He started up in bed and began to grope for the matchbox. But this passed away. The face of Death grew mild, and then seemed to smile. He lay down on his side, his face turned from the open window, composed himself into a comfortable attitude, and fell softly into the deepest of all sleeps.
THE QUEST OF THE COPPER.
"A beast with horns that rend and gore My army rushes through the world; The white plumes flutter in the fore, Like mists before a tempest whirled; The roaring sea when storms are strong Is not so fierce, the lion's wrath Is tame when swells the battle-song That frights the clouds above my path!
"My beaten shields to thunder thrill, My spears like lightning flash between, Till raining blood their brightness kill, Or dim to lurid red their sheen! At morn and eve the splendid shine of burning clouds I hail with joy— The sky thus gives its son the sign To rise up mighty, and destroy!"
Zulu Pictures. Tshaka.
TSHAKA, king of the Zulus, sat in state in his Royal Kraal one morning in the month of March, 1816. His throne was a log of white ironwood standing on its end, from the upper portion of which the stumps of three thick branches expanded, thus giving it the rough semblance of an arm-chair. The ends of the stumps were rounded and polished. The throne was standing upon the skin of a large, black-maned lion, and the king's feet were resting upon the mane. A number of indunas, councilors, and officers stood around the king in respectful attitudes, or moved about quietly, and silently.
Tshaka's mother, Mnande, sat on the ground some distance away, her ear strained to catch every word chat fell from her son's lips. A few yards behind her five young girls crouched on their knees and elbows, each with an earthen pot of beer, or a skin of curdled milk before her. As each new-comer arrived within a certain distance of the throne, he flung his spear and shield to the ground, and then came forward. When he reached within about twenty paces of Tshaka, he held his right hand high over his head and called out "Bayete," which is the Zulu royal salute. He then advanced and prostrated himself before the King's feet.
Tshaka was a man of magnificent build. He sat perfectly naked except for a bunch of leopard tails slung from his waist, and a few charms fastened to a thin cord around his neck.
Kondwana, commander of the 'Nyatele regiment, an induna of the Abambo tribe, was called before the king. He approached, under the customary obeisance, and then stood up.
"You will take," said Tshaka, "what remains of the 'Nyatele regiment (a regiment that had suffered very severely in a recent campaign from fever in the coast swamps above St. Lucia Bay, as well as from slaughter by the spear), and go to the country beyond the mountains of the Amaswazi, where the green and yellow stones from which the red metal (copper) is smelted, are dug out of the ground. You will bring back so much of these stones as will cover, when heaped up, the skins of three large oxen. You will return before the Summer rains have fallen. Go."
Kondwana was a distinguished man. He had, years previously, fought against Tshaka, but since his tribe, the Abambo, had made submission, and had been incorporated into the Zulu nation, he had served his new master with faithfulness and zeal. But one of the awkward conditions of savagery is this, that whenever a subordinate shows any extraordinary capacity, and consequently attains to a position of influence, his master is apt to regard him with jealousy and fear, and will therefore often destroy him ruthlessly on the first shadow of a pretext. In jealousy and mistrust of capable subordinates, the average savage potentate resembles Louis the Fourteenth of France, of pious memory, who could never bear to have a really capable man near his throne in a position of trust. Kondwana happened to be under the ban of Tshaka's suspicion, which, once roused, was never allayed. This is the explanation of his having been sent with his splendid regiment on a useless expedition through the deadly fever country just to the south of Delagoa Bay, between the Lebomba Mountains and the sea, and of his now having to go with the effective remnant of his veterans on a quest for copper to a hypothetical spot only vaguely rumoured of.
Amongst the spoil of a recent and very distant northern raid were a few copper bangles, and the prisoners from whom these were taken said that the metal had been smelted from green and yellow stones dug out of a mountain far to the north. In a native forge at one of the villages sacked, a few stones of the kind described had been found, and these were brought to Tshaka. No other information on the subject was to be had, yet Kondwana at once prepared to start upon his quest, knowing that if he failed to carry out the king's order to the very letter, his life would inevitably pay the forfeit.
Kondwana was a tall and very powerful man, jet black, but with a pleasing expression of countenance when not moved to wrath. He was as brave as a lion, and perfectly loyal to the king.
Tshaka possessed the faculty of inspiring loyalty to a high degree, but he was unaware of this. Being of a highly suspicious nature, he sacrificed to his groundless apprehensions numbers of his most loyal and devoted adherents.
Kondwana returned to his kraal after being shown specimens of the mineral which he had to seek. These were a few small lumps of shining stone—some being blue in colour and some yellow. In others both colours were present. When freshly broken, the blue specimens were beautifully iridescent, and showed tints such as are seen in the peacock's tail. Upon arriving at the headquarter military kraal next morning, he mustered his regiment, and found it to be about four hundred and fifty strong (effective). There were several hundred more at the kraal, but they were still suffering from fever. The men were all veterans, and thus wore head-rings, circular bands about seven inches in diameter, of a black substance composed principally of gum. These bands being about an inch thick, were fixed to the hair around the crown of the head, and thus afforded a very effective protection against blows.
The expedition started. A number of the men carried strong iron picks for the purpose of digging out the ore. They took a small herd of cattle for immediate use as food, but they depended upon proximate spoil for future sustenance. After crossing the Pongola river, the party made a detour inland so as to avoid a collision with the Amaswazi, with whom Kondwana did not want, just then, to fight. This took them through some very mountainous country, where they suffered grievously from cold. Some of the men in whose blood germs of fever still remained, began to sicken, and were mercifully put to death. But as it advanced through the mountains the little party had some very enjoyable fighting and looting, the Mantatee tribelets offering no more resistance than afforded pleasant exercise. The loot was ample, and the soldiers simply feasted on meat. At night they often warmed themselves before the burning huts. They obtained from the vanquished Mantatees many soft, warm skins, for the mountain tribes, living under a comparatively cold climate, had become very expert in tanning. These skins were carried for them by the good-looking young women of the kraals which were "eaten up," for the lives of such, when their services were required, were generally spared.
It was only the veterans of the Zulu army that wore head-rings, but there was one man with Kondwana's contingent whose head was ringless. This was Senzanga, the son of Kondwana's elder brother Kwasta. Senzanga had been spared by a fortunate accident when his father's kraal and its inhabitants had been destroyed a few months previously by Tshaka's order. Being fleet of foot, he had escaped to the bush, and he had ever since had a precarious existence as a fugitive, being fed by some women at the risk of their lives. Hearing through them of an expedition under the command of his uncle, he went, on ahead, and at the Pongola appeared and asked for Kondwana's protection, as well as for leave to accompany the expedition. Kondwana knew that he ran a serious risk in not killing Senzanga at once, but after consulting with his officers, he decided on venturing to spare the young man's life, meaning to deliver him as a prisoner to Tshaka on the return of the expedition, and then pray that he might be pardoned for the fault he had not committed, and which had been so heavily punished.
After getting well past the Amaswazi country, the expedition left the mountains, and traveled through the low, wooded plains that lie between the Drakensberg on the north-west, and the Lebomba hills on the south-east. In this region no men dwell: except the wretched "Balala," naked and weaponless fugitives from the Tonga and other tribes, whose villages had been destroyed in war, and who had escaped to lead a life in the desert compared with which death by the spear would have been merciful.
The existence of the dreaded tsetse fly, whose bite is fatal to any domestic animal, accounted for the lack of human inhabitants. The cattle which Kondwana's men brought with them began to droop, and soon could proceed no further. After being bitten by the tsetse, animals gradually waste away, and sometimes live on for months, becoming more and more emaciated. If, however, rain happens to fall, they die off very quickly. The men set to work and killed all the remaining cattle. They ate what they could of the meat, loaded themselves and the captive women with as much of the remainder as could be carried, and then traveled as swiftly as they could in a north-easterly direction, towards the Limpopo river. Once across the Limpopo, they knew they could easily reach the Makalaka country, where, doubtless, loot abounded. They knew all about this from the Balala, whom they from time to time captured and questioned. None of these could, however, give any information as to where the copper ore had come from.
In the meantime, game was plentiful, although somewhat difficult to capture. Their most successful mode of hunting was this;—about a hundred men would lie in ambush in some place where, judging from the footmarks, wild animals were in the habit of passing. These men would take cover wherever they could, breaking off branches of trees for purposes of concealment where growing reeds, shrubs or grass did not suffice. They would lie or crouch about five yards from each other, in three lines about ten yards apart.
The remainder of the contingent would then divide into two parties, one of which would extend to the right and the other to the left, in open order, each party forming a long chain gradually stretching out. The leaders, after going out a certain distance, would curve inward towards each other until they met. A large area would thus be enclosed. As soon as the chains joined, by the leaders meeting, the grass was set alight, and immediately afterward smoke arose at numerous points around the enclosed space, whilst the men all rushed inwards towards the ambush. The terrified game, seeing themselves almost surrounded by a ring of fire, rushed madly to what seemed to them the only place at which they could possibly escape. When the herd reached the ambush, the men sprang to their feet, and dashed at it with their spears; the skirmishers, or as many as had been able to close in on the heels of the game, rushing in at the same time. It was their practice to avoid interfering with buffalo or other dangerous game so far as possible, but pallah, hartebeeste, koodoo, waterbuck and other antelopes were slain in the manner described, sometimes in great numbers. Then plenty would reign for a season.
These game-drives were fraught with considerable danger, and on several occasions some of the men in ambush were trampled to death or seriously hurt.
Every night the lions roared around their encampment, attracted by the smell of the meat, but repelled by the fires around which the men slept. It was found that so long as game was plentiful the lions did not come close enough to give any serious trouble—they could always he heard growling, but they made no attack—but in passing through regions where game was scarce, the lions, grown bold from hunger, would prowl round and round the camp, silently, and with deeply lurid eyes. One morning, just before dawn, a lioness dashed into the camp, seized a sleeping man by the shoulder, and began dragging him off. But in a moment the marauder was surrounded by spears, and then a desperate struggle took place. The night was dark, and the watch fires were nearly dead. Some of the men seized firebrands, which they held aloft so as to enable their comrades to see. The lioness died hard. The first frantic dash she made broke the ring for an instant, and she got two men down under her, one with a broken neck, and the other with a dislocated hip, whilst a third, who was dashed backwards by a blow from her paw, had his skull fractured and his shoulder broken. But Senzanga sprang on the lioness from behind, and by a lucky stroke plunged his spear into her spine just over the loins. The spear stuck fast between two of the vertebrae, and the animal gave a roar so tremendous, that it completely deafened for the moment those nearest to her. But she was now helpless, and so was easily dispatched. Day soon broke. The man with the dislocated hip was killed, the lioness was skinned and her meat eaten, and the expedition moved on, the men singing what is known as "the war-song of the lion," in full chorus.
The Limpopo river was reached one evening after a hot, waterless march of over forty miles. The summer floods had subsided, and the lovely, forest-fringed stream, with crystal-clear currents swirling and eddying amongst the rocks, lay before them, full three hundred yards in width. The meat was nearly finished, the little remaining being putrid from the heat, but Kondwana rested his men for a couple of days amongst the shady trees on the bank. They knew that the Makalaka cattle were not far off, and a couple of days' hunger was, to Zulu soldiers, not very much of a hardship. On the morning of the third day after reaching the river, the expedition crossed. The crossing was not easy work, as many of the swirling channels were deep and rapid; moreover, on almost every rock crocodiles basked. But the men linked arms, four abreast, and dashed into the water singing their regimental war-song, and in spite of all difficulties reached the opposite bank without the loss of a man.
A somewhat awkward circumstance was this;—a number of the men had lost their spears, and the loss of his weapon by a Zulu soldier was a crime admitting of no palliation or pardon. The Zulu soldier carried only one spear—a frightful weapon, with a broad blade and a short, thick handle. The use of this weapon (ikempe) had been introduced by Tshaka, who substituted it for the light throwing assegai (umkonto). Although quite discarded in war, the assegai was still used in the chase, and the men and boys were encouraged to keep up the practice of assegai throwing. Many of Kondwana's men had brought assegais with them; for the expedition not being a purely military one, discipline was not kept up so strictly as otherwise it would have been.
It was found, however, in hunting, that the light assegai was not effective in bringing down game. When used in stabbing, the weight was not sufficiently great, nor was the blade large enough to inflict a fatal wound; when hurled, the weapon was often lost through the animal escaping with it sticking fast, and being seen no more.
On some occasions the droves of game were so dense that no difficulty was experienced in killing animals by stabbing them at close quarters, but often such could not be done, only a few being driven into the ambush. Then the men had to choose between growing hunger and the risk of losing their spears through the wounded animals escaping, spears and all. As a matter of fact this had often happened, so much so, that by the time the expedition reached the Limpopo, nearly a fourth of the men were either weaponless, or else were armed only with light assegais.
After crossing the Limpopo, the expedition trended slightly to the westward, towards the hilly country where, according to the Balala, many of the cattle of the Makalakas were to be found. On the afternoon of the second day after crossing, troops of cattle and afterwards scattered villages were sighted. The alarm had evidently been given, for it could soon be seen that the cattle were being hurriedly driven off, and when the first village was reached, it was found to be deserted, However, by probing with their spears in the dung of the cattle kraal, the men easily found the flat stones covering the mouths of the underground corn-pits, and in these a fair supply of millet was found. So the men lit fires and cooked the grain. It was dark before they had finished eating, and then they built up the fires, piling on heavy logs which were lying near. Certain faint, twinkling lights were visible on a hillside very far off, and in the direction in which they had seen the cattle being driven in the afternoon, and towards these Kondwana led his men silently, and at a swinging trot.
About an hour before dawn the vanguard suddenly stopped, and the rest of the force formed up slowly in wings, as had been directed. The barking of dogs was heard some distance ahead. The Zulus were now in a comparatively open Country. A grassy expanse between two shallow, forest-filled valleys sloped up gently in front. Kondwana sent scouts ahead. These soon returned with the report that they had found a number of armed men sleeping around some huts close to a kraal which was filled with cattle. The dogs barked incessantly, out as much on account of the Makalaka strangers at the kraal as the Zulus. As a matter of fact, after the alarm was given late in the afternoon, as many of the Makalakas as could be communicated with had assembled here. Scouts had reported in the evening that the strangers were looting the corn from the pits, and only a couple of hours before Kondwana called a halt in the darkness, the fires that the Zulus had lighted were still to be seen burning brightly. Moreover, Kondwana had been very careful in preventing the huts being burnt, lest the Makalakas should infer that his force was moving on. By abstaining from burning the huts he completely deceived the Makalakas, who could not conceive it possible that a hostile force would pass a hut without setting it alight, so they slept in fancied security, little deeming what was in store for them.
Kondwana divided his force into three, each division numbering nearly a hundred men. These took up positions at equidistant points, lines connecting which would have formed an equilateral triangle, the little cluster of huts surrounded by the sleeping Makalakas being in the centre. The dogs, tired of barking at the different parties of Makalakas which had arrived during the night, did not make so much of a disturbance as might have been expected under the circumstances. The three divisions formed themselves into double lines, and then advanced slowly inwards until, at a signal from Kondwana, they yelled out the war cry and rushed forward. In a few minutes all was over. The unfortunate Makalakas were an easy prey; they hardly attempted to resist, but rushed from one side to the other, vainly attempting to escape from the ring of spears. By sheer weight of numbers, they at length broke through on the one side, and then about half of them escaped to the forest. They left over two hundred bodies on the field. The Zulus did not lose a man.
Some women and children rushed out of the huts. Most of them were slain, but some few were taken prisoners. Morning soon broke, and showed the dead lying in every direction, and the ground strewn with weapons which had been cast away in the rout. A few copper ornaments were found upon some of the women, who, upon being questioned, pointed to the north and said that the metal had been brought from there long ago.
The kraal was found to be full of cattle, some of which were at once slaughtered and eaten. Shortly after sunrise, a party of about a hundred Makalakas approached to within a short distance of the huts. When they caught sight of the dead bodies they turned and fled, body pursued by the Zulus for a short distance. None were, however, caught. Kondwana had again given the strictest orders that no huts were to be burnt, so as to avoid spreading the alarm to a distance, for as long a time as possible.
Next morning, large bodies of Makalakas appeared on the surrounding hills, but they were evidently afraid to come near. About midday three men approached to within hailing distance, and asked that three of the Zulus might come out for the purpose of parleying. So Kondwana and two of his men went out, and when they arrived within about a hundred yards of the others, stuck their spears into the ground and called out to the Makalakas to do the same, which they did. The two parties then met, and began to discuss matters.
The Makalaka spokesman inquired of Kondwana who he and the men were, and why they were making war on the Makalaka nation. Kondwana replied to the effect that he and his men were Zulus sent by Tshaka to obtain copper; that they did not want to make war, and had only done so because they found armed men assembled to oppose them.
It could at once be seen that the mere name of Tshaka made a considerable impression. The spokesman replied that the Makalakas did not want to fight with the Zulus, that the copper ore was found in the country of the Balotsi, to the northward, and that a party which the Makalaka chief had sent in the previous year for the purpose of fetching a supply of the ore, had never returned.
It was finally agreed that Kondwana's explanation should be communicated to the Makalaka Chief, and then the two parties separated, after arranging to meet again on the following day.
Next morning the three Makalakas returned, and the spokesman told Kondwana that guides would be provided by the Chief to lead the expedition to the place in the Balotsi country where the ore had been found, and that food for the use of the Zulus on the journey would be provided. All this was due to the fact that the terror of Tshaka's name had penetrated even thus far. Moreover, up to this, none of the Makalakas had come near enough to the main body of the Zulus to be able to see in what force the latter were, and those who had escaped from the slaughter of two nights previous, had greatly exaggerated the number of the assailants.
So on the following day, the Zulus started for the Balotsi country, under the guidance of five old Makalakas, who were stated to have accompanied a copper-seeking expedition many years back. A large herd of cattle, a few of which were pack oxen, had been sent down by the Chief. They loaded the pack oxen with their picks, and with the remainder of the millet which they found in the grain pits at the captured kraal.
The men who had lost their weapons re-armed themselves with the best of those of the slaughtered Makalakas. Such were, however, but poor substitutes for the terrible broad-bladed, thick-handled spears which had been lost, yet they were better than nothing.
The guides led Kondwana and his men through a part of the country which was very thinly populated, so they saw hardly any human beings and no cattle—nor were any signs of cultivation visible. They passed far to the eastward of the populated areas. One day two strange men joined the guides, and after traveling for a short time with the expedition, disappeared. This roused the suspicions of Kondwana, but the guides, although questioned apart from each other, each declared that the strangers were only casual travelers. As a matter of fact, these men were messengers laden with the doom of Kondwana and every man in his force.
This is what had happened. Until the Zulus started from the captured kraal, the Makalakas were under the impression that they had to deal with a full Zulu regiment, numbering probably two thousand men, but when the expedition moved off, and its numerical weakness thus became apparent, the Makalaka Chief at once determined on its destruction. So messengers were at once dispatched in every direction to collect the Makalaka forces, and the two "casual travelers" had been sent to tell the guides to desert two days after crossing the mountain range separating the Makalaka from the Balotsi territory, and, if possible, to take the cattle with them.
Weak as the Zulus were in point of numbers, the Makalakas did not yet dare to attack them.
The gigantic forms, the red shields and the gleaming, broad-bladed spears of Kondwana's small band, and the terrible evidence of prowess as shown in the night attack, had inspired great dread. Moreover, the Makalaka Chief determined on making sure that not a single man should escape to tell the tale to Tshaka. So as the Zulus marched on, a large army, collected from all available quarters, followed on their track at a respectful distance. Fleet runners had been sent on ahead to endeavour to arouse the Balotsi, and thus the Makalaka Chief trusted to being able to crush his foes as though between the jaws of a vice. The guides had been told to delay the march as much as possible by avoiding the direct route wherever such could be done without creating suspicion.
Kondwana and his men reached the mountain range which is a continuation of the great Quathlamba or Drakensberg chain, and saw great frowning precipices rise over steep slopes covered with dense forest. One long winding valley, overhung by precipitous cliffs, cleft the range, and through this the guides led them. At the head of the valley the range was slightly depressed, and a saddle was thus formed between two high peaks. Elevated tablelands, gently sloping to the north-west, and intersected by narrow, shallow valleys, stretched away from the level of the saddle. Each valley carried its stream of water, running between low banks covered with a thick growth of reeds. It was now May, and the cold at night on these high plains was very severe. Fuel was scarce, and the Zulus consequently suffered very much. They had now for some days been passing through a totally uninhabited country. Game was very plentiful, but impossible to capture in the open.
They pressed forward along an old disused foot-path, or rather a number of such, running parallel. As a matter of fact they were on the route which had been traversed lay the Makalaka expedition sent for copper ore in the previous year, and which had not returned nor been heard of.
On the morning of the third day after crossing the saddle, it was found that the guides and the cattle had disappeared during the night. Kondwana found that, overcome by fatigue, the two sentries had fallen asleep at their post, so he speared them with his own hand. He then called the men together, and they deliberated as to what course they should pursue. With one accord it was decided to go forward.
Taking up the track of the cattle, parties were sent out to endeavour to recover them, and between twenty and thirty head, which had become foot-sore and were thus unable to proceed, were brought back in the afternoon. These were at once killed, and the expedition moved on next morning, the men carrying the meat.
The men were now very footsore, in spite of the sandals which they had from time to time made out of the skins of the slaughtered cattle. They were gaunt and haggard from nearly three months of hardship and exposure. Their faces were sunk and their limbs emaciated. Yet no thought of returning before the object of the expedition should have been accomplished occurred to them.
Three days after that on which they had discovered the desertion of the guides, they began to pass human skeletons lying on the path, the bones scattered about and broken, evidently through the agency of beasts of prey. All those that had contained marrow had been cracked, apparently by the jaws of hyenas. Late in the afternoon they reached a spot where about forty or fifty disjointed skeletons were lying indiscriminately. Kondwana noticed scattered about, a quantity of mineral similar to the specimens shown to him at Tshaka's when he received his instructions. "Ah ha!" said he, "this accounts for their not having returned."
The unfortunate copper-carriers had evidently been surprised, surrounded, and killed to a man—probably by the Balotsi. The Zulus, delighted at obtaining evidence of the bare existence of the thing they were seeking, walked about, picking up fragments of the ore, which they put into their skin wallets. It was evident that the greater part of the ore had been removed, yet every man of the expedition was able to secure a piece which he looked upon as a kind of amulet to bring him good fortune. There was a little fuel obtainable where they camped for the night, and the weary, haggard men went to sleep feeling in better spirits than for a long time past.
Just at daybreak next morning the sentries gave the alarm, and the Zulus sprang to their feet to find themselves surrounded by foes. A large Balotsi impi had been sent to intercept them.
The attack began at once, and for a time the struggle was fierce. But at close quarters one Zulu was a match for ten Balotsi, so the assailants were soon glad to retire, leaving nearly a hundred dead behind them. The Zulus lost about five or six men. It was broad daylight when the Balotsi drew off, and the Zulus could see their enemies massed round them in every direction, and outnumbering them excessively. Both parties paused for a time, each watching the other. The sun rose up over the mountains, the sky was clear as a dewdrop, and a bracing breeze swept down the valley, making music through the quivering reeds. Herds of eland, hartebeests, gnu, and other game, stood on the slopes afar off, and looked down on the dark masses of men standing still in grim silence after their desperate struggle.
Then Kondwana gave the order to retreat. There was no other course possible. Hardly any food was left, and the Balotsi were in such force as to render it impossible to cope with them successfully.
So the Zulus began to retire along the course by which they had advanced, and thus their travail entered into its final stage of long agony.
Back towards the saddle at the top of the pass through the mountain range marched Kondwana and the Zulus, the Balotsi force accompanying them at a respectful distance on each side. The Balotsi had had a severe lesson, and were not anxious to come again to close quarters. They found, moreover, that throwing the assegai was not of much avail on account of the large shields which the Zulus carried. Besides, the Zulus made a practice of picking up the assegais falling near or amongst them, and returning these, often with deadly effect, for, being physically much stronger than the Balotsi, their effective range with the assegai was correspondingly greater.
The Zulus stalked on in grim silence, the Balotsi shouting at them in an unknown tongue. At this stage the Balotsi had no intention of attacking.
They knew, what the Zulus did not know, that the Makalaka impi was waiting just on the other side of the saddle. They, the Balotsi, would just keep the Zulus in view, and then assist in their annihilation after the Makalakas had tamed them somewhat. So the Balotsi gave way consistently whenever the weary and footsore Zulus showed a disposition to charge.
The Zulus had thus little save hunger to fear so long as they were in the open country. They marched on, breaking into a trot whenever their course led downhill, during the whole of the day on which their retreat began. Each man still had a small supply of meat left, and portions of this they ate raw as they proceeded. At dusk the foremost of the Balotsi were some distance behind, and after marching for about two hours longer the weary fugitives lay down and rested. Sentries, which were relieved after very short watches, kept guard all night. Before daylight next morning they again started, and the previous day's average of speed was kept up until sundown, when they reached the saddle. They had seen nothing of the Balotsi all day. In fact the latter were a fair day's march behind.
Kondwana halted his men on the north-western side of the saddle, and then went forward with another man for the purpose of reconnoitering. When he looked down the valley, what he saw caused even his brave heart to sink. About a mile from him was massed the advance division of the Makalaka army, and as far as he could see beyond, the smoke was arising from numberless fires.
Kondwana returned to his men, and then the situation was discussed. The majority were in favour of making a dash down the valley and cutting a road through their foes. But the young man Senzanga made a suggestion which soon met with general approval.
All had seen that the Makalaka guides had not led them by a direct route from the captured kraal to the pass, but had made a considerable detour to the eastward. The object of this was now apparent. Senzanga's suggestion was to the effect that they should avoid the pass, striking boldly through the mountains to the south-west, trusting to being able to force their way through the forest on the coast side of the range. They could then make direct for some point on the Limpopo, higher up than where they had crossed. By going straight, they could reach the river by a much shorter journey than the previous one. Senzanga's plan was adopted, so after a cheerless rest of a few hours they started, working slowly up a long spur to the westward of the high peak flanking the saddle on the right-hand side.
As a matter of fact, the Zulus, by their extraordinarily rapid march, had reached the saddle exactly twenty-four hours before their arrival was thought possible by the Makalakas. The fact that the Zulus had begun to retreat had been signaled back by means of fires along the mountain tops, but they were not expected to be seen for another two days. When the Balotsi next day reached the saddle, expecting to find that the Zulus had been already slaughtered, they found, to their astonishment, that nothing had been seen of the fugitives. But the mystery was soon solved—the trail was found leading up the spur, and the intention of the Zulus became immediately clear to the Makalaka Chief, It was now his turn to be seriously alarmed, for if these men should succeed in reaching Zululand, an impi of Tshaka's terrible destroyers would soon be on its way to wreak vengeance. Therefore, at any cost, the fugitives must be intercepted and destroyed to a man. So the Makalakas hastened down the pass, after instructing the Balotsi to keep on the trail of the Zulus over the mountains, harass their rear, and notify their whereabouts by lighting fires on the nearest hills surrounding them every night. But this was a service for which the Balotsi had no stomach. They were a long way from home, and were almost without food; they had tasted of the Zulu spear, and it was bitter. So after making a pretence of obeying, they turned round and hurried homeward as fast as they could.
Kondwana and his force found the mountain range to be less formidable than they had anticipated, but nevertheless their sufferings were awful. Food, they now had none, and hunger gnawed at them with incessant and increasing violence. Their feet were so sore that every step over the rough, stony ground caused torture. Every now and then men dropped, unable to proceed further, and were at once speared by their companions.
On the evening of the day after they had struck into the mountains, the Zulus reached the forest-belt on the coast slope, and in front of them, distant about two days' easy march, could be seen the shining, wood-fringed reaches of the Limpopo, beyond which lay their only chance of salvation. But between them and the Limpopo was the Makalaka army.
That night the Zulus lay close to the upper margin of the forest, keeping neither watch nor ward. When the darkness set in, they could see below them the watch-fires of their foes, and they were thus able to tell approximately where the Makalakas were in greatest force.
It now became quite apparent to Kondwana that there was still a slender chance of escape if the men could only hold on a little longer without food. The left wing of the Makalaka army was slightly to the left of the Zulus, and if the latter could only manage to trend off a little more to the right, and find a passage through the forest, they might be able to creep past the Makalakas and even reach the river before being overtaken. As a matter of fact, the Makalaka Chief had again underestimated the marching capacity of the Zulus, and had not come far enough along the foot of the mountain range to the south-west, to intercept them.
Kondwana expounded his view of the situation to the men, who were almost in despair, and then called for volunteers to cross a valley and ascend a spur to the left, and there kindle fires. This spur was almost in front of the main division of the Makalaka army. Ten men volunteered for this service, and returned late in the night, after having performed it effectively.
Towards morning the Zulus again moved on, bearing down cautiously through the forest to their right. The Makalakas thought that Kondwana's fires were signals from the Balotsi to indicate that the fugitives were in the forest below the spur. They never supposed that the Zulus would indicate their whereabouts by lighting fires. So when daylight came, the Zulus had succeeded in outflanking their foes, and were making, as fast as starvation and their lacerated feet would let them, for the river.
Towards noon, a herd of cattle was seen. This was at once taken possession of, and soon a number of the beasts were slaughtered. The starving men tore the raw, smoking flesh, and drank the blood greedily. They then cut up the hides and bound pieces around their feel. After this, and a short rest, they felt like new beings. Hope took the place of the blank despair which had overwhelmed them a few hours previously. Another effort and they would reach the river beyond which lay safety. So they started again, driving the remainder of the herd of cattle before them, and each man carrying a small quantity of meat. Their number was now reduced to but a little over two hundred.
But they were not to escape from the toils. Their trail had been discovered, and the pick of the Makalaka impi was now overhauling them fast. Yet they had another short respite. It seemed indeed as if Fate were playing with them. They traveled on through the night, and in the darkness the pursuers lost their trail.
The Makalakas thought that the Zulus would make for the river at its nearest point, losing sight of the fact that the latter were strangers, blindly groping in unfamiliar surroundings; so when morning broke, the pursuers found that the trail was lost. They soon, however, ascertained that they were proceeding by a course parallel to that taken by the fugitives, and about a mile to the right of the latter. In spite of all they had under-gone, the Zulus were still keeping the lead slightly, but their limit of endurance had almost been reached. They were now making down a long, gentle slope towards the river, which was only about four miles distant. They had abandoned the cattle, and their formation was lost; in fact, they were just a disorganised mob of staggering men. The Makalakas were now gaining on them rapidly. The foremost of the pursuers did not make direct for the Zulus, but for a point lying between the latter and the river, so as to intercept them.
When Kondwana saw that they were cut off, he called out his men to halt, so they formed up and then lay down on the ground to rest. On came the main body of the Makalaka impi, and soon the haggard little band of Zulus was surrounded by foes outnumbering them by more than ten to one. At a signal from Kondwana, his men sprang to their feet, and forming themselves into a ring, faced the enemy on all sides. Under the stimulus of attack they almost ceased to feel fatigue. They knew they had now to die, and they burned with fierce resentment against the foes that had so pitilessly tormented them.
Kondwana gave the order that they were still to make for the river—now only a few hundred yards distant, keeping, as far as possible, their circular formation. The circle was formed two deep, the men of the outer ring sloping their shields outwards and those on the inner ring sloping their shields inwards, so as to ward off the assegais passing over the opposite edges of the circle. The Makalakas came on, making a horrible noise in which a buzzing sound seemed to mingle with a rumble formed in the throat. In the meantime reinforcements to the Makalakas came pouring in, and massing principally between the Zulus and the river, for the Chief had impressed on all the necessity for not allowing a single Zulu to escape.
The slaughter began with a discharge of assegais from all sides at once, the Zulus crouched down, covering as much as possible of their bodies with the shield. A few men fell, but the gaps were at once filled by the circle shortening in. For some time the Zulus only resisted passively, the circle slowly moving on towards the forest-fringe of the river, and consequently the Makalakas became bolder, and closed in nearer and nearer to the doomed circle. But the Zulus did not mean to die quietly. All at once they stopped in their slow, silent progress, and the Makalakas moved in closer, thinking that the time for finishing them off had arrived. Then the war-cry rang out, and with one splendid dash the Zulus were amongst the densest mass of their foes. Nothing could withstand the fury of their onslaught and the Makalakas tell under their spears like corn to the sickle.
The sun was just sinking. The Zulus had broken almost completely through the thickest portion of the ring formed by their foes. Only a few yards before them was the dense river-forest, offering sanctuary. But escape was not to be.
Having been unable to re-form after the charge, they were practically defenceless against a tremendous attach on their rear led by the Makalaka Chief in person, whilst hundreds of assegais were hurled in with deadly effect from both sides. About twenty bleeding men managed to reach the forest, but their pursuers leached it at the same time, and one by one the Zulus died in desperate hand to hand encounters amidst the twilight of the trees.
As night fell, the Makalakas drew off under the impression that the last Zulu was dead. Their own loss had been heavy. In the final charge they had been cut down by wholesale. But the Chief now felt safe from the avenging wrath of Tshaka.
Three of the Zulus were, however, still alive. Kondwana the induna, Senzanga—the man without a head-ring, and one other, had fallen into an old elephant-pit, the surface of which was completely covered over with brushwood. Dry leaves and twigs had accumulated at the bottom, and thus the shock of their fall had been lessened. Wounded and bleeding, they lay in the pit until the howling of the hyaenas told them that the Makalakas had withdrawn from the field of battle.
Of the four hundred veterans who had, but a few months previously, departed on the quest of the copper, only these three remained. All the splendid valour displayed, all the incomparable devotion and endurance manifested, had been wasted—poured out like their blood on the sand— sacrificed to the senseless suspicions of a brutal, irresponsible tyrant.
Nor was any living creature one whit the gainer—save the hyaenas.
Tshaka, King of the Zulus, sat in his royal kraal one morning in November, 1816. His Majesty was in a bad temper. Umziligazi and his clan, the Amandabele, rather than stay and all be killed on account of a misunderstanding over some loot, had arisen and fled across the Drakensberg to such a distance, that pursuit—for the present, at all events—was out of the question. Other things, worries from which the most despotic a ad irresponsible monarchs are not free, were also annoying him. Consequently those to whom he had lately been granting audience had had a bad time of it. In fact the executioners were busy every day.
One of the chief indunas ventured to communicate the fact that a very old and strange-looking man, who did not appear to be quite right in his wits, together with a. slightly younger, though equally weird-looking companion, craved an audience with the king.
Tshaka shared to the fullest extent those superstitions which form such a salient characteristic of all the Bantu tribes. Now, all savages believe that persons whose wits are affected are wizards, whom it is good policy to propitiate, and whom he may be dangerous to offend. Therefore the king signified that the strangers might approach.
Two men were then led before Tshaka. They were both fearfully emaciated and gaunt, and were scarred from head to foot. The elder man could not walk alone, bur leant upon the shoulder of the younger as he hobbled along, using the remains of a broken spear, the blade of which was worn down to a knob, and the shattered handle of which was bound together with little thongs—as a walking stick. This man (the elder) had the appearance of great age. His form was bent, and the little hair which he still retained was quite white. His battered head-ring, being attached only by one side, shook as if it would fall off on account of the motion caused by his walking. He appeared to be nearly blind. At the entrance to the Royal Kraal he had been ordered, according to established rule, to give up his spear, but he resisted so energetically that they allowed him to retain it—and, after all, it could hardly be called a weapon. He carried a small skin wallet slung to his waist.
The younger man looked old with the oldness that comes not of time but of suffering. His very flesh seemed to have disappeared, and his eyes had sunk deep into his head.
Kondwana, and Senzanga had travailed heavily since we left them on the night after the slaughter, in the elephant-pit on the northern bank of the Limpopo. After resting in the pit for a short time, the three survivors crept out and tried to cross the river. Kondwana and Senzanga succeeded after grievous pains, but the other man, who was desperately wounded, was swept away in one of the swirls and drowned.
For months that seemed to them like long-drawn years, Kondwana and his companion crept slowly southward, subsisting on whatever they could pick up in the way of food. Gum, exuding from the acacias, wild fruits, birds' eggs, young, nestling birds and honey, formed their principal fare. "Incinci," the honey-bird, was their best friend and purveyor, and often led them to where the bees had stored their treasure in hollow trees, and holes in the donga-banks.
The wild beasts of the desert gazed at them without dread. Great troops of elephants went trumpeting past, taking no more notice of them than of the monkeys in the trees. Lions, hyaenas, and jackals came up and sniffed at them where they lay at night, and then passed on seeking daintier food.
They reached the land of the Amaswazi, and superstitious dread caused them to be assisted with food and shelter. They came to their own country and wandered on, unrecognised by those who had known them well less than nine months previously. And now they crouched to the ground at Tshaka's feet.
When they, with difficulty, arose after the obeisance, a change seemed to have come over Kondwana's face. The presence of the King, and the sound of his voice seemed to act as a stimulant upon the old man's torpid mind. In fact, they brought the farther past into stronger relief than the more recent, and then reality dawned up through the mists of fantasy that had clouded his brain for so long. His eye brightened. He remembered the past. He knew clearly where he was, and why he was there.
Gazing fixedly at the King, Kondwana let the broken spear fall to the ground, and then with his shaking right hand began fumbling at the skin wallet. After some little delay, he succeeded in opening this, and then he drew from it a lump of bright copper ore, about the size of a hen's egg. This he silently held out to Tshaka.
The King took the lump and examined it, and then looked sharply at the giver's face for a few seconds. Then in a tone of irritated surprise, he asked:
"Are you Kondwana?"
"Yes, my King."
"Where are your soldiers, and where are the stones you were sent to fetch?"
"The soldiers are dead, my King. Only this one and I are living. We were overcome by the Makalakas and the Balotsi. We slew them in crowds, but they were too many for us, and we had no food. I have brought the stone to show that I tried to do your bidding."
When Tshaka recognised Kondwana, his superstitious fears at once vanished. Here was no wizard potent for evil, but his own man Kondwana, the induna, whom he hated and had sent away so as to be rid of him. Besides, Kondwana stood there self-convicted of the deadly sin which admitted of no pardon; he had returned unsuccessful from an expedition; he had been defeated. Moreover, Tshaka was in a bad temper owing to the causes we have specified.
So he signed to one of his ever-ready executioners and said:
"Take them away and kill them."
The executioners approached, but Kondwana drew himself up with ineffable dignity, signed to them with his hand to pause, and spake in a firm voice.
"O King, for my own death I thank you, for why should I longer live? But this man is still young, and has done no evil deed. Let him wash his spear once in the blood of your enemies, and die at the tip of your battle-horn."
Tshaka, thoroughly enraged, was a fearsome sight. Like Peter the Great, his features worked and twitched horribly. Those who beheld him thus, felt that they were before the very face of Death, embodied and visible.
All in his presence, except the two doomed men, crouched to the ground and hid their faces in their hands. Even his mother, 'Mnande, more privileged than others, and often bolder in interfering in his counsels, bent down where she was sitting until her forehead touched the ground.
He glared speechlessly at Kondwana and Senzanga, who, having gone far beyond the limit of experience where Fear dwells, looked back quietly at his face. When he at length found his voice, it came in the semblance of a gasping roar:
"Take them away—Dogs."
Like men released from a spell, the executioners sprang on Kondwana and Senzanga and dragged them away, two men seizing each of them—one by each arm. Kondwana was unable to walk, so was dragged along the ground towards the place of execution, which was at the back of the Royal Kraal. When they had got out of the King's sight, even the executioners were moved to pity, so they lifted him on to the shoulders, and thus carried him to the shambles.
When Kondwana reached the place of execution, Senzanga was already dead, his neck broken by his head having been twisted round from the back, the usual mode of dispatch. They set Kondwana down on the ground, and then one of the executioners seized his head and twisted it; but it seemed as if on account of the tendons being so relaxed from emaciation, the spine would not dislocate, although twisted beyond the usual dislocation point, so the executioner sprang up, and seizing a club, crushed the skull in with one blow.
So Kondwana, even at the very last, tasted more than his proper share of the bitterness of death.
"That darksome cave they enter, where they find That cursed man, low sitting on the ground, Musing full sadly in his sullein mind."
WHEN Corporal Francis Dollond and Trooper James Franks of the Natal Mounted Police, overstayed their ten days' leave of absence from the camp on the Upper Tugela, in the early part of 1883, everybody was much surprised; they being two of the best conducted and most methodical men in the force. But the weeks and then the months went by without anything whatever being heard of them, so they were officially recorded as deserters. Nevertheless, none of their comrades really believed that these men had deserted; each one felt there was something mysterious about the circumstance of their disappearance. They had applied for leave for the alleged purpose of visiting Pietermaritzburg. They started on foot, stating their intention of walking to Estcourt, hiring horses from natives there, and proceeding on horseback. They had evidently never reached Estcourt, as nothing could be heard of them at that village. They were both young men—colonists by birth. Dollond had an especially youthful appearance. Franks was older. He had joined the force later in life. He and Dollond, who had only very recently before his disappearance been promoted, were chums.
Some months later in the same year, when Troopers George Langley and Hiram Whitson also applied for ten days' leave of absence—likewise to proceed to Pietermaritzburg—the leave was granted; but the officer in charge of the detachment laughingly remarked that he hoped they were not going to follow Dollond and Franks.
Now, neither Langley nor Whitson had the remotest idea of visiting Pietermaritzburg. It is necessary, of course, for the reader to know where they did intend going to, and how the intention arose; but before doing this we must deal with some antecedent circumstances.
Langley was certainly the most boyish-looking man in the force. He had a perfectly smooth face, ruddy complexion, and fair hair. He was of middle height, and was rather inclined to stoutness. He was so fond of talking that his comrades nicknamed him "magpie." A colonist by birth, he could speak the Kafir language like a native.
Whitson was a sallow-faced, spare-built man of short stature, with dark brown beard and hair, and piercing black eyes. His age was about forty. He had a wiry and terrier-like appearance. A "down-East" Yankey, he had spent some years in Mexico, and then drifted to South Africa during the war-period which, it will be remembered, lasted from 1877 to 1882. He had served in the Zulu war as a noncommissioned officer in one of the irregular cavalry corps, with some credit. The fact of his being a man of extremely few words was enough to account for the friendship which existed between him and the garrulous Langley. Whitson was known to be a dead shot with the revolver.
This is how they came to apply for leave. One day Langley was strolling about just outside the lines looking for somebody to talk to, when he noticed an apparently very old native man sitting on an ant-heap, and regarding him somewhat intently. This old native had been several times seen in the vicinity of the camp, but he never seemed to speak to any one, and he looked so harmless that the police did not even trouble to ask him for the written pass which all natives are obliged by law to carry when they move about the country. The old man saluted Langley and asked in his own language for a pipeful of tobacco. Langley always carried some loose leaves broken up in his pocket, so he at once pulled some of these out and half filled the claw-like hand outstretched to receive them. The old native was voluble in thanks. There was a large ant-heap close to the one on which he had been sitting, and on which he reseated himself whilst filling his pipe. Against this Langley leant and took a good look at his companion. The man had a most extraordinary face. His lower jaw and cheek-bones were largely developed, but Langley hardly noticed this, so struck was he with the strange formation of the upper jaw. That portion of the superior maxillary bone which lies between the sockets of the eye-teeth protruded, with the sockets, to a remarkable degree, and instead of being curved, appeared to be quite straight. The incisor teeth were very large and white, but it was the development of the eye-teeth that was most startling. These, besides being very massive, were produced below the level of the incisors to a depth of nearly a quarter of an inch. They distinctly suggested to Langley the tusks of a baboon.
As is very unusual with natives, the man was perfectly bald. His back was bent, and his limbs were somewhat shrunken, but he did not appear in the least degree decrepit. His eyelids were very red, and his eyes, though dim, had a deep and intent look. Ugly as was the man—or perhaps by virtue of his ugliness—he exercised a strange fascination over Langley.
The old man, whose name turned out to be Ghamba, proved himself a talker after Langley's own heart. They discussed all sorts of things. Ghamba startled his hearer by his breadth of experience and his shrewdness. He said he was a "Hlubi" Kafir from Qumbu in the territory of Griqualand East, but that he had for some time past been living in Basutoland, which is situated just behind the frowning wall of the Drakensberg, to the south-west of where they were speaking, and not twenty miles distant.
They talked until it was time for Langley to return to camp. He was so pleased at the entertainment afforded by Ghamba, that all the tobacco he had with him found its way into the claw-like hand of that strange-looking man of many experiences and quaint ideas. So Langley asked him to come to the ant-heap again on the following day, and have another talk at the same hour. This, Ghamba, with a wide and prolonged exposure of his teeth, readily agreed to do.
Langley was extremely voluble to Whitson that night over his new acquaintance. Whitson listened with his usual impassiveness, and then asked Langley how it was that "an old loafing nigger," as he expressed it, had impressed him so remarkably. Langley replied that he did not quite know, but he thought the effect was largely due to the man's teeth. But all the same he was "a very entertaining old buffer."
Next afternoon, Langley was so impatient to resume conversation with his new friend, that he repaired to the ant-heap quite half-an-hour before the appointed time. He had not, however, long to wait, as Ghamba soon appeared emerging from a donga a couple of hundred yards away.
Langley was more impressed than ever. Ghamba told him all about the Basutos, amongst whom he had lived; about the old days in Natal, before even the Dutch occupation, when Tshaka's impis wiped whole tribes out of existence; of the recent wars in Zululand and the Cape Colony, and as to the probability of future disturbances. Charmed as was Langley by the old man's conversation, he felt that on this occasion there was a little too much of it, that Ghamba was not nearly so good a listener as he had been on the previous day, so when the latter at length put a question to him, thus affording an opportunity for the exercise of his own pent-up loquacity, Langley felt elated, more especially as several inquiries were grouped together in the one asking, Ghamba asked whether anything had been heard of Umhlonhlo; whether the capture of that fugitive rebel was considered likely, and whether it was true that a reward of 1500 pounds had been offered by the Government for his capture, dead or alive.
Umhlonhlo, it will be remembered, was the Pondomise chief who rebelled in 1880, treacherously murdered Mr. Hope, the magistrate of Qumbu, and his two companions, and who has since been an outlaw with a price on his head.
Langley replied to the effect that it was quite true such a reward had been offered; that nothing as yet had been ascertained as to Umhlonhlo's whereabouts, but that the Government believed him to be in Pondoland; that he was sure to be captured eventually; that he, Langley, only wished he knew where Umhlonhlo was, so as to have the chance of making five hundred pounds with which to buy a certain nice little farm he knew of; and that should he ever succeed in obtaining the reward and consequently taking his discharge and purchasing the farm, he would be jolly glad if old Ghamba would come and live with him. This is only some of what he said; when Langley's tongue got into motion, he seemed to have some difficulty in stopping it.
However, he paused at last, and then Ghamba, looking very intently at him, said;
"Look here, can you keep a secret?"
Here was a mystery.
"Rather," said Langley.
"Will you swear by the name of God that you will not reveal what I tell you?"
Ghamba drew near until his teeth were within a few inches of Langley's cheek, and said in a whisper;
"I know where Umhlonhlo is."
Langley started, and said in an awed voice;
"Where is he?
"Wait a bit," said Ghamba, "perhaps I will tell you, and perhaps I won't. I like you, you have given me tobacco, and you are not too proud to come and talk to a poor old man. Now, you say you would like to make five hundred pounds and buy a farm?"
"And that you would let me go and live on the farm with you and end my days in peace?"
"I would, gladly."
"Well then, if I lake you to where Umhlonhlo is, and you kill him and get the money, will you give me twenty-five pounds, and let me keep a few goats, and grow a few mealies on your land?"
"I should think I would. But how could one man take or kill Umhlonhlo? They say he is well armed and that he has a lot of followers with him."
"Umhlonhlo," said Ghamba, glancing anxiously round as if he feared the very ant-heap were listening, "is hiding in a cave in the mountains, not three days' walk from here. He has not got a single man with him, because he fears being given up. He is really in hiding from his own followers now. My sister is one of his wives, and that is how I know all about it. I passed the cave where he lives, four nights ago, and saw him sitting by the fire. He has only a few women with him."
"And how do you think I should take him?"
"Take him? you should kill him. I will guide you to the cave by night, and then you can shoot him as he sits by the fire."
Langley, although no coward, was not particularly brave. He did not much relish the idea of alone tackling the redoubtable Umhlonhlo, a savage of muscle, who was reported to be always armed to the teeth. Moreover, he had no gun, and was but an indifferent shot with a revolver. So he thought over the matter for a few moments and then said:
"Look here, Ghamba. I do not care to tackle this job alone, but if I can take another man with me, I am on."
"Then you will only get half of the five hundred pounds, and will not be able to buy the farm. You need not be afraid; you can shoot him without his seeing you."
"No," said Langley after a pause. "I will not go alone, but if you will let me take another man with me, it can be managed. It will make no difference to you; you will get your twenty-five pounds."
"And how about my going to live on the farm with you?"
"Well, I could not buy the farm for two hundred and fifty pounds. Come, we will give you fifty pounds instead of twenty-five."
Ghamba thought for a while and then said;
"Very well, I consent. But there need be only one other man, and you will write down on a piece of paper that you will give me the fifty pounds. When can we start?"
"I must speak to the other man, and then we wilt apply for leave. We had better start soon, or else Umhlonhlo may have gone to some other place of hiding."
"Yes, we must lose no time."
"All right, meet me here tomorrow and I will bring my friend. We will then settle all about it."
"You must not mention this matter to any one else, and you must make your friend promise to keep the secret."
"Oh, that's all right," said Langley; "meet me here to-morrow just after dinner."
Langley went back to camp, Ghamba looking after his retreating figure with a smile that revealed his teeth in a very striking manner. Langley was intensely excited, and exacted (quite unnecessarily) the most solemn promises from Whitson not to divulge the great secret which he confided to him. Whitson agreed at once to join in the enterprise, which was one after his own heart.
Next day the three met at the big ant-heap, and Whitson was very much impressed by Ghamba's teeth. He told Langley afterwards that they reminded him of a picture of the Devil which he had seen in a copy of the "Pilgrim's Progress." The old man's story appeared, however, consistent enough, in spite of his peculiar dentition.
So after a short conversation Langley and Whitson returned to camp, having made an appointment to meet Ghamba again on the following morning at sunrise, so as to finally arrange as to time of starting, &c. They went at once to the officer in charge of the detachment and applied for ten days' leave of absence for the purpose of proceeding to Pietermaritzburg, which was at once granted.
Next morning they met Ghamba again, and agreed to start on their expedition that evening. He explained that they must do all their traveling by night, and lie by during the day, because it would never do for him, Ghamba, to run the risk of being recognised by persons whom they might meet. For the sake of his Hlubi relations who were living amongst the Pondomise at Qumbu, it was absolutely necessary that he should not appear in the transaction at all. Were it ever to be even suspected that he had betrayed the Chief, not alone would he be certainly killed, but all his relations would be shunned by the other natives. He was an old man, so for him, personally, nothing mattered very much, but a man is bound to consider the interests of his family. Traveling only by night, and lying still and hidden during the day, were therefore absolutely necessary stipulations, and Langley and Whitson agreed to them as intelligible and reasonable. All being settled, the latter started for the Camp, Ghamba baring his teeth excessively as they walked away.
At dusk on the evening of the same day, Langley and Whitson met Ghamba once more at the large ant-heap, and the three at once proceeded on their course. The only arms taken were revolvers of the Government regulation pattern (breech loading, central-fire). They carried provisions calculated to last eight days, but took no blankets on account of having to travel at night. When Ghamba volunteered to relieve them of a considerable share of their respective loads, Langley and Whitson were filled with grateful surprise.
The plan was as follows:
Whitson was to shoot Umhlonhlo, and then remain in the cave whilst Langley returned to the Camp to report what had been done, and cause persons who could identify the body to be sent for. They seem to have had no scruples as to the deed they meant to do; certainly Umhlonhlo deserved no more mercy than a beast of prey, nor does it seem to have struck them that possibly they might shoot the wrong man. But there was an air of conviction about the manner in which Ghamba showed his teeth when asked whether he was positive as to the identity of the man in the cave, that would have dissipated the doubts of most men. Besides this, he drew out the written undertaking which they had delivered to him, and said, with a profoundly business-like look:
"Do I not want the money? Should I take all this trouble if I did not know what I were doing?"
They walked all night, only resting once or twice for a few minutes. It was found that Ghamba; in spite of his age, was an extremely good walker; and when they halted at daylight, Langley was so done up that he could not have held out for another half-hour. Whitson, the wiry, had not yet felt the least fatigue.
This march had taken them to the very foot of the great Drakensberg range, and they rested in a valley between two of its main spurs. Here they remained all day, comfortably located in a sheltered nook, where there was plenty of dry grass. Their resting place was encircled by immense rocks. Although the surrounding country was desolate to a degree, and neither a human being nor an animal was to be seen, Ghamba would not hear of their lighting a fire nor leaving the spot where they rested. The weather was clear, and neither too warm nor too cold. They slept at intervals during the day, and at evening felt quite recovered from their fatigue. At nightfall they again started, their course leading steeply up the gorge in which they had rested. Although the pathway became more and more indistinct, Ghamba appeared never to be at a loss. Langley several times shuddered, when they passed by the very edge of some immense precipice, or clambered along some steep mountain side, where a false step would have meant destruction. He began to show signs of fatigue soon after midnight, so at Ghamba's suggestion a considerable portion of his load was transferred to the shoulders of Whitson, who seemed to be as tireless as Ghamba himself.
At daybreak they halted in the depths of another tremendous gorge with precipitous sides. The scenery in this particular area of the Drakensberg range, the neighbourhood of the Mont aux Sources, is indescribably grand and impressive, and is quite unlike anything else in South Africa. Enormous and fantastically-shaped mountains are here huddled together indiscriminately, and between them wind and double deep gloomy gorges, along the bottoms of which mighty boulders are thickly strewn. On dizzy ledge and steep slope dense thickets of wild bamboo grow, and a few stunted trees fill some of the less deep clefts, wherever the sunshine can penetrate. Splendid as is the scenery, its gloom, its stillness, its naked crags and peaks, its dark depths that seem to cleave to the very vitals of the earth, become so oppressive, that after a few days spent amongst them, the traveler is filled with repulsion and almost horror. Few living things have their home here. You might meet an occasional "klipspringer" (an antelope in habits and appearance somewhat like the chamois), a wandering troop of baboons, and now and then a herd of eland in the more grassy areas. There are said to be a few Bushmen still haunting the caves, but they are seldom or never seen.
In the afternoon, the sun shone into the gorge in which the travelers were resting, and for a few hours the heat was very oppressive. Whitson examined his revolver, removing the cartridges and replacing them by others. He then lay down to sleep, asking Langley to remain awake and keep a lookout. He had a vague feeling of un-easiness which he could not overcome. Langley promised to keep awake, but he was too tired to do so. He sat with his back against a rock, and after some futile efforts to keep his eyes open, fell fast asleep. By and by Ghamba woke him gently, and, pointing to Whitson, whose revolver lay in the leather case close to his hand, whispered;
"Did he not tell you to keep awake?"
Langley was grateful for this evidence of consideration, but he could not quite make out how Ghamba had been able to understand what Whitson had said. However, when the latter awoke, Langley said nothing to him about having disobeyed instructions.
Ghamba said that about two hours' walk would now bring them to Umhlonhlo's cave, so they started off briskly at dusk. Their course now led for some distance along a mountain ledge covered with wild bamboo, through which the pathway wound. Then they crossed a sleep saddle between two enormous peaks, after which they plunged into another deep and winding gorge. This they followed until they reached a part where it was so narrow that the sides seemed almost to touch over their heads. Beyond, the cliffs fell apart, and then apparently curved towards each other again, thus forming an immense amphitheatre. At the entrance to this Ghamba stopped, and said in a whisper that they were now close to the cave.
They now held a consultation, in terms of which it was decided that Ghamba should go forward and reconnoiter. So Whitson and Langley sat down close together and waited, conversing in low tones.
Whitson felt very uneasy, but Langley tried to argue him out of his fears. The more Whitson saw of Ghamba, the more he disliked and distrusted him and his teeth. The instinct which detects danger in the absence of any apparent evidence of its existence is a faculty developed in some men by an adventurous life. This faculty Whitson possessed in a high degree.
"Did you keep awake all the time I slept this afternoon?" he asked.
Langley feared Whitson, and felt inclined to lie, but something impelled him, almost against his will, to speak the truth now.
"No," he replied, "I slept for a few minutes."
Whitson drew his revolver and opened the breech.
"By God!" he said, "the cartridges are gone."
Langley took his weapon out of the leather case and opened it. He found the cartridges were there right enough.
"Have you any spare cartridges?" asked Whitson.
Whitson had already loaded his revolver with the five cartridges which he had removed in the afternoon, but he again took these out and replaced them in his waistcoat pocket, and then he re-loaded with some which Langley passed over to him with a trembling hand.
"Look here," he said in a hoarse whisper, "we are in a trap of some kind. When that old scoundrel comes back, do not let him know that we have found out anything. We will walk on with him for a short distance, at all events, and then be guided by circumstances. Stand by when you see me collar him, and slip a sack over his head."
"Can we not go back now?" said Langley.
"Certainly not; we would never find our way at night. I guess we must see this circus out. If you have to shoot, aim low."
In a few minutes Ghamba returned.
"Come on," he said. "He is sitting at the fire in front of the cave. I have just seen him."
"Where is the cave," asked Whitson, "is it far from here?"
"We will reach it very soon; you can see the light of the fire from a few paces ahead."
They walked on for about fifty yards and there, sure enough, over a rocky slope to their left, and at the foot of a crag about three hundred yards away, could be seen the bright and fitful glow from a fire which was hidden from their view by a low ridge of piled-up rocks.
Whitson stood still and questioned Ghamba:
"Now tell me," he asked through Langley as interpreter, "how are we to approach?"
"The pathway leads up on the left side," replied Ghamba; "we will walk close up to the crag where there is a narrow passage between it and that big black rock which you see against the light. You two can lead, and I will tie close behind. I have just seen him. He is sitting at the fire, eating, and only the women are with him."
The last words were hardly out of the speaker's mouth before Whitson had seized him by the throat with a vice-like grasp.
"Seize his hands and hold them," he hissed to Langley.
Ghamba struggled desperately, but could not release himself. Whitson compressed his throat until he became unconscious, and then gagged him with a pocket-handkerchief. Ghamba's hands were then tied tightly behind his back with another pocket-handkerchief, and his feet were firmly secured with a belt. An empty sack (from which they had removed their provisions) was then drawn over his head and shoulders, and secured round the waist.
"Come on now, quickly," whispered Whitson, and he and Langley started off in the direction of the fire, after first taking off their boots.
They did not approach by the course which Ghamba had indicated, but made their way quietly up the slope straight against the face of the crag. They reached the heap of rocks, and crept in amongst them by means of another narrow passage, close to the inner end of which the fire was, and this is what they saw through the twigs of a scrubby bush which effectually concealed them.
A large cave opened into the side of the mountain, and just before the mouth was an open space about twenty yards in diameter, surrounded on all sides except that of the mountain itself by a wall of loosely-piled rocks, through which passages led out in different directions. Just in front of the cave burned a bright fire, around which crouched four most hideous and filthy-looking old bags, and against which were propped several large earthenware pots of native make, full of water. Standing behind rocks, one at each side of the inner entrance to the passage, which was evidently that communicating with the pathway indicated by Ghamba as the one they were to approach by, were two powerful-looking men, stark-naked, and as black as ebony, their skins shining in the light of the fire. Each man held a coiled thong in his hands, after the manner of a sailor about to heave a line. Whilst they were looking, a woman somewhat younger in appearance than any of those who sat by the fire, came out of the cave carrying a strong club about three feet long. She crouched down close to the man standing on the left-hand side of the passage, who, as well as his companion, stood as still as a marble statue, and in an expectant attitude.
Whitson and Langley, with their revolvers drawn, suddenly stepped out of their concealment, and walked towards the fire. This evidently disconcerted the men with the thongs, who apparently did not expect their intended prey to approach by any course except the passage near which they were standing; but after a slight pause of hesitancy, the thongs were whirling in the air, and descending, lasso-fashion, upon the shoulders of the intruders. The noose caught Langley over his arms, which were instantly drawn close against his body as the throng tightened, so he was thus rendered completely powerless; but Whitson sprang, quick as lightning, to one side, and escaped. Three shots from his revolver rang out in as many seconds, and the two men and the woman—who was in the act of lifting her club to brain Langley—lay rolling on the ground, each with a bullet through the head.
The four old hags at the fire began to mow and scream, and got up and hobbled into the cave. Whitson drew his knife, and cut the thong with which Langley was vainly struggling, and then the two men, pale as death, looked silently at each other with starting eyes.
Whitson re-loaded his revolver, and then made a sort of torch out of dry reeds; a pile of which lay close at hand. He then, leaving Langley to guard the cave, carefully examined all the passages and spaces between the rocks, but he could mid no trace of any one. The two men thereupon entered the cave, Whitson holding the torch high over his head. They found that it ran straight in or about fifteen paces, and then curved sharply to the left.
It was about four paces in width, and about eight feet high—the roof being roughly arched. The walls and roof were covered with thick, black, greasy soot; and an indescribably horrible stench, which increased the further they advanced, made them almost vomit. They found that where the cave curved to the left, it ended in a circular chamber about eight paces in diameter, and at one side of this crouched the four old hags, huddled together, and mowing and chattering horribly.
Across a cleft about two feet wide, in the right-hand wall of the cave, a stick was fixed transversely, and hanging to this were some lumps of half-dried and smoked flesh. Whitson went up close and examined these carefully. He drew back with a shudder, and his face changed from pale to ashen grey.
He and Langley then went outside and stood for a while in the fresh air. They could endure, just then, no more of the foetid atmosphere inside. After a short time, they gathered up some dry twigs and reeds, and set several little heaps alight at different spots inside. This had the effect of making the atmosphere more bearable in the course of a few minutes. They then made a larger fire in the middle of the cave, and proceeded to examine it more closely.
They found several old iron picks, such as are used by natives in cultivating their fields, some very filthy skins, a number of earthenware pots, a few knives, and an axe; but nothing more.
The floor of the cave was of clay, and at one spot it appeared to have been recently disturbed. Here Langley began to dig with a pick, which, just below the surface, struck against some hard substance. This, when uncovered, proved to be a bone. He threw it to one aide and dug deeper, uncovering move bones, some old, and others comparatively fresh, but emitting a horrible smell. He stooped and picked one up, but dropped it immediately, as if it burnt him. It was the lower jawbone of a human being.
"Great God!" he gasped. "What is the meaning of this?"
"It means," said Whitson, "that we are in a nest of bloody cannibals."
Langley dropped like a stone, in a dead taint; so Whitson dragged him outside, and leaving him to recover in the open air, returned to the cave, He then seized the pick and began digging, unearthing some new horror at every stroke. A glittering object caught his eye; he picked this up and found it to be the steel buckle of a woman's belt. He glanced towards the cleft in the rock where the lumps of flesh were hanging, and caught his breath short. Going outside he made another torch which he lit, and then he returned and carefully examined, the loosened surface. Another glittering object caught his eye. This, when examined proved to be an old silver watch, the appearance of which seemed familiar. He forced open the case, and saw, roughly scratched on the inside, the letter D. He now recognised it; he remembered having once fixed a glass in this very watch for Dolland, about a month before the latter's disappearance. Continuing his search "Whitson found the iron heel-plate of a boot, and a small bunch of keys.
Whitson drew his revolver, and picking up the torch went into the terminal chamber. Four shots fired in quick succession reverberated immediately afterwards through the cavern.
Whitson then went outside to Langley, whom he found sitting down near the fire, looking, if possible, more ghastly than before. The presence of Whitson seemed, however, to act on him as a kind of tonic, and he soon pulled himself together sufficiently to assist in piling a quantity of fuel upon the already sinking fire, which soon blazed brightly, lighting up the mouth of the cavern and the space in front of it. One of the bodies of the men who had been shot was lying on its side, with the face towards the fire. Whitson examined the mouth, pushing back the upper lip with a piece of stick. He found that the shape of the mouth and the development of the teeth were the same as Ghamba's. The other bodies were lying on their faces, so he did not trouble to examine them.
Whitson then told Langley to follow him, and the two walked down the footpath towards where they had left Ghamba, Him they found lying motionless in the position in which he had been left about an hour previously. They removed the sack and the gag and untied his feet, first taking the precaution to fasten the belt by one end of his bound hands, Whitson holding the other. They then signed to him to proceed towards the cave, and this he silently did without making any resistance. He looked calmly at the three dead bodies, but said not a word. Langley held him, whilst Whitson again tied his feet together with the belt, and then they placed him with his back against a rock, facing the fire which was still blazing brightly.
His lips were drawn back in a ghastly, mirthless grin, and the tusks were revealed from point to insertion, Langley questioned Ghamba, but he would not speak. After several attempts to force him to answer had been vainly made, Whitson said—
"Now tell him that if he speaks and tells the whole truth, he will only be shot, but if he does not speak, he will be burnt alive."
This was interpreted, but the threat had no apparent effect. So Whitson seized Ghamba and dragged him to the fire, where he flung him down on the very edge of the glowing embers.
"Now," said Whitson, holding him down with his foot, so that he got severely scorched, "for the last time, will you speak?"
"Take me away from the fire, and I will speak," said Ghamba, in English.
So they lifted him, and set him again with his back to the rock.
"Now," said Whitson, "go ahead, and no nonsense."
"If I tell the whole truth," said Ghamba, still speaking English, and with a fair accent, "will you swear not to burn me, but to shoot me, so that I shall die at once?"
"I will," said Whitson.
"You too must swear," said Ghamba, looking at Langley.
"Yes, I swear."
"Very well," said Ghamba, "I will tell you everything, but you must both remember what you have sworn to."
"Yes, all right," said Whitson. Ghamba then looked at Langley, who repeated the words.
"I will tell you," said Ghamba, "all I can remember, and you can ask questions, which I shall answer truly. You have heard of Umdava, who used to eat men in Natal long ago, after the wars of Tshaka—well, he was my uncle. After Umdava had been killed and his people scattered, my father, with a few followers, came to live amongst these mountains. But we found that after having eaten human flesh we could enjoy no other food, so we caught people and ate them. These two men lying dead are my sons, and that woman is my daughter. My four wives were here to-night. They are very old women. Have you not seen them?" he asked, looking at Whitson.
"They are in there; I shot them," said Whitson, pointing to the cave.
"I had other children," continued Ghamba, quite unmoved, "but we ate them when food was scarce."
"Have you always lived, all these years, on human flesh?" asked Whitson.
"No, not always; but whenever we could obtain it we did so. There is other food in these mountains. Honey, ants' eggs, roots, and fruit; besides game, which is, however, not very easy to catch. But we have often all had to go away and work when times have been bad. Besides, I have a herd of cattle at a Basuto kraal, and I have been in the habit of taking some of these now and then, and exchanging them for corn, which the women then went to fetch. But we have always tried to get people to eat, because we could enjoy no other kind of food. Sometimes we got them easily; and when we were very fortunate we used to dry part of the meat by hanging it up and lighting a fire underneath, with green wood, so as to make plenty of smoke."
"Have you killed many white people?" asked Whitson.
"Yes, a good number; but not, of course, as many as black. Lately we have always tried to catch whites, because when you have eaten while flesh for some time, the flesh of a native no longer satisfies you."
"The flavour is not so strong."
"Did you induce the other two policemen to come up by means of the story about Umhlonhlo?"
"Yes, they came up just as you did, and my sons caught them with the thongs. Umhlonhlo has brought us plenty of food."