yellow neck.
"Why don't they sing something else?" said Compton, irritably, as the mournful wail dinned its misery into his ears.
Muata looked at the white men. "It is the rains," he said.
"The rains are coming. Maybe that is why Hassan struck so soon, for when the rains come, every warrior is like the bow-string that has been soaked in water. They hide the sun, they breed chills and sickness. I can feel the breath of them in my bones. It is the rains."
He shivered, and threw a stick on the fire. "In the morning," he said, "we must find a new home, for the rains blow in at the mouth of this cave. The clouds hang low on the hills."
"We have found our boat, chief; we will go on our way," said the Hunter, bluntly.
"That way would be the way of death," answered the chief, slowly. "It is bad here, but in the woods it is like the spray blown off from the rushing waters. Every tree is a rain-cloud, every leaf drops water, and the air you breathe in the woods is wet. If you would live, great one, you must stay here. Wet when you sleep, when you eat, when you sit you sit in wet, when you stand the water runs off; wet, all wet in the rains down in the woods."
"Ugh!" said Venning, with a shudder; and Compton put on another stick.
"We will see," said the Hunter.
They sat in silence, pondering over this new source of worry, then turned in to sleep. They slept heavily, having taken great care first of all to block up the entrance to the underground passage, and as they dropped off to sleep, they heard the women chanting still in the village below. The fire glowed red in the entrance, making the roof look like beaten gold, but the air blew chill, and the sleepers were restless. A hand would reach out to the firewood for another log, or to tuck the blankets under the body, so that the cold could not sift under.
The jackal was as weary as the rest. Several times he ran to the entrance to look out with pricked ears, then back again to stare into a sleepy face; but as his human companions gradually sank into heavy sleep, he crouched on the floor with his sharp nose resting between his forepaws, the one sound, the other bandaged.
THE CRY IN THE NIGHT
As the fire-sticks snapped under the heat, the jackal would open his yellow eyes and start back with his gaze fixed inquiringly on the fire, whose mystery he could never solve. One of these starts roused Venning, who, seeing the cause, threw out a hand and drew the animal to him. He felt nervous, and the company of the jackal comforted him, and the jackal in its turn forgot its uneasiness in the warmth of the blankets. With a little sigh it curled up and went to sleep.
The boy was the only one awake, and out in the wide space beyond he heard a voice calling—
He held his breath, and his throat grew very dry, for it was the voice he had heard in the cavern, only sad this time, and not mocking as before.
"Ngonyama!—yama!" It came thin and melancholy, with a long lingering on the last syllables.
He put his hand out to rouse Mr. Hume, then drew it back ashamed of his fancies; but the movement awoke the jackal. It lifted its head, snuffed the air, then sprang up with the ruff on its neck erect, and its sharp white teeth gleaming. Several moments it stood so, then with many a look out, curled itself up again.
Venning had watched it breathlessly, now he patted it to sleep, and dozed off himself, only to wake up in a violent tremble, with that sound quivering plaintively in the air—
He brushed his hand across his forehead, and found his face burning hot. He removed his blanket from his shoulders and sat up, still patting the jackal. The fire was before him, and the dark ring of the cave's mouth; but his eyes dilated as he looked, for within the glare of the fire was that same awful face he had seen down in the darkness.
He would have cried out, but his voice would not come; and with an effort—for all the blood seemed to have left his limbs—he slowly moved his hand to Mr. Hume's.
The Hunter made no sign; but Venning, with his face turned still in a frozen stare towards the entrance, caught a change in the breathing, and knew that his touch had answered its purpose. To the boy they were acting over the scene in the cavern again. He was waiting for the shrill laugh, the sudden treacherous thrust of steel in the dark, and then the ring of metal on the rocks.
Then, without any sign having been given that he was awake, the jackal in a bound was over the fire, swollen to double his size by the bristling hair, and uttering as he charged a fierce yelp.
Muata seemed to awake and spring forward all in one movement. A moment he paused in the glare of the light, stooping forward, the glare showing red on his blade, and the next he was gone with a war- whoop, and in his place stood the Hunter, crouching also with the broad blade in his hand. Between the fierce yelp of the jackal and the spring of the Hunter only a few seconds had passed. The three of them less than half a minute since had been asleep; and now, out of the darkness on the ledge beyond came the ring of metal and the savage grunts of men fighting for their lives.
Venning remained where he was, too ill to rise; and Compton, not yet trained to act on a sudden emergency, sat up, bewildered by the noise.
"Mr. Hume—Godfrey—what is it?"
"The witches," said Venning, "out of the underground. I saw one looking in."
Compton felt for his carbine, and, gathering his wits, ran out, receiving promptly, on getting within the ring of light, a blow on his arm, followed by a clutch at his throat. Driving the muzzle of his gun forward into something soft which emitted a grunt, he freed himself from his assailant, and sprang aside. He heard the whizz of weapons, the clash of blows, and saw dark forms indistinctly moving rapidly this way and that; then his rifle flashed as he saw a crouching form stealing upon him.
"Yavuma!" cried the Hunter's voice, giving the Kaffir war-cry as he swung his terrible weapon at a foe.
"Yavuma '" cried Muata, with the jackal snarling by his side. "Fire, little great one, into the thick."
It was very well to say fire, but Compton could not tell friend from foe until, bending low, he made out that while two men had their backs to the cliff there were others around them in an enclosing ring. Judging these were the enemy, though he could make out no distinguishing point, he went down on his knee and fired rapidly.
A man dashed by him towards the gorge, and the rest who could followed. One gave a slashing left-hand stroke with a long sword as he went by the kneeling marksman, and Compton went down in a heap. The man paused to finish his work, but with a savage roar the Hunter leapt forward and bore him to the ground.
At the heels of the flying men went the jackal, and after him, soft- footed, went Muata, still-voiced.
The fight was over. Mr. Hume picked Dick up and carried him into the cave.
"A light," said the Hunter.
Venning, with his head throbbing, crawled feebly to where the lantern was, lit it with trembling fingers, and, sitting up, threw the light on the two forms—on the one face, beaded, working still with the fury of the fight; on the other, still, white, and blood- stained.
The boy's hand shook more violently, and in his weakness he sobbed.
"Put the lantern down," said Mr. Hume, fiercely.
Quickly he staunched the flow of blood, cut away the hair, and then, with an impatient look at the sobbing boy, lowered the head he was supporting, and searched for liniment, ointment, and restoratives.
Bending over his task, he worked with skilful fingers, and then, with a sigh, watched the white face intently. Then he went outside to listen, to bend over the figures lying still in the darkness, and returning, built up the fire.
Venning watched him return to Dick, saw the long, anxious scrutiny, and then burst out crying as he saw a look of relief come into the rugged face.
"Don't worry, lad; he'll pick up."
"I know you think I'm no good," was the boy's heartbroken reply.
Mr. Home was at his side. "Nonsense, lad. I know what it is to have a touch of fever; and besides, I believe it was you who gave warning."
"I heard some one calling Ngonyama," said the boy, in a whisper, "and I saw the face in the entrance—the same face I saw down under there. Were they the witches?"
"It was Hassan and some of his men. They must have escaped from the river and remained in hiding. I felt your hand in the night, and it woke me. So, you see, you did your part. Now rest, there's a good chap."
Mr. Hume made the boy a cooling drink, with a dose of quinine.
"I would have helped, if I could."
"You did help," said the Hunter, earnestly. "If it had not been for you we should have been killed while we slept. You saved our lives, just as you saved the valley by your thought of letting the water out."
Venning was comforted. He rose up on his elbow to have another look at Dick, saw that the colour was coming back into the white face, and leant back on his pillow.
In the morning Muata came into the cave, staggering like a drunken man from loss of blood, and at his heels limped the jackal with his tongue out.
"Well?" said the Hunter.
"The last fell on the shores of the dead pool, and the last was Hassan himself."
The chiefs bloodshot eyes roamed over the cave, until they rested on Venning's startled face.
"On the brink of the pool he fell, and where he fell there, too, was the Inkosikase." It seemed as if he were addressing the remark to Venning.
"I heard her call 'Ngonyama' in the night," whispered the boy.
"So the young chief told me after you had gone," said the Hunter.
Venning nodded his head.
The chief accepted the explanation. "The Inkosikase waited for the wolf by the water's edge," he said simply, "and I smote him behind the ear. So her spirit is at rest."
"Let me see to your wounds, chief."
"Wow! It is well my people should see them;" and the warrior went down with unsteady steps to the village, leaving a trail of blood; and when the people had shouted in triumph at his story of the last fight, the medicine men took him into their charge, when his life was in danger of escaping through one of those gaping cuts made by Arab swords on his body.
For a fortnight Mr. Hume nursed his young friends back to health, and for a week they sat and walked in the sun, slowly regaining strength; and then came the first forerunner of the rains in a day of pelting showers.
"It is the beginning," said Muata, who was proud of his newly healed scars. "You must come down into the valley."
"There was something said about the full moon," said Mr. Hume, suspiciously.
The chief laughed. "It was the wish of the Inkosikase; but now she is gone, it is in my heart to take the wives to myself. But there are others, Ngonyama."
"No, chief," said the Hunter, quickly. "How do you live in the rains, chief? Is there much discomfort?"
"Wow! it is the red pig's life—mud all about; and there is much sickness, for the people crowd together in the huts."
"I suppose we must stay and make the best of it; but the huts are small."
"They are the best we can make."
"I don't know," said Venning, thoughtfully, with his eyes on the opposite cliff. "I see there are trees up there. Is there a way up?"
"There is a goats'-track. What is in your mind, young wise one?"
"We will climb up that goats'-path, chief," said Venning, "with all the men, cut down many of those trees, and roll them over the cliff into the valley. Then will we build a great house, and the women will gather grass and reeds for the thatching of it."
"It would be a good plan, if it could be done."
"We'll do it," said the Hunter; "but if we are to stay here, we must bring up the boat, and you must let us have some of your men."
"All," said the chief; and that day the Okapi was brought up in sections.
Then Venning's scheme was taken in hand, the cliff scaled, a hundred trees felled, and rolled over as they fell, with all the branches on. Then they returned to the valley, drew the fallen trees out, lopped off the branches, shaped the poles, dug holes, and got the uprights into position. Then followed the ridge-poles and the sideposts, and the roof took shape, to the wonder of the women, a noble span covering some thousands of square feet, with a length of one hundred and fifty feet, and a height of fifty feet. As the supporting rafters were laid, the women climbed up and set to work at the thatching, using long bands of bark for the binding. And while the women worked at the roof, the men built up stone walls, under directions of the architects. The great house built, a smaller one was made for the women, to serve as a general kitchen, with great stacks of wood piled up all round for the fires. The entire population was kept hard at it for a week, and when the work was done, there was a grand ceremony over the wedding of Muata; and then one morning they awoke to find a low grey canopy drawn over the valley, from which fell a steady drizzle of rain. The next day was like the first, and so on for nearly three months there was a perpetual mist in the valley, a long dismal succession of leaden skies hanging low. One of these days the three white friends, in company with Muata, paid a visit to the underground world to obtain a supply of sulphur to serve as a disinfectant and purifier—another idea of Venning's. They found the dark passages thundering to the fall of the water, but they found no signs whatever of living creatures. With their loads of sulphur they very soon left the forbidding place, and for some days after the unhappy people of the village had to submit to the terrors of fumigation. As the "medicine" was undoubtedly strong, and as it certainly stopped the progress of sickness that had broken out, the "Spider" rose in the estimation of the people as a great wizard.
At last the curtains were drawn, the blue of the sky appeared, and the valley glittered in the brilliant sunlight.
Then the women went singing to their gardens, the men prepared for the hunt, and the white chiefs got out their shining canoe from its wrappings, rubbed it with fat, and polished it with wood-ashes till it shone like a looking-glass.
"Ton will go, then?" said Muata.
"If your men will carry the pieces down to the larger river below the gates, we will thank you."
The men went off singing, six men to each section, and in the afternoon the Okapi was once more in her proper element.
"And which way will you go, Ngonyama?"
"We have thought it over during the rains, chief. We will go back through the open water, back past the place where we landed in the forest, back into the great river, and then south, even to the farthest reaches of the Congo, when we shall be among people I know. There we will get carriers to take the boat to the waters of another great river, the Zambesi."
"Towards the setting sun," said Muata. "And you will want a man?"
"Two men, we would ask; and one of them, the Angoni warrior, who did so well in the fight, for his country is to the south."
"Only one man you can have," said the chief, shortly.
They had said their good-bye to the people in the valley, who had wept at their departure, for the white men had done much for them, and never before had they borne the visitation of the rains with so little discomfort.
Now they said good-bye to the chief, the man who had shared so much of danger with them, whose shield had been their shield, whose spear had been theirs to command.
It was difficult to say good-bye, for he seemed moody, answered them in monosyllables, and at last, after a curt nod, left them long before they were ready to go. And when at last they were heading down the broad river to the old pleasant music of the clanging levers, the edge of their joy was blunted by the thought of the warrior's lowering looks.
"I'm sorry," said Mr. Hume, for the third time.
"I believe he has had something on his mind for days past," said Venning; "and yesterday I saw him arguing with the headmen."
"Yet he never opposed our going. I have never seen him like that before. Hang it all, I can't bear to think we have left him looking so down;" and Compton banged the lever over.
They went on in silence for a mile, still thinking over Muata, when the Angoni, who was on watch, cried out—
"What do you see?"
The man pointed a black finger at the river, and on it they saw two black spots. The man's teeth gleamed in a smile and his black eyes sparkled.
They stood up to look, and then Mr. Hume motioned to the boys.
"Let her have it," he said; and they made those levers smoke in the slots, for they saw in those black spots the long face of the jackal and the head of Muata!
They were helped dripping on board, the chief with nothing else than his Ghoorka blade.
Mr. Hume waited for an explanation, and the chief gave it in his calm way, without a smile.
"You wanted two men, great one. I am the second."
"But we go far, while the moon is many times at the full."
"You go towards the setting sun, Ngonyama, and there also goes the son of the Inkosikase."
"But your people?"
"I have said my say with them. They are in peace, and they can live in peace; but is Muata a goat that he should live in a kraal? Wow! I am a Hunter, like this little one;" and he patted the jackal on the head.
"We are only too glad to have you, chief, if your mind is fully made up?"
"See, Ngonyama, I thought to live in ease and grow fat, but the spirit of my mother called out upon me—ay, it fought within me—and I go for the hills and the open plains. Behold, I am no longer chief." He took the long blue feather from his head, and let it glance to the water. "My shield is your shield."
He sat down in the bows with his face toward the river, and the boys laughed as they worked the levers.
"Ripping!" said Compton, feeling quite happy, as he touched his precious journal.
"As good as finding a new butterfly," said Venning.
Mr. Hume nodded his head gravely several times, and then a smile came into his eyes.
"I guess," he said, "we'll have some good hunting."
And good hunting they had after they had passed the Stanley Falls and were in the game country, stretching for hundreds of miles to the Zambesi. Some day, perhaps, we may hear of the adventures they had in their long voyage before at last, a thousand miles off, they touched bottom in the shallows where the mighty Congo narrowed down to a stream that could be crossed at a jump. From the Congo they marched to a tributary of the Zambesi, and at the Victoria Falls, after having gathered a store of ivory, they found an ox-wagon, which took them to Bulawayo; and near Bulawayo the two boys, now stalwart young men, took possession of a farm owned by Mr. Hume, to wait for the return of the Hunter from England, whither he had gone. On his return they would go north, in order to keep their promise to pick up Muata, whom they left at an Angoni kraal, on another hunting expedition.