HotFreeBooks.com
Swallow
by H. Rider Haggard
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

And there, a chieftainess among savages, Suzanne was fated to dwell for more than two long years.



CHAPTER XXIV

THE MADNESS OF RALPH KENZIE

Now my story goes back to that night at the stead when I, Suzanne Botmar and my husband, Jan Botmar, were awakened from our sleep to learn that our daughter had been carried off by that mad villain, Piet Van Vooren, and that her husband Ralph lay senseless and wounded in the waggon at the door. We carried him in, groaning in our bitter grief, and despatched messengers to arouse all the Kaffirs on and about the place whom we could trust and to a party of Boers, six men in all, who chanced to have outspanned that night upon the borders of our farm to shoot vildebeest and blesbok. Also we sent another messenger mounted on a good horse to the house of that neighbour who was being attended by the doctor from the dorp, praying that he would come with all speed to visit Ralph, which indeed he did, for he was with us by half-past eight in the morning.

Within an hour of the despatch of the messengers the Boers rode up from their waggons, and to them, as well as to ourselves and to the Kaffirs who had gathered, the driver and voorlooper told all they knew of the terrible crime that had been done upon the persons of Ralph Kenzie and his wife by Piet Van Vooren and his band. Also they repeated all that Zinti had taught them of the road to the secret krantz whither it was believed that he had carried off Suzanne. Then Jan asked those present if they would help him in this trouble, and being true men, one and all, they answered yes, so by seven in the morning the little commando, numbering twenty-one guns—eight white men and thirteen Kaffirs—started to seek for Swart Piet's hiding-place, and to rescue Suzanne if they might.

"Alas!" I said to Jan as he bade me farewell, "at the best I fear that you will be too late."

"We must trust in God," he answered heavily.

"Never had we more need of trust, husband, but I think that God turns His face from us because of the lies we told to the Englishmen, for now the punishment which you foresaw has fallen."

"Then, wife, it were more just that it should have fallen on us who were guilty, and not on those two who are innocent. But still I say I trust in God—and in Sihamba"—he added by an afterthought, "for she is brave and clever, and can run upon a path which others cannot even see."

Then they went, and were away five days, or it may have been six. They started early on Tuesday, and upon the Thursday morning, after much trouble, by the help of a native whom they captured, they found Swart Piet's kraal, but of Swart Piet or Suzanne or the hidden krantz they could see nothing. Indeed, it was not until they had gathered together every man they could find in the kraal and tied them to trees, saying that they would shoot them, that a woman, the wife of one of the men, led them to a rock wall and showed the secret of the kloof. They entered and found the big hut with the body of the man whom Sihamba had killed still lying in it, and also the knife with which Suzanne had intended to destroy herself, and which her father knew again.

Then by degrees they discovered the whole story, for the woman pointed out to them the man who had guarded the entrance to the kloof, at whom Zinti had fired, and under fear of death this man confessed all he knew, which was that Suzanne, Sihamba and Zinti had escaped northward upon their horses, followed by Swart Piet and his band.

Accordingly northwards they rode, but they never found any traces of them, for rain had fallen, washing out their spoor, and as might be expected in that vast veldt they headed in the wrong direction. So at last worn out, they returned to the stead, hoping that Suzanne and Sihamba would have found their way back there, but hoping in vain.

After that for days and weeks they searched and hunted, but quite without result, for as it chanced the Kaffirs who lived between the territory of Sigwe and the stead rose in arms just then, and began to raid the Boer farms, stealing the cattle, including some of our own, so that it was impossible to travel in their country, and therefore nobody ever reached the town of Sigwe to make inquiries there.

The end of it was that, exhausted by search and sorrow, Jan sat down at home and abandoned hope; nor could the prayers and urgings of Ralph, who all this while was unable even to mount a horse, persuade him to go out again upon so fruitless an errand.

"No, son," he answered, "long before this the girl is either dead or she is safe far away, and in either event it is useless to look for her about here, since Van Vooren's kraal is watched, and we know that she is not in it." To which Ralph would answer:

"She is not dead, I know that she is not dead," and we understood that he spoke of the vision which had come to him, for I had told the tale of it to Jan. But in his heart Jan put no faith in the vision, and believed that Suzanne, our beloved child, had been dead for many days, for he was certain that she would die rather than fall again into the hands of Van Vooren, as I was also, and indeed of this we were glad to be sure.

To Ralph, however, that we might comfort him in his sorrow, which was even more terrible than our own, we made pretence that we believed Suzanne to be hiding far away, but unable to communicate with us, as in fact she was.

Oh! our lives were sad during those bitter months. Yes, the light had gone out of our lives, and often we wished, the three of us, that already we were resting in the grave. As he recovered from his wounds and the strength of his body came back to him, a kind of gentle madness took hold of Ralph which it wrung our hearts to see. For hours, sometimes for days indeed, he would sit about the place brooding and saying no word. At other times he would mount his horse and ride away none knew whither, perhaps not to return that night or the next, or the next, till we were terrified by the thought that he too might never come back again. It was useless to be angry with him, for he would only answer with a little smile:

"You forget; I must be seeking my wife, who is waiting for me upon the Mountain of the Hand," and then we learned that he had ridden to a far off hill to examine it, or to see some travellers or natives and ask of them if they knew or had heard of such a mountain, with ridges upon its eastern slopes fashioned like the thumb and fingers of a man's hand. Indeed, in all that countryside, among both Boers and natives, Ralph won the by-name of the "Man of the Mountain" because he rarely spoke of aught else. But still folk, black and white, knew the reason of his madness and bore with him, pitying his grief.

It was, I remember, in the season after Suzanne had vanished that the Kaffirs became so angry and dangerous. For my part I believe that those in our neighbourhood were stirred up by the emissaries of Swart Piet, for though he had gone none knew where, his tools and agents remained behind him. However this may have been, all over the country the black men began to raid the stock, and in our case they ended by attacking the stead also, a great number of them armed with guns. Fortunately we had a little warning, and they were very sad Kaffirs that went away next day; moreover, forty of them never went away at all. Just at dawn, when they had been besieging the house for some hours, shouting, banging off their guns, and trying to fire the roof by means of assegais with tufts of blazing grass tied on to them, Jan, Ralph, and about twenty of our people crept down under cover of the orchard wall and sallied out upon them.

Almighty! how those men fought, especially Jan and Ralph. It was a pleasure to see them, for I watched the whole thing from the stoep, though I admit that I was anxious, since it was evident that neither of them seemed to care whether he lived or died. However, as it turned out, it was not they who died, but the Kaffirs, who went off with some few cattle and afterwards left us in peace.

And now comes the strange part of the affair, though I scarcely like to tell it, lest after all these years it should not be believed. Someone connected with the London Missionary Society reported us to the Government at the Cape for shooting poor, innocent black men, and it was threatened that Jan and Ralph would be put upon their trial for murder by the British Government. Indeed, I believe that this would have been done had not we and others of our neighbourhood let it be clearly known that before they were dragged to the common gaol there would be killing not only of black but of white men.

Our case was only one of many, since in those times there was no security for us Boers—we were robbed, we were slandered, we were deserted. Our goods were taken and we were not compensated; the Kaffirs stole our herds, and if we resisted them we were tried as murderers; our slaves were freed, and we were cheated of their value, and the word of a black man was accepted before our solemn oath upon the Bible.

No wonder that we grew tired of it and trekked, seeking to shake the dust of British rule from off our feet, and to find a new home for ourselves out of the reach of the hand of the accursed British Government. Oh! I know that there are two sides to the story, and I daresay that the British Government meant well, but at the least it was a fool, and it always will be a fool with its Secretaries of State, who know nothing sitting far away there in London, and its Governors, whose only business is to please the Secretaries of State, that when the country they are sent to rule grows sick of them, they may win another post with larger pay.

Well, this tale is of people and not of politics, so I will say no more of the causes that brought about the great trek of the Boers from the old Colony and sent them forth into the wilderness, there to make war with the savage man and found new countries for themselves. I know those causes, for Jan and Ralph and I were of the number of the voortrekkers; still, had it not been for the loss of Suzanne, I do not think that we should have trekked, for we loved the home we had made upon the face of the wild veldt.

But now that she was gone it was no home for us; every room of the house, every tree in the garden, every ox and horse and sheep reminded us of her. Yes, even the distant roar of the ocean and the sighing of the winds among the grasses seemed to speak of her. These were the flowers she loved, that was the stone she sat on, yonder was the path which day by day she trod. The very air was thick with memories of her, and the tones of her lost voice seemed to linger in the echoes of the hills at night.

It was upon the anniversary of the marriage of Ralph and Suzanne, yes, on the very day year of her taking by Piet Van Vooren, that we made up our minds to go. We had dined and Ralph sat quite silent, his head bowed a little upon his breast, as was his custom, while Jan spoke loudly of the wrongs of the Boers at the hand of the British Government. I do not think that he was much troubled with those wrongs just then, but he talked because he wished to interest Ralph and turn his mind from sad thoughts.

"What think you of it, son?" said Jan at length, for it is hard work talking all by oneself, even when one has the British Government to abuse, which was the only subject that made Jan a wordy man.

"I, father?" answered Ralph with a start, which showed me that his mind was far away. "I do not quite know what I think. I should like to hear what the English Government say about the matter, for I think that they mean to be fair, only they do not understand the wants and troubles of us Boers who live so far away. Also, without doubt the missionaries mean well, but they believe that a black man has a bigger soul than a white man, whereas we who know the black man see that there is a difference."

"Allemachter, son," said Jan, looking at him out of the corner of his eye, "cannot you show some spirit? I hoped that being an Englishman you would have stood up for your own people, and then we might have quarrelled about it, which would have done us both good, but you only sit and talk like a magistrate in his chair, looking at both sides of the case at once, which is an evil habit for men who have to make their way in the world. Well, I tell you that if you had seen the cursed British Government hang your father and uncle at Slagter's Nek, and not satisfied with that, hang them a second time, when the ropes broke, just because they tried to shoot a few Hottentot policemen, you would not think much of its fairness. And as for the missionaries of the London Society, well, I should like to hang them, as would be right and proper, seeing that they blacken the names of honest Boers."

Ralph only smiled at this onslaught, for he was not to be stirred from his lethargy by talk about Slagter's Nek and the missionaries. For a while there was silence, which presently was broken by Jan roaring at me in a loud voice as though I were deaf.

"Vrouw, let ons trek," and, to give weight to his words, he brought his great fist down with a bang upon the table, knocking off a plate and breaking it.

I stooped to pick up the pieces, rating him for his carelessness as I gathered them, for I wished to have time to think, although for a long while I had expected this. When I had found them all I placed them upon the table, saying:

"They cannot be mended, and—hearts or plates—what cannot be mended had best be hidden away. Hearts and plates are brittle things, but the last can be bought in iron, as I wish the first could be also. Yes, husband, we will trek if you desire it."

"What say you, son?" asked Jan.

Ralph answered his question by another. "In which direction will the emigrants trek?"

"North, I believe, to the Vaal River."

"Then, father, I say let us go," he replied with more spirit than he had shown for a long while, "for I have searched and inquired to the south and the east and the west, and in them I can hear of no mountain that has ridges upon its eastern slopes shaped like the thumb and fingers of a man's hand with a stream of water issuing from between the thumb and first finger."

Now once more we were silent, for we saw that his madness had again taken hold of Ralph's mind, and that was a sad silence.



CHAPTER XXV

THE GREAT TREK

On the morrow we began to make ready, and a month later we trekked from our much loved home. Jan tried to sell the farm, which was a very good one of over six thousand morgen, or twelve thousand English acres, well watered, and having on it a dwelling house built of stone, with large kraals and out-buildings, an orchard of fruit-trees, and twenty morgen of crop lands that could be irrigated in the dry season, well fenced in with walls built of loose stones. But no one would make a bid for it, for there were few English about, and most of the farmers were trekking, so at last he parted with it to a cowardly fellow, a Boer by birth, but, as I believe, a spy of the British Government, who gave him fifty pounds and an old waggon in exchange for the place and everything upon it except the stock which we took with us.

Some years ago I heard that this man's grandson sold that same farm for twenty thousand pounds in cash, and that now it is a place where they breed horses, angora goats, and ostriches in great numbers. It makes me mad to think that the descendant of that low spy should have profited so largely out of the land which was ours, but so it often chances that those whose hearts are small and mean reap the reward of the courage and misfortunes of braver men. Nor should we grumble indeed, seeing that the Lord has blessed us greatly in land and goods.

Ah! It was a sad home leaving. The day before we trekked Ralph rode to visit his mother's grave for the last time, and then, following the track which he had taken as a child, he went to the kloof where Suzanne had found him, and sat down upon that stone on which as a child he had knelt in prayer, and where in after years he and his lost wife had told their love. Jan accompanied him upon this dismal journey, for to speak truth we did not like to leave him more alone than we could help, since his manner remained strange, and when he set out on his solitary rides we could not be certain that we should ever see him come back again.

Next morning we trekked away, and my eyes were so full of tears as I sat beneath the tent of the first waggon that the familiar landscape and the home where I lived for twenty years and more were blotted from my sight. But I could still hear the long-nosed spy who had bought the farm, and who as waiting to enter into possession, talking to Jan.

"Good-bye, Heer Botmar," he said, "and good fortune to you upon your journey. For my part I cannot understand you emigrants. The English Government is an accursed Government, no doubt; still I would not sell a farm and a house like this for fifty pounds and an old waggon in order to wander in the wilderness to escape from it, there to be eaten by lions or murdered by Kaffirs. Still, good-bye, and good luck to you, and I hope that you are as content with your bargain as I am with mine."

"The Lord will be our guide, as He was to the Israelites of old," answered Jan in a somewhat troubled voice.

"Yes, yes; they all say that, Heer Botmar, and I trust that they are right, for you will need nothing less than a cloud by day and a pillar of fire in the darkness to protect you from all the dangers in your path. Also I hope that the hosts of Pharaoh, in the shape of English soldiers, will not fetch you back before you cross the border, for then, when you have sold your birthright in Egypt, and are cut off from the Promised Land, your lot will be hard, Heer Botmar."

"The Lord will guide and protect us," repeated Jan, and gave the word to trek.

In my heart at the time I was inclined to agree with that cheat's sneering words; and yet Jan was right, and not I, for of the truth the Lord did guide and protect us. Has anything more wonderful happened in the world than this journey of a few farmers, cumbered with women and children, and armed only with old-fashioned muzzle-loading guns, into a vast, unknown land, peopled by savages and wild beasts? Yet, look what they did. They conquered Moselikatse; they broke the strength of Dingaan and all his Zulu impis; they peopled the Free State, the Transvaal, and Natal. That was the work of those few farmers, and I say that of their own strength they could never have done it; the strength was given to them from above; the Sword of God was in their hand, and He guided that hand and blessed it.



Our first outspan was at the spot where Van Vooren had tried to murder Ralph and carried off Suzanne upon her wedding-day. We did not stop there long, for the place was bad for Ralph, who sat upon the box of the waggon staring moodily at some blackened stones, which, as one of the drivers told me—the same man who accompanied them upon their wedding journey—had been brought from the kloof and used by Suzanne to set the kettle on when they took their meal together. Led by this same driver I walked to the edge of the cliff—for I had never visited the place before—and looked at the deep sea-pool, forty feet below me, into which Swart Piet had thrown Ralph after he had shot him. Also I went down to the edge of the pool and climbed up again by the path along which Zinti and Sihamba had staggered with his senseless body. Afterwards I returned to the waggons with a heart full of thankfulness and wonder that he should still be alive among us to-day, although alas, there was much for which I could not feel thankful, at least not then.

Now it is of little use that I should set down the history of this trek of ours day by day, for if I did my story would have no end. It is enough to tell that in company with other emigrants we crossed the Orange River, heading for Thaba Nchu, which had been the chief town of Maroko before Moselikatse drove him out of the Marico country. Here several bands of emigrants were to meet, and here they did meet, but not until a year or more had passed since we left the colony and wandered out into the veldt.

Ah! I tell you, my child, the veldt in those days was different indeed from what it is now. The land itself remains the same except where white men have built towns upon it, but all else is changed. Then it was black with game when the grass was green; yes, at times I have seen it so black for miles that we could scarcely see the grass. There were all sorts of them, springbucks in myriads, blesbok and quagga and wildebeeste in thousands, sable antelope, sassaby and hartebeeste in herds, eland, giraffe and koodoo in troops; while the forests were full of elephant and the streams of sea-cow. They are all gone now, the beautiful wild creatures; the guns of the white men have killed them out or driven them away, and I suppose that it is as well that they are gone, for while the game is in such plenty the men will not work. Still I for one am sorry to lose the sight of them, and had it not been for their numbers we Boers should never have lasted through that long trek, for often and often we lived upon buck's flesh and little else for weeks together.

At Thaba Nchu we camped, waiting for other bands of emigrants, but after four or five months some of our number grew so impatient that they started off by themselves. Among these were the companies under the Heer Triegaart and the Heer Rensenburg, who wished us to accompany him, but Jan would not, I do not know why. It was as well, for the knob-nosed Kaffirs killed him and everybody with him. Triegaart, who had separated from him, trekked to Delagoa Bay, and reached it, where nearly all his people died of fever.

After that we moved northwards in detachments, instead of keeping together as we should have done, with the result that several of our parties were fallen upon and murdered by the warriors of Moselikatse. Our line of march was between where Bloemfontein and Winburg now stand in the Orange Free State, and it was south of the Vaal, not far from the Rhenoster River that Moselikatse attacked us.

I cannot tell the tale of all this way, I can only tell of what I saw myself. We were of the party under the leadership of Carl Celliers, afterwards an elder of the church at Kronnstadt. Celliers went on a commission to Zoutpansberg to spy out the land, and it was while he was away that so many families were cut off by Moselikatse, the remainder of them, with such of their women and children as were left alive, retreating to our laager. Then Celliers returned from his commission, and we retired to a place called Vechtkop, near the Rhenoster River; altogether we numbered not more than fifty or sixty souls, including women and children.

Here we heard that Moselikatse was advancing to make an end of us, so we made our laager as strong as we could, lashing the disselboom of each waggon beneath the framework of that before it and filling the spaces beneath and between with the crowns and boughs of sharp-thorned mimosa trees, which we tied to the trek tows and brake chains so that they could not be torn away. Also in the middle of the laager we made an inner defence of seven waggons, in which were placed the women and children, with the spare food and gunpowder, but the cattle we were obliged to leave outside. Early on the morning when we had finished the laager we heard that the impi of Moselikatse was close to us, and the men to the number of over thirty rode out to look for it, leaving but a few to defend the camp.

About an hour's ride away they found the Kaffirs, thousands of them, and a Hottentot who could speak their tongue was instructed to call to them and ask them why they attacked us. By way of answer they shouted out the name of their chief and began to charge, whereupon our men dismounted from their horses and opened fire upon them, mounting again before they could come near. So the fight went on until the laager was reached, and many Kaffirs were killed without any loss to the Boers, for luckily in those days the natives had no firearms.

I remember that we women were moulding bullets when the men rode in, and very thankful we were to find that not one of them was even wounded. While they ate something we washed out their guns, and at intervals near the places where each man must stand behind the waggons we piled little heaps of powder and bullets upon buckskins and pieces of canvas laid on the ground; also we did all we could to strengthen our defences still further by binding ox-hides over the waggon wheels and thrusting in more thorns between them.

Then, as the enemy was still preparing to attack us, the Heer Celliers called us together, and there in the laager, while all knelt around him, even to the smallest child, he put up a prayer to God asking that we might be forgiven our sins, and that He would look upon us and protect us in our great need.

It was a strange sight. There we all knelt in the quiet sunshine while he prayed in an earnest voice, and we followed his words with our hearts, every one of us, men and women, holding guns or axes in our hands. Never had human beings more need for prayer, for through the cracks between the waggons we could see Moselikatse's Zulus, six or seven thousand of them, forming themselves into three bodies to rush upon us and murder us, and that was a dreadful sight for fifty or sixty people, of whom some were little children.

When we had finished praying, husbands and wives and parents and children kissed each other, and then the little ones and some of the women who were sick or aged were put behind the seven waggons in the centre of the laager, round which were tied the horses, while the rest of us went to our stations, men and women together. I stood behind Jan and Ralph, who fought side by side, and, assisted by a girl of fourteen years of age, loaded their spare guns. Now there was a great silence in the camp, and suddenly in the silence, Jan, who was looking through his loophole, whispered:

"Allemachter! here they come."

And come they did, with a rush and a roar from three sides at once, while men drew in their breath and set their faces for the struggle. Still no one fired, for the order was that we were to save our powder until Celliers let off his gun. Already the savages were within thirty paces of us, a countless mass of men packed like sheep in a kraal, their fierce eyes shewing white as ivory in the sunlight, their cruel spears quivering in their hands, when the signal was given and every gun, some loaded with slugs and some with bullets, was discharged point-blank into the thick of them.

Over they rolled by dozens, but that did not stop the rest, who, in spite of our pitiless fire, rushed up to the waggons and gripped them with their hands, striving to drag them apart, till the whole line of them rocked and surged and creaked like boats upon the sea, while the air grew thick with smoke rising straight up towards the sky, and through the smoke assegais flashed as thick as rain.

But although some of the heavy laden waggons were dragged a foot or more outward they held together, and the storm of spears flying over our heads did little harm. Heavens! what a fight was that, the fight of fifty against six thousand.

Not more than seven feet of space divided us from that shrieking sea of foes into which we poured bullets at hazard, for there was no need to aim, as fast as the guns could be loaded. Suddenly I heard the girl call out:

"Kek, tante, da is een swartzel!" (Look, aunt, there is a black man.)

I looked, and just at my side I saw a great savage who had forced his way through the thorns and crawled beneath the waggon into the laager. The gun in my hand was empty, but by me lay an axe which I snatched up, and as he rose to his knees I struck him with all my strength upon the neck and killed him at a blow. Yes, my child, that was the kind of work to which we wives of the voortrekkers had to put a needle.

Jan had just fired his gun, and seeing the man he sprang to help me, whereon three more Kaffirs following on the dead soldier's path crawled out from under the waggon. Two of them gained their feet and ran at him lifting their assegais. I thought that all was lost, for one hole in our defence was like a pin prick to a bladder, but with a shout Jan dropped the empty gun and rushed to meet them. He caught them by the throat, the two of them, one in each of his great hands, and before they could spear him dashed their heads together with such desperate strength that they fell down and never stirred again. This was always thought something of a feat, for as everybody knows the skulls of Kaffirs are thick.

By this time the girl had handed Ralph his second gun loaded, and with it he shot the third Kaffir; then he also did a brave thing, for seeing that more Zulus were beginning to creep through the hole, he snatched the assegai from a dead man's hand, and stopped the gap with his own body, lying flat upon his stomach and thrusting at their heads with the spear. Soon we dragged him out with only one slight wound, pushing the bodies of the Kaffirs into his place, and over them spare branches of thorn, so that the breach was made good.

This was the turning point of the fight, for though after it one other Kaffir managed to get into the laager, where he was cut down, and two Boers, Nicholas Potgieter and Pieter Botha were killed by assegais thrown from without, from that moment the attack began to slacken. In thirty minutes from the time that Celliers had fired the first shot, Moselikatse's general, whose name was Kalipi, had given the order to retire, and his hosts drew off sullenly, for we had beaten them.



Thirty minutes! Only thirty minutes—the shadows had shifted but a few inches on the grass, and yet now that it was done with it seemed like half a lifetime. Panting and begrimed with smoke and powder, we stood looking at each other and around us. The tents of the waggons were ripped to pieces, in our own I counted more than sixty spear cuts, and the trampled turf inside the laager was like the back of an angry porcupine, for from it we gathered nearly fourteen hundred heavy assegais. For the rest, the two men lay dead where they had fallen, their faces turned towards the sky, each of them pierced through by a spear, and out of our little number twelve others were wounded, though none of them died of their wounds. Not a woman or a child was touched.

Outside the laager there was a sight to see, for there on the red grass, some lying singly and some in heaps, were over four hundred Zulu soldiers, most of them dead, and how many wounded they carried away with them I cannot tell.

Now we saw that the Kaffirs were collecting our cattle, and about twenty men under Potgieter saddled up and rode out to try and recapture them, since without oxen to draw the waggons we were helpless. Till sunset they followed them, killing many, but being so few they could not recapture the cattle, and in the end were obliged to return empty handed. Ralph went with his party, and, because of an act of mercy which he did then it came about in the end that Suzanne was found and many lives were saved. So plenteously do our good deeds bear fruit, even in this world.

Yes, you may have thought that this tale of the battle of Vetchkop was only put in here because it is one of the great experiences of an old woman's life. But it is not so; it has all to do with the story of Ralph and of my daughter Suzanne.



CHAPTER XXVI

HOW GAASHA BROUGHT GOOD LUCK

When Ralph returned from pursuing the Zulus, as he drew near to the laager he lingered a little behind the others, for he was very weary of all this work of killing, also the flesh-wound that he had got from the Kaffir's spear having stiffened pained him when his horse cantered. There was no more danger now, for the savages were gone, leaving their path marked by the corpses of those who had been shot down by the Boers, or of men who had limped away wounded either to die upon the road or to be killed by their comrades because their case was hopeless. Following this black trail of death backwards Ralph rode on, and when he was within a hundred yards of the waggons halted his horse to study the scene. He thought that he would never see such another, although, in fact, that at the Blood River when we conquered the Zulu king, Dingaan, was even more strange and terrible.

The last crimson rays of the setting sun were flooding the plain with light. Blood-red they shone upon the spear-torn canvas of the waggons and upon the stained and trampled veldt. Even the bodies of the Kaffirs looked red as they lay in every shape and attitude; some as though they slept; some with outstretched arms and spears gripped tight; some with open mouths as they had died shouting their way-cry. Ralph looked at them and was thankful that it was not we white people who lay thus, as it might well have been. Then, just as he was turning towards the laager, he thought that he saw something move in a tussock of thick grass, and rode towards it. Behind the tussock lay the body of a young Kaffir, not an uncommon sight just there, but Ralph was so sure that he had seen it move that, stirred by an idle curiosity, he dismounted from his horse to examine it. This he did carefully, but the only hurt that he could see was a flesh wound caused by a slug upon the foot, not serious in any way, but such as might very well prevent a man from running.

"This fellow is shamming dead," he thought to himself, and lifted his gun, for in those times we could not afford to nurse sick Kaffirs.

Then of a sudden the young man who had seemed to be a corpse rose to his knees, and, clasping his hands, began to beg for mercy. Instead of shooting him at once, as most Boers would have done, Ralph, who was tender-hearted, hesitated and listened while the Kaffir, a pleasant-faced lad and young, besought him for his life.

"Why should I spare you," asked Ralph, who understood his talk well, "seeing that, like all the rest of these, you set upon my people to murder them?"

"Nay, chief," answered the young man, "it is not so. I am no Zulu. I belong to another tribe, and was but a slave and a carrier in the army of Kalipi, for I was taken prisoner and forced to carry mats and food and water," and he pointed to a bundle and some gourds that lay beside him.

"It may be so," answered Ralph, "but the dog shares his master's fate."

"Chief," pleaded the man, "spare me. Although it prevented me from running away with the others, my wound is very slight and will be healed in a day or two, and then I will serve you as your slave and be faithful to you all my life. Spare me and I shall bring you good luck."

"I need that enough," said Ralph, "and I am sure that you are no Zulu, for a Zulu would not stoop to beg for his life thus," and he stood thinking.

While he thought, Jan, who had seen him from the laager, came up behind.

"What are you doing, son," he asked in an angry voice, "talking to this black devil here alone among the dead? Stand aside and let me settle him if you have not the heart," and he lifted his gun.

"No, father," said Ralph, pushing it aside, "this man is not a Zulu; he is but a slave-carrier and he has prayed me to spare his life, swearing that he will serve me faithfully. Also he says that he brings good luck."

"Certainly he brought good luck to these," answered Jan, pointing to the scattered dead with his hand, and laughing grimly. "Allemachter! son, you must be mad to play the fool thus, for doubtless the sneaking villain will murder you the first time your back is turned. Come, stand aside and I will finish it."

Now the young man, whose name was Gaasha, seeing that he was about to be shot, threw himself upon the ground, and clasping Ralph round the knees, implored for mercy.

"Save me, Baas," he prayed, "save me, and you will always be glad of it, for I tell you I bring you good luck, I tell you I bring you good luck."

"Father," said Ralph, setting his mouth, "if you kill this Kaffir it will be a cause of quarrel between us, and we never quarrelled yet."

"Quarrel or no quarrel, he shall die," said Jan in a rage, for he thought it the strangest folly that Ralph should wish to spare a black man.

At that moment, however, something seemed to strike his mind, for his face grew puzzled, and he looked about him almost anxiously.

"Where have I seen it before?" he said, as though he were speaking to himself. "The veldt all red with blood and sunset, the laager behind and the Kaffir with the wounded foot holding Ralph by the knees. Allemachter! I know. It was that day in the sit-kammer[*] at the stead yonder, when the little doctoress, Sihamba, made me look into her eyes; yes, yes, I have seen it all in the eyes of Sihamba. Well, let the lad live, for without a doubt Sihamba did not show me this picture that should be for nothing. Moreover, although I am stupid, as your mother says, I have learned that there are many things in the world which we cannot understand but which play a part in our lives nevertheless."

[*] Sitting room.

So the lad Gaasha was brought to the laager, and upon the prayer of Jan and Ralph, the commandant gave him his life, ordering, however, that he should sleep outside the waggons.

"Well," I said when I heard the tale, "one thing is, that you will never see him again, for he will be off during the night back to his friends the Zulus." But I was wrong, for next morning there was Gaasha, and there he remained even after his foot was quite well, making the best Kaffir servant that ever I had to do with.

After that day we saw no more of the Zulus at Vetchkop, although later with the help of other Boers we attacked them twice, killing more than four thousand of them, and capturing six thousand head of cattle, so that they fled north for good and all, and founded the nation of the Matabele far away.

But oh! our fate was hard there at Vetchkop; never have I known worse days. The Zulus had taken away all our cattle, so that we could not even shift the waggons from the scene of the fight, but must camp there amidst the vultures and the mouldering skeletons, for the dead were so many that it was impossible to bury them all. We sent messengers to other parties of Boers for help, and while they were gone we starved, for there was no food to eat, and game was very scarce. Yes, it was a piteous sight to see the children cry for food and gnaw old bits of leather or strips of hide cut from Kaffir shields to stay the craving of their stomachs. Some of them died of that hunger, and I grew so thin that when I chanced to see myself in a pool of water where I went to wash I started back frightened.

At length, when we were all nearly dead, some oxen came and with them we dragged a few of the waggons to Moroko, where an English clergyman and his wife, taking pity on us, gave us corn, for which reason I have always held that among the British the clergymen must be a great deal better than the rest of that proud and worthless race, for it is true that we judge of people as they deal by us. Yes, and I will go so far as to say that I do not believe that the Reverend Mr. Owen, the English missionary at the kraal of the Zulu King Dingaan, did in truth advise him to massacre Retief and his seventy Boers, as was generally reported among my countrymen.

Well, after Moselikatse's Zulus were finally defeated the question arose whether we should proceed to Zoutpansberg and settle there, or follow our brethren who in large numbers had already crossed the Quathlamba Mountains into Natal under the leadership of Retief. In the end we decided for Natal because it was nearer the sea, for in those days we never dreamed that the treacherous British Government would steal that land also; so trekking slowly, we headed for Van Reenen's Pass, our party then numbering thirty waggons and about sixty white people.

It was when we were about four days trek, or sixty miles, from the pass that one evening, as we sat eating our food, Jan, Ralph, and I—I remember it was the fried steaks of an eland that Ralph had shot—the lad Gaasha, who had now served us for some six months, came up to the fire, and having saluted Ralph, squatted down before him Kaffir fashion, saying that he had a favour to ask.

"Speak on," said Ralph. "What is it?"

"Baas," replied Gaasha, "it is this; I want a week or ten days leave of absence to visit my people."

"You mean that you want to desert," I put in.

"No, lady," answered Gaasha; "you know that I love the Baas who saved my life far too well ever to wish to leave him. I desire only to see my parents and to tell them that I am happy, for doubtless they think me dead. The Baas proposes to cross into Natal by Van Reenen's Pass, does he not? Well, not so very far from my home, although none would guess it unless he knew the way, is another pass called Oliver's Hook, and by that pass, after I have spoken with my father and my mother if they still live, I would cross the Quathlamba, finding the Baas again on the further side of the mountains, as I can easily do."

"I think that I will let you go as I can trust you, Gaasha," said Ralph, "but tell me the name of your home, that I may know where to send to seek you if you should not come back as you promise."

"Have I not said that I will come back, Baas, unless the lions or the Zulus should eat me on the way? But the name of the house of my tribe is Umpondwana. It is only a little tribe, for the Zulus killed many of us in the time of Chaka, but their house is a very fine house."

"What does Umpondwana mean?" asked Ralph idly as he lit his pipe.

"It means the Mountain of the Man's Hand, Baas."

Ralph let his pipe fall to the ground, and I saw his face turn white beneath the sunburn, while of a sudden his grey eyes looked as though they were about to leap from their sockets.

"Why is it called the Mountain of the Man's Hand?" he asked in a hollow voice. "Speak quick now, and do not lie to me."

Gaasha looked up at him astonished. "How should I know, Baas, when the place was named so before I was born, and none have told me? But I think that it may be because upon one of the slopes of the mountain, which has great cliffs of red rock, are five ridges, which, seen from the plain below, look like the four fingers and thumb of a man. Also the place has another name, which means 'where the water springs out of the rock,' because from between two of the ridges, those that are like the thumb and first finger, flows a stream which comes from the heart of the mountain."

"On which side of the mountain are the ridges and the stream?" asked Ralph in the same unnatural voice.

"Baas, when the sun rises it strikes on them."

Now Ralph swung to and fro like a drunken man, and had I not put my arm about him I believe that he would have fallen.

"It is the mountain of my vision," he gasped.

"Be not foolish," I answered, for I feared lest when he found that all this strange resemblance was a chance, the bitterness of his disappointment might overwhelm him. "Be not foolish, son; are there not many hills in this great land with ridges on their flanks, and streams of water running down them?"

Then, as Ralph seemed unable to answer me, I asked of Gaasha:

"Who is the chief of this tribe of yours?"

"He is named Koraanu," he answered, "if he still lives, but a man I met some months ago told me that he has been dead these two years, and that she who used to rule us when I was a little child had come back from the lands whither she had wandered, and is now Inkoosikaas of the Umpondwana."

"What is the name of this chieftainess?" I asked in the midst of a great silence.

Gaasha answered at once; that is, after he had taken a pinch of snuff, but to us it seemed a year before the words crossed his lips.

"Her name, lady," and he sneezed, "is"—and he sneezed again, rocking himself to and fro. Then slowly wiping away the tears which the snuff had brought to his eyes with the back of his hand he said, "Ow! this is the best of snuff, and I thank the Baas for giving it to me."

"Answer," roared Jan, speaking for the first time, and in such a fierce voice that Gaasha sprang to his feet and began to run away.

"Come back, Gaasha, come back," I called, and he came doubtfully, for Gaasha was not very brave, and ever since he had wished to shoot him he trembled even at the sight of Jan. "Be silent, you fool," I whispered to the latter as the lad drew near, then said aloud, "Now, Gaasha."

"Lady," he answered, "it is indeed as I have told you; the Baas gave me the snuff a long time ago; he took it out of the ear-boxes of the dead men at Vetchkop. He gave it to me. I did not steal it. He will say so himself."

"Never mind the snuff, Gaasha," I said in a voice half-choked with doubt and anxiety, for the sight of Ralph's piteous face and the strangeness of it all were fast overwhelming me, "but tell us what is the name of this chieftainess whom you have heard is now the ruler of your tribe?"

"Her name, lady," he answered, much relieved, "why it is well known, for though she is small, it is said that she is the best of doctoresses and rain-makers."

Now Jan could no longer be restrained, for stretching out his great hand he gripped Gaasha by the throat, saying:

"Accursed swartzel, if you do not tell us the name at once I will kill you."

"Madman," I exclaimed, "how can the lad speak while you are choking him?"

Then Jan shifted his grip and Gaasha began to cry for pity.

"The name, the name," said Jan.

"Why should I hide it? Have I not told it? Baas, it is Sihamba Ngenyanga."

As the words passed his lips Jan let go of him so suddenly that Gaasha fell to the ground and sat there staring at us, for without doubt he thought that we had all gone mad.

Jan looked up to the skies and said, "Almighty, I thank Thee, Who canst make dreams to fly to the heart of a man as a night-bird to its nest through the darkness, and Who, because of what I saw in the eyes of Sihamba, didst turn aside my gun when it was pointed at the breast of this Kaffir."

Then he looked at Ralph, and was quiet, for Ralph had swooned away.



CHAPTER XXVII

SWART PIET SETS A SNARE

It was a strange life that Suzanne led among the Umpondwana during the two years or more that, together with Sihamba, she ruled over them as chieftainess. Upon the top of the mountain was a space of grass land measuring about five hundred morgen, or a thousand acres in extent, where were placed the chief's huts and those of the head men and soldiers, surrounding a large cattle kraal, which, however, was only used in times of danger. The rest of the people dwelt upon the slopes of the mountain, and even on the rich plains at the foot of it, but if need were they could all retreat to the tableland upon its crest. Here they might have defied attack for ever, for beneath the cattle kraal grain was stored in pits, only there was but one spring, which in dry seasons was apt to fail. Therefore it was that the Umpondwana had built stone schanzes or fortifications about the mouth of the river which gushed from the mountain between the thumb and finger like ridges on the eastern slope, although it lay below their impregnable walls of rock, seeing that to this river they must look for their main supply of water.

The table-top of the hill, which could only be approached by one path that wound upwards through a ravine cut by water, being swept by every wind of heaven, and so high in the air, was very cold and naked. Indeed, in the winter season, rain fell there twice or thrice a week, and there were many days when it was wrapt in a dense white mist. Still, during the two years and more that she dwelt with the Umpondwana, Suzanne scarcely left this plain, not because she did not desire to do so, but because she did not dare, for word was brought that the foot, and even the slopes, of the mountain were patrolled by men in the employ of Swart Piet. Moreover, soon it became clear that he had knowledge of all her movements, doubtless from spies in his pay who dwelt among the Umpondwana themselves. During the first few months of her sojourn on the mountain, it is true that now and again Suzanne rode out on the veldt mounted on the schimmel, but this pastime she was forced to abandon because one day Swart Piet and his men saw her and gave chase, so that she was only saved from him by the fleetness of the great horse.

After this, both she and the schimmel stayed upon the tableland, where daily they took exercise together, galloping round a prepared path which was laid about the fence of the cattle kraal, and thus kept themselves in good health.

Swart Piet had Kaffir blood in his veins, as I have said, and from boyhood it had been his custom to live two lives, one as a white man with white men, and one as a Kaffir with Kaffirs. About three miles distant from the Umpondwana Mountain was a strong koppie with fertile valleys to the back of it, and here, being rich and having a great name as a white man, he found it no trouble to establish himself as a native chief, for refugees of all sorts gathered themselves about him, so that within a year he ruled over a little tribe of about a hundred men together with women.

With these men Van Vooren began to harass the Umpondwana, cutting off their cattle if they strayed, and from time to time killing or enslaving small parties of them whom he caught wandering on the plains out of reach of help from the mountain. Whenever he captured such a party he would spare one of them, sending him back with a message to the Umpondwana. They were all to one effect, namely, that if the tribe would deliver over to him the lady Swallow who dwelt among them he would cease from troubling it, but if this were not done, then he would wage war on it day and night until in this way or in that he compassed its destruction.

To these messages Sihamba would reply as occasion offered, that if he wanted anything from the Umpondwana he had better come and take it.

So things went on for a long while. Swart Piet's men did them no great harm indeed, but they harassed them continually, until the people of the Umpondwana began to murmur, for they could scarcely stir beyond the slopes of the mountain without being set upon. Happily for them these slopes were wide, for otherwise they could not have found pasturage for their cattle or land upon which to grow their corn. So close a watch was kept upon them, indeed, that they could neither travel to visit other tribes, nor could these come to them, and thus it came about that Suzanne was as utterly cut off from the rest of the world as though she had been dead. She had but one hope to keep her heart alive, and it was that Ralph and Jan would learn of her fate through native rumours and be able to find her out. Still, as she knew that this could not be counted on, she tried to let us have tidings of her, for when she had been only a week on the mountain Umpondwana she despatched Zinti and two men to bear him company, with orders to travel back over all the hundreds of miles of veldt to the far-off stead in the Transkei.

As she had neither pen nor ink, nor anything with which she could write, Suzanne was obliged to trust a long message to Zinti's memory, making him repeat it to her until she was sure that he had it by heart. In this message she told all that had befallen her, and prayed us to take Zinti for a guide and to come to her rescue, since she did not dare to set foot outside the walls of rock, for fear that she should be captured by Van Vooren, who watched for her continually.

Zinti, being brave and faithful, started upon his errand, though it was one from which many would have shrunk. But as ill-luck would have it, one night when they were camped near the kraal of a small Basuto tribe, his companions becoming hungry, stole a goat and killed it. Zinti ate of the goat, for they told him that they had bought it for some beads, and while they were still eating the Basutos came upon them and caught them red-handed. Next day they were tried by the councillors of the tribe and condemned to die as thieves, but the chief, who wanted servants, spared their lives and set them to labour in his gardens, where they were watched day and night.

Zinti was a prisoner among these Basutos for nearly a year, but at length he made his escape, leaving his two companions behind, for they were afraid lest if they ran away with him they should be recaptured and killed. As soon as he was free Zinti continued his journey, for he was a man not easily turned from his purpose, nor because it was now over a year old did he cease from his attempt to deliver the message that had been set in his mouth.

Well, after many dangers, footsore and worn-out with travelling, at length he reached the stead, to find that we had all gone, none knew whither, and that the long-nosed cheat to whom we had sold the farm ruled in our place. Zinti sought out some Kaffirs who lived upon the land, and abode with them awhile till he was rested and strong again. Then once more he turned his face northward towards the mountain Umpondwana, for though he greatly feared the journey, he knew that the heart of Suzanne would be sick for news. War raged in the country that he must pass, and food was scarce; still at length he won through, although at the last he was nearly captured by Black Piet's thieves, and one year and nine months after he had left it, a worn and weary figure, he limped up the red rock path of Umpondwana.

Suzanne had been watching for him. It seems strange to say it, but after six months had gone by, which time at the best must be given to his journey, she watched for him every day. On the top of the highest and most precipitous cliff of the mountain fortress of Umpondwana was a little knoll of rock curiously hollowed out to the shape of a chair, difficult to gain and dizzy to sit in, for beneath it was a sheer fall of five hundred feet, which chair-rock commanded the plain southward, and the pass where Van Vooren had spoken to Suzanne from his hiding-place among the stones. By this pass and across this plain help must reach her if it came at all, or so she thought; therefore in that eagle's eyrie of a seat Suzanne sat day by day watching ever for those who did not come. A strange sight she must have been, for now long ago such garments as she had were worn to rags, so that she was forced to clothe herself in beautiful skins fashioned to her fancy, and to go sandal-footed, her lovely rippling hair hanging about her.

At length one day from her lonely point of outlook she saw a solitary man limping across the plain, a mere black speck dragging itself forward like a wounded fly upon a wall. Descending from her seat she sought out Sihamba.

"Swallow," said the little woman, "there is tidings in your eyes. What is it?"

"Zinti returns," she answered, "I have seen him from far away."

Now Sihamba smiled, for she thought Zinti lost; also she did not believe it possible that Sihamba could have recognized him from such a distance. Still before two hours were over Zinti came, gaunt and footsore, but healthy and unharmed, and sitting down before Suzanne in her private enclosure, began at the very beginning of his long story, after the native fashion, telling of those things which had befallen him upon the day when he left the mountain nearly two years before.

"Your news? Your news?" said Suzanne.

"Lady, I am telling it," he answered.

"Fool!" exclaimed Sihamba. "Say now, did you find the Baas Kenzie and the Baas Botmar?"

"No, indeed," he replied, "for they were gone."

"Gone where? Were they alive and well?"

"Yes, yes, they were alive and well, but all the Boers in those parts have trekked, and they trekked also, believing the lady Swallow to be dead."

"This is a bitter cup to drink," murmured Suzanne, "yet there is some sweetness in it, for at least my husband lives."

Then Zinti set out all his story, and Suzanne listened to it in silence, praising him much and thanking him when he had done. But after that day her heart failed her, and she seemed to give up hope. Ralph had vanished, and we, her parents, had vanished, and she was left alone a prisoner among a little Kaffir tribe, at the foot of whose stronghold her bitter enemy waited to destroy her. Never was white woman in a more dreadful or more solitary state, and had it not been for Sihamba's tender friendship she felt that she must have died.

Now also Swart Piet grew bolder, appearing even on the slopes of the mountain where his men harried and stole. He did more than this even, for one morning just before dawn he attacked the pass leading to the stronghold so secretly and with such skill that his force was halfway up it before the sentries discovered them. Then they were seen, and the war-horns blew, and there followed a great fight. Indeed, had it not been for a lucky chance, it is doubtful how that fight would have ended, for his onslaught was fierce, and the Umpondwana, who at the best were not the bravest of warriors, were taken by surprise.

It will be remembered that Zinti had brought Ralph's gun with him when first they fled north, and this gun he still had, together with a little powder and ball, for, fearing lest it should be stolen from him, he had not taken it on his great journey to the Transkei and back. Now, hearing the tumult, he ran out with it, and fired point blank at the stormers, who were pushing their way up the narrow path, driving the Umpondwana before them. The roar was loaded with slugs, which, scattering, killed three men; moreover, by good fortune, one of the slugs struck Van Vooren himself through the fleshy part of the thigh, causing him to fall, whereon, thinking him mortally wounded, in spite of his curses and commands, his followers lost heart and fled, bearing him with them. Sihamba called upon her people to follow, but they would not, for they feared to meet Swart Piet in the open.

In truth they began to weary of this constant war, which was brought upon them through no fault or quarrel of their own, and to ask where was that good luck which the White Swallow had promised them. Had it not been that they loved Suzanne for her beauty and her gentle ways, and that Sihamba, by her cleverness and good rule, had mastered their minds, there is little doubt indeed but that they would have asked Suzanne to depart from among them.

On the day following the attack Sihamba learned that Swart Piet lay very sick, having lost much blood, and sought to persuade her people to attack him in turn, and make an end of him and his robbers. But they would not, and so the council broke up, but not before Sihamba had spoken bitter words, telling them that they were cowards, and would meet the end of cowards, whereat they went away sullenly. Afterwards they learned through their spies that Van Vooren had gone to Zululand to visit the King Dingaan, which Sihamba thought evil tidings, for she scented fresh danger in this journey, and not without reason. But to Suzanne she said nothing.

Two more months went by peacefully, when one morning a herd who was tending the cattle that belonged to Suzanne and Sihamba, sought audience of the chieftainess.

"What is it?" asked Sihamba, for she saw by the man's face that something strange had happened.

"This, lady," he answered. "When I went down to the kloof at dawn, where your cattle and those of the Lady Swallow are kraaled, I found among them strange oxen to the number of more than a hundred. They are beautiful oxen, such as I have never seen, for every one of them is pure white—white from the muzzle to the tail, and I cannot understand how they came among your cattle, for the mouth of the kraal was closed as usual last night; moreover, I found it closed this morning."

When Sihamba heard this she turned cold to the heart, for she knew well that these spotless white cattle must come from the royal herd of Dingaan, king of the Zulus, since none other were known like them in all the land. Also she was sure that Swart Piet had stolen them and placed them among her cattle so as to bring down upon her and her tribe the terrible wrath of Dingaan, for she remembered that this mingling of cattle was a trick which he had played before. But to the herd she said only that doubtless they were cattle which had strayed, and that she would make enquiry as to their owner. Then she dismissed him, bidding him to keep a better watch in future.

Scarcely had he gone when another man appeared saying that he had met a Kaffir from beyond the mountains, who told him that a party of white men with women and children had crossed the Quathlamba range by what is now known as Bezuidenhout's Pass, and were camped near the Tugela River. This was strange news to Sihamba, who had heard nothing of the whereabouts of the Trek Boers, so strange that she would not speak of it to Suzanne, fearing lest it should fill her with false hopes. But she sent for Zinti, and bade him cross the Quathlamba by a little-used pass that was known to her near the place where the Tugela takes its rise, and which to-day is called Mont aux Sources, and following the river down, to find out whether or no it was true that white men were encamped upon its banks. When he had done this he was to return as swiftly as possible with whatever information he could gather.

This task Zinti undertook gladly, for he loved following a spoor, which was a gift that Nature had given him; also he was weary of being cooped up like a fatting fowl upon the mountain Umpondwana.

When Zinti had gone Sihamba summoned other messengers, and commanded them to travel swiftly to the kraal Umgungundlhovo, bearing her homage to Dingaan, king of the Amazulus, and asking whether he had lost any of the cattle from his royal herds, since certain white oxen had been found among her beasts, though how they came there she could not tell. These men went also, though in fear and trembling, since in those days none loved to approach the Lion of the Zulu with tales of cattle of his that had strayed among their herd. Still they went, and with doubt in her heart Sihamba sat awaiting their return.



CHAPTER XXVIII

THE COMING OF THE IMPI

Sihamba had not very long to wait, for on the evening of the fifth day from the starting of the messengers they came back at great speed, having run so fast that they could scarcely speak for want of breath, and telling her that a Zulu impi, numbering more than three thousand spears, was advancing upon the Umpondwana to destroy them. It seemed that long before the king's oxen had been found mixed with her herd it had been reported to Dingaan that Sihamba had stolen them, which was not altogether strange, seeing that Swart Piet travelled with the impi. As she suspected, he had caused the oxen to be stolen, and now he had fixed the deed upon her, knowing well that Dingaan only sought a pretext to destroy her tribe, with which the Zulus had an ancient quarrel.

Now there was but one thing to be done—to make ready their defence, so, without more ado, Sihamba summoned her council and told them that a Zulu impi was at hand to eat them up because of the white cattle that had been placed among the herds. Then the councillors wrung their hands, and some of them shed tears even, although they were aged men, for the name of the Zulus struck terror to their hearts, and they expected nothing less than death for themselves, their wives, and their children.

"It is best that we should fly while there is yet time," said the captain of the council.

"There is no time," answered Sihamba; "the impi will be here by dawn and will cut you up upon the plain."

"What then shall we do?" they asked; "we who are already dead."

"Do?" she cried. "You shall fight as your fathers fought before you, and beat back these dogs of Dingaan. If you will but be brave, what have you to fear from them? You have water, you have food, you have spears, and even the Zulus have not wings like eagles with which to fly over your walls of cliff. Let them come, and if you will but obey me, I promise you that they shall return again to make report to the 'Elephant' many fewer than they left his kraal."

So the Umpondwana made ready to fight, not because they loved it, but because they must, for they knew that no humbleness would help them in face of the spears of Dingaan. The cattle were driven into the centre kraal, and great supplies of grass and green corn were cut to feed them. Except for one manhole the pass leading to the top of the mountain was closed, and the schanzes, or walls, which protected the mouth of the river that welled from the hillside between the eastern ridges were strengthened and garrisoned. Here, as Sihamba knew, was their weak place, for this river flowed out beneath the impregnable precipices of rock, and to it they must look for their main supply of water, since, although the spring upon the tableland, if husbanded, would suffice for a supply to the tribe, it was not sufficient for the cattle. It was for this reason that Sihamba wished to turn the kine loose and let the Zulus capture them if they would, for she knew that then they could never take the mountain or harm a hair of the head of one of its inhabitants. But the Umpondwana were greedy, and would not consent to the loss of their cattle, forgetting that cattle are of no value to dead men. They said that they could very well defend the schanzes which surrounded the source of the river, and that from it sufficient water could be carried to keep the beasts alive, even if the siege were long.

"As you will," answered Sihamba shortly, "but see that you do defend them when the Zulu warriors leap upon the walls, for if you fail then you will lose cattle and life together."

All this time, according to her daily custom, Suzanne had been seated in her chair of rock upon the highest point of the precipice looking for that help which never came. Presently, as she watched with sad eyes, far away upon the plain she saw a cloud of dust in which moved and shone the sheen of spears. Now she climbed down from her seat, and ran to seek Sihamba, whom she found surrounded by her councillors.

"What is it, Swallow?" asked the little chieftainess looking up, though already she had guessed the answer.

Suzanne told her, adding, "Who can it be that travels towards the mountain with so great a force?"

"Lady Swallow," said Sihamba gravely, "it is an army of the Zulus sent by Dingaan to destroy us, and with them marches Bull-Head." And she told her of the trick of the cattle and of what the messengers had seen.

Suzanne heard, and her face grew white as the goatskin cloak she wore.

"Then at last the long story is at an end," she faltered, for she knew the terrible prowess of the Zulus, and how none could stand before their onslaught.

"Yes, of that impi there is an end," answered Sihamba proudly, "if these children of mine will but take heart and fight as their fathers fought. Fear not, Lady Swallow, nothing that has not wings can storm the mountain of Umpondwana."

But for all that she could say Suzanne still felt much afraid, which was not strange, for she knew that the heart was out of these soldiers of Sihamba, and knew, moreover, that a Zulu army did not dare to be defeated, for which reason it must either take the mountain or fight till it was destroyed.

Now all was confusion; the horns blew and women wailed, while the captains of the Umpondwana issued their commands, and the men piled up stones upon the brink of the precipice to roll down upon the foe, and drove the herds of cattle into the great kraal upon the tableland.

Marching quickly, the impi drew near and the defenders could see that it numbered about four thousand spears and was composed of two separate regiments. At a distance of a mile it halted and throwing out horns or wings surrounded the mountain, up the slopes of which it advanced in a thin circle, much as beaters do who are driving game to a certain point. As the circle drew nearer to the cliffs, it thickened, having less ground to cover, though still there was a gap here and there.

Presently those who were watching saw a man dart through one of these gaps and run up hill at great speed, followed by Zulu soldiers, who tried to kill him. But he was the swifter of foot, moreover he knew the path, so that before they could come up with him he reached the great stone walls which were built about the source of the river, and was dragged over them by the defenders.

A while later this man appeared upon the top of the mountain and proved to be none other than Zinti, who had returned from his errand, and, having news to tell, risked his life to pass through the impi before the stronghold was altogether surrounded. Sihamba received him at once, Suzanne standing at her side, and bade him be brief for she had little time to listen to long stories.

"I will be brief," Zinti answered. "Lady, as you bade me I crossed the mountains by the road of which you told me. It is a good road for men on foot or horseback, but waggons could not travel it. Having reached the plain on the further side I followed the bank of the river, till suddenly I came in sight of thirty waggons drawn up in a laager upon a knoll of ground, and among the waggons I saw Boers with their wives and children. I tried to go up to speak to them, but a young Boer, seeing me, shot at me with his gun, so I thought it safer to lie hid. At nightfall, however, I met the driver of one of the waggons, a Kaffir man, at some distance from the laager, where he was watching by a pit made to catch bucks, and fell into talk with him. He told me that this was a party of the Boers who had trekked from Cape Colony, and were taking possession of Natal, and that there were other such parties scattered about the country. He said that in this party there were five-and-twenty men with women and children, but he did not know the names of any of them. Also he told me that he meant to run away, as he heard that Dingaan was going to attack the white people, and was sure that if he did so they would be eaten up, for these Boers, thinking themselves quite safe, had grown very careless, and neither made their laager as strong as it should be nor set any watch at night. Having learned this I returned at once to make report to you, nor did I come too quickly, for the Zulus nearly caught me as I passed their ranks. I saw Bull-Head as I ran; he is riding a brown horse, and seems quite recovered from his wound."

"How far is the Boer laager from this place?" asked Sihamba before Suzanne could speak.

"Lady, a man on a good horse could reach it in seven hours, nor is it possible to mistake the way. After crossing the plain you enter the gorge by the saw-edged rock yonder, and follow its windings across the mountains till you come out the other side, where the river runs down to the flat country. Then you can keep along the bank of the river as I did when I went, or if you wish to go more quickly you must head for a large white-topped hill, or koppie, which can be seen from the mountains, and when you come to it you will find the Boer laager upon the knoll at its foot, but near to the banks of the river, which winds round it."

"Oh! let us go; let us go quickly," said Suzanne springing to her feet, for the thought even of seeing a white man again made her drunk with hope.

"Alas! sister," answered Sihamba sadly, "an hour ago we might have gone, or rather you might have gone, mounted on the great schimmel, but now—look," and she pointed to where the Zulus clustered like bees along the banks of the river by which the path ran. "See," she added, "there is but one road out of this stronghold, for nowhere else can the surest-footed climber in the world descend its cliffs, no, not with a rope to help him, and that road is thick with Zulu spears; moreover, a certain man whom you do not wish to see waits for you upon it."

Suzanne looked. "Too late," she moaned. "Oh! surely my God has forsaken me! Within six hours of safety and doomed to perish here; oh! surely my God has forsaken me!" and she burst out weeping in the bitterness of her disappointed hope.

"Say not so," answered Sihamba gently, "for I think that the Great one whom you worship will save you yet."

As she spoke a messenger arrived saying that the Zulus had sent forward heralds who desired to speak with her, and that these heralds waited within earshot of the first wall.

"I will come," said Sihamba, and she passed down the cleft and through the man hole into the fortifications which were built about the source of the river. But she would not allow Suzanne to accompany her.

When she reached the outer wall she climbed it and stood upon it, for Sihamba was a woman who knew no fear, and there, about forty paces away, she saw three great Zulus standing, and with them him whom she dreaded more than all the Zulus on the earth—Piet Van Vooren himself. When the Zulu captains caught sight of her upon the wall, they jeered aloud and asked whether this was indeed Sihamba Ngenyanga, or if a she-monkey had been sent to talk with them.

"I am Sihamba," she answered quietly, "or I am a monkey, as it may please you, though the white man with you can tell you what I am."

"I can," said Piet with a laugh. "You are a witch and a thief, and the fate that I promised you long ago is with you at last."

"Murderer," mocked Sihamba in answer, "I see Death standing behind you, and with him shadows of the Fear to come. But I would speak with these chiefs and not with an outcast half-breed. Tell me, chiefs, why do you come up against my stronghold with so great a force?"

"Because that 'Elephant whose tread shakes the earth,' our master, Dingaan the king, has sent us," answered the spokesman of the captains.

"Say, now, on what errand, chief?"

"On this errand; to take your stronghold and cattle, to burn your kraal, and to kill your people, all of them save the marriageable girls and such children as are old enough to travel, who must be brought with the cattle to Dingaan. But you yourself and the white woman who is called Swallow who rules with you are to be handed over to Bull-Head here to do with as he will, for that is the bargain between him and the king."

"And why are these things to come upon us who have done no wrong?" asked Sihamba.

"Why, little woman!" answered the chief, "because you have dared to steal cattle from the king's herd, even the royal white cattle; yes, and they have been traced to your mountain and seen among your oxen."

"It is true that the cattle are here," said Sihamba, "but it is not true that we have stolen them, seeing that they were lifted by the white man, Bull-Head, and mixed up with our herds to bring us into trouble with the king."

"A fit tale for the king's ears," replied the captain, laughing. "Why it was Bull-Head who told the king of the theft; but let that pass. Dingaan the king is merciful, and he makes you this offer through my mouth: If you will return the cattle together with all your own by way of fine, and hand over your councillors and head men to be killed, then he will grant the rest their lives. But all the young men and the girls must come with me to pass into the service of the king, the married women and the children going where they will. Perhaps Bull-Head here will take them with yourself and White Swallow. What is your word, little chieftainess?"

"My word is that we will have none of such mercy. It is better that we should die together, but I tell you, men of Dingaan, that these rocks will be white with your bones before ever you drive our cattle and maidens back to Dingaan."

"As you will, little chieftainess. We captains of the Zulus have heard many such proud words in our time, but ah! where are those who spoke them? Ask the jackals and the vultures, little chieftainess."



CHAPTER XXIX

THIRST

When Sihamba finished her talk with the captains of Dingaan the sun was already sinking. Still the Umpondwana thought that the Zulus would attack at once, but these shouted to the defenders that they might rest easily till the dawn, since they wished to have daylight by which to divide the spoil. And at daylight the attack came. Driving the men of Bull-Head in front of them much against their will, for they knew these to be cowards, and wished to make mock of them, company by company the Zulus rushed at the stone wall, though many of them were killed and often they were driven back. But always they came on laughing and shouting their war-cry till the arms of the Umpondwana grew weary with stabbing at them as their plumed heads appeared above the level of the wall. Still, fighting under the eye of Sihamba, whose bitter tongue they feared, her people held their own, for indeed the place was almost impregnable to the attacks of men armed only with spears however brave they might be, and had it been defended by warriors of true Zulu blood it could never have been taken.

When the fight had raged for an hour or more the Zulu captains withdrew their men, and went apart to consult with Van Vooren, for their loss was heavy, and they saw that if they were to capture the head waters of the river they must seek some other plan. Very soon they found it. The river issued from the side of the mountain not as a little stream but as a broad fierce water. So deep and rapid was it that the triple line of defence works of the Umpondwana were built only to its edge, for the water ran through a rocky gorge, although thorn trees fastened by their trunks were thrust out for ten or twelve feet over the banks of the gorge from either side of the stream. Now, in the centre of this river, which may have been thirty paces wide, was a long ridge or saddle of rock over which the water boiled furiously, although here it was not more than three feet deep. This ridge began at a point within the last line of walls and ran down to some five-and-twenty paces below the first wall. Swart Piet had noted the ridge.

"There is a saddle on which you may ride to victory," he said.

"How so, Bull-Head?" asked the captain.

"Thus. Yonder stand trees with tall stems and green tops; cut them down and make a bridge from the bank to the saddle; then wade up the saddle where the water is not more than waist deep, till you are past the third wall and reach the bank inside it as best you can."

Now although he was a brave man, as were all the Zulus in those days, the captain looked long and doubtfully at the white water which foamed upon the ridge.

"There is death in that water," he said.

"Death for some and victory for others," answered Van Vooren, "but if you fear it, go back to Dingaan and tell him so, for in no other way can this mountain be taken, seeing that it is impregnable, and that thirst alone can conquer it."

"I fear nothing, white man," answered the Zulu, "but if you are so brave, why, show us black people the way along yonder ridge!"

Piet shrugged his shoulders. "I wish to keep alive for reasons of my own; besides, I am not a soldier of Dingaan," he answered.

Then the captain turned and commanded such men as had battle axes to cut down three of the longest trees, which they did, although the task was difficult, for the wood was hard and their axes were light. When at length the trees were down they rolled them uphill to a spot where the ridge of rock ended, which was not more than thirty paces from the face of the outer wall. Now it was that Sihamba guessed their purpose for the first time, for until then she had believed that they were cutting the trees to use them as battering rams against the walls.

"They are coming on us by the path of the river," she said, and called for men to sally out and prevent them making the bridge from the bank to the saddle. But none answered her, for they dared not face the Zulus in the open.

"The water will sweep them away," they said; "moreover, when they try to land we can spear them."

"Cowards," she moaned, "on your own heads be your doom."

So the Umpondwana contented themselves with standing behind the first wall and casting volleys of spears at those who thrust out the trees within thirty paces of them, while Zinti shot at them with his gun, killing several. But coming between, the Zulus made a shield hedge to protect their comrades, so that the light throwing assegais did little hurt, and of the few that the gun killed they thought nothing.

Presently the ends of the trees lay beneath the water on the ridge of rock, and the captain commanded a certain induna to lead his men across. Now all natives fear a wet death, and though he was a brave man who would gladly have rushed the fortifications alone had he been so commanded, this soldier to whom the captain spoke looked askance at the furious torrent and hesitated. But that captain had served under Chaka, and knew how to deal with those who showed doubt or fear. Lifting his heavy assegai, he drove it through the man, so that he fell dead, and as he smote cried, "Coward, take this gift from the king!"

Then, calling to the soldiers, he himself ran out upon the bridge of tree-trunks and leaped into the water that rose to his middle. In an instant he would have been swept away, for the current was very fierce, had not those who followed sprang down at his side and behind him. For a moment they managed to keep their feet till others came, giving them support and being themselves protected by a breakwater built of the men who had gone first. Then, forming in a double line, each man linked his arms round the middle of his comrade in front, as Kaffir girls link themselves in a dance, and very slowly this human chain began to struggle forward along the back of the ridge. At times, indeed, the weight of the stream was almost too much for them, and swept some of them off into the deep water which ran on either side, but the strong rope of human muscles held, and they were dragged back again. Now they were between the lip of the first walls, and the Umpondwana soldiers hurled spears at them from the banks, killing many. But if a man was slain, or even badly wounded, his companions who held him let go, and, if needful, thrust him into the water, who could no longer serve the king. Then he gripped the soldier who stood in front of the lost one, and the chain dragged on.

"Oh! men of the Umpondwana," cried Sihamba, "had you but half the heart of these, who are brave, we need fear nothing from Dingaan," and the Zulus in the stream who heard her called in answer:—

"You are right, little chieftainess, we are brave."

Slowly the black snake-like line pressed forward through the white foam, never heeding the storm of spears that slew continually, till the point of it was well within the third line of walls. Then the captain, who by some chance had escaped, called an order to those behind him, and the head of the double line leapt off the ridge of rock into deep water, and swimming with their feet, but still gripping with their hands, suffered themselves to be swung round by the current towards the bank, twenty yards away. Here some rocks jutted out, and these, after a great struggle, they were able to grasp and hold.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7     Next Part
Home - Random Browse