cool brain and consummate judgment would have given him immeasurably the advantage—in fact, the key of the whole situation. But it was not so. As we have said, that love was chivalrously pure—even noble—would have been rather elevating but for the circumstance that its indulgence meant the discounting of another man’s life.Thus they walked, side by side, in the soft and sensuous sunshine. A shimmer of heat rose from the ground. Far away over the rolling plains a few cattle and horses, dotted here and there grazing, constituted the only sign of life, and the range of wooded hills against the sky line loomed purple and misty in the golden summer haze. If ever a land seemed to enjoy the blessings of peace assuredly it was this fair land here spread out around them.They had reached another of the ostrich camps, wherein were domiciled some eight or ten pairs of eighteen-month-old birds, which not having yet learned the extent of their power, were as tame and docile as the four-year-old male was savage and combative. Eustace had scattered the contents of his colander among them, and now the two were leaning over the gate, listlessly watching the birds feed.“Talking of people never thinking,” continued Eustace, “I don’t so much wonder at that. They haven’t time, I suppose, and so lose the faculty. They have enough to do to steer ahead in their own narrow little groves. But what does astonish me is that if you state an obvious fact— so obvious as to amount to a platitude—it seems to burst upon them as a kind of wild surprise, as a kind of practical joke on wheels, ready to start away down-hill and drag them with it to utter crash unless they edge away from it as far as possible. You see them turn and stare at each other, and open an amazed and gaping mouth into which you might insert a pumpkin without them being in the least aware of it.”“As for instance?” queried Eanswyth, with a smile.“Well—as for instance. I wonder what the effect would be upon an ordinary dozen of sane people were I suddenly to propound the perfectly obvious truism that life is full of surprises. I don’t wonder, at least, for I ought to know by this time. They would start by scouting the idea; ten to
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intervals, several circular clumps of bush. One of these conceals a spectator. The latter is seated on horseback in the very midst of the scrub, his feet dangling loosely in the stirrups, his hand closed tightly and rather suggestively round the breech of a double gun—rifle and smooth bore—which rests across the pommel of his saddle. There is a frown upon his face, as, himself completely hidden, he watches intently the progress of the sport. It is evident that he is more interested than pleased.For Tom Carhayes is the owner of this Kaffrarian stock run. In that part of Kaffraria, game is exceedingly scarce, owing to the presence of a redundant native population. Tom Carhayes is an ardent sportsman and spares no effort to protect and restore the game upon his farm. Yet here is a Kafir running down a buck under his very nose. Small wonder that he feels furious.“That scoundrel Goníwe!” he mutters between his set teeth. “I’ll put a bullet through his cur, and lick the nigger himself within an inch of his life!”The offence is an aggravated one. Not only is the act of poaching a very capital crime in his eyes, but the perpetrator ought to be at that moment at least three miles away, herding about eleven hundred of his master’s sheep. These he has left to take care of themselves while he indulges in an illicit buck-hunt. Small wonder indeed that his said master, at no time a good-tempered man, vows to make a condign example of him.The buck has nearly gained the crest of the ridge. Once over it his chances are good. The pursuing hound, running more by sight than by scent, may easily be foiled, by a sudden turn to right or left, and a double or two. The dog is a long way behind now, and the spectator has to rise in his stirrups to command a view of the situation. Fifty yards more and the quarry will be over the ridge and in comparative safety.But from just that distance above there suddenly darts forth another dog—a white one. It has sprung from a patch of bush similar to that which conceals the spectator. The buck, thoroughly demoralised by the advent of this new enemy, executes a rapid double, and thus pressed
back into the very jaws of its first pursuer has no alternative but to head up the valley as fast as its legs can carry it.But the new hound is fresh, and in fact a better dog than the first one. He presses the quarry very close and needs not the encouraging shouts of his master, who has leaped forth from his concealment immediately upon unleashing him. For a few moments the pace is even, then it decreases. The buck seemed doomed.And, indeed, such is the case anyhow. For, held in waiting at a given point, ready to be let slip if necessary, is a third dog. Such is the Kafir method of hunting. The best dog ever whelped is not quite equal, either in speed or staying power, to running down a full-grown buck in the open veldt, but by adopting the above means of hunting in relays, the chance are equalised. To be more accurate, the quarry has no chance at all.On speeds the chase; the new dog, a tall white grey-hound of surprising endurance and speed, gaining rapidly; the other, lashed into a final spurt by the spirit of emulation, not far behind. The two Kafirs, stimulating their hounds with yells of encouragement, are straining every nerve to be in at the death.The buck—terror and demoralisation in its soft, lustrous eyes—is heading straight for the spectator’s hiding place. The latter raises his piece, with the intention of sending a bullet through the first dog as soon as it shall come abreast of his position; the shot barrel will finish off the other.But he does not fire. The fact is, the man is simply shaking with rage. Grinding his teeth, he recognises his utter inability to hit a haystack at that moment, let alone a swiftly coursing grey-hound.The chase sweeps by within seventy yards of his position—buck, dog, and Kafirs. Then another diversion occurs.Two more natives rise, apparently out of the ground itself. One of these, poising himself erect with a peculiar springy, quivering motion, holds his kerrie ready to hurl. The buck is barely thirty yards distant, andThey had struck into a narrow gorge in the side of the hill. It was hard work making any headway at all. The dense bush, intertwined with creepers, met them in places in an unbroken wall, but Josane would hack away manfully with his broad-bladed assegai until he succeeded in forcing a way.“It seems as if we were going to storm the devil’s castle,” said Shelton, sitting down to wipe his streaming brow. “It’s hot enough anyway.”“Rather,” assented Hoste. “Milne, old chap, how do you feel?”“Headachy. There’s a power of thunder sticking out—as Josane says —against when we get out.”“If we ever do get out.”“That’s cheerful. Well, if we mean to get in, I suppose we’d better make a move? Eh, Josane!” The Kafir emphatically agreed. He had witnessed their dilatoriness not without concern. He appeared strangely eager to get the thing over—contrary to the habits of his kind, for savages, of whatever race, are never in a hurry. A line of rocky boulders in front, thickly grown with straight stemmed euphorbia, stiff and regular like the pipes of an organ, precluded any view of the sort of formation that lay beyond. Right across their path, if path it might be called, rose another impenetrable wall of thorns and creepers. In front of this Josane halted.Chapter Forty Three.“Kwa ’Zinyoka.”The brooding, oppressive stillness deepened. Not a breath of air stirred the sprays of the bush, which slept motionless as though carved in stone. Even the very bird voices were hushed. Far below, the sound of the river, flowing over its long stony reaches, came upwards in plaintive monotonous murmur.
All of a sudden Josane turned. He sent one keen searching glance straight in front of him, and another from side to side.“The Home of the Serpents is a horrible place,” he said. “I have warned you that it is so. It is not too late now. The Amakosi can yet turn back.”The awed solemnity of his tone could not fail to impress his hearers, especially two of them. The boding sense of oppression in the atmosphere, the utter wildness of the surroundings, the uneasy, mysterious nature of their quest, and the tall gaunt figure of the old Kafir standing in the semi-gloom beneath the funereal plumes of the straight stemmed euphorbia, like an oracle of misfortune—all this affected the imagination of two, at any rate, of these ordinarily hard-headed and practical men in a fashion they could scarcely have deemed possible. The third, however, was impervious to such influences. There was too much involved in the material side of the undertaking. No thought had he to spare apart from this; no scope was there for giving free rein to his imagination.“I think I may say we none of us have the slightest idea of turning back!” he answered.“Certainly not,” assented the other two.Josane looked fixedly at them for a moment. Then he said:“It is good. Follow me—carefully, carefully. We do not want to leave a broad spoor.”The undergrowth among the straight stiff stems of the euphorbia looked dense and impenetrable as a wall. To the astonishment of the spectators, the old Kafir lay flat on his stomach, lifted the dense tangle just enough to admit the passage of his body, for all the world as though he were lifting a heavy curtain, and slipped through.“Come,” he whispered from the other side, for he had completely disappeared from view. “Come—as I did. But do not rend the bushesmore than is absolutely necessary.”They followed, worming their way in the same fashion about a dozen yards. Then an ejaculation of amazement, not unmixed with alarm, broke from the lips of Shelton, who was leading. It found an echo on those of the other two. Their first instinct was to draw back.They had emerged upon a narrow ledge, not of rock, or even earth; a narrow ledge of soft, yielding, quaking moss. And it overhung what had the appearance of a huge natural well.It literally overhung. By peering cautiously outward they could see a smooth perpendicular wall of red rock falling sheer and straight to a depth of nearly two hundred feet. Three sides of the hollow—itself not that distance in width—were similarly constituted, the fourth being a precipitous, well-nigh perpendicular slope, with a sparse growth of stunted bushes jotting its rugged sides. A strange, gruesome looking hole, whose dismal depths showed not the smallest sign of life. Could this be the awesome, mysterious “Home of the Serpents?”But Josane’s next words disabused them on this point.“Tarry not,” he said. “Follow me. Do even as I do.”Right to the brink of this horrible abyss the bush grew in a dense jungly wall, and it was the roots of this, overgrown with an accumulation of moss and soil, that constituted the apology for a ledge along which they were expected to make their way. And there was a distance of at least sixty or seventy yards of this precarious footway, to miss which would mean a certain and terrible death.It would have been something of an ordeal even had the foothold been firm. Now, however, as they made their way along this quivering, quaking, ladder-like pathway of projecting roots interleaved with treacherous moss, not one of the three was altogether free from a nervous and shaky sensation about the knees as he moved slowly forward, selecting the strongest-looking stems for hand-hold. Once a root whereon Hoste had put his foot gave way with a muffled crack, letting his
leg through the fearful pathway up to the thigh. An involuntary cry escaped him as, grasping a stem above him, he drew it forth with a supreme effort, and his brown visage assumed a hue a good many shades paler, as through the hole thus made he contemplated a little cloud of leaves and sticks swirling away into the abyss.“Great Heaven!” he ejaculated. “Are we never coming to the end of this ghastly place?”“How would you like to cross it running at full speed, like a monkey, as I was forced to do? I told you I had to fly through the air,” muttered Josane, who had overheard. “The horror of it has only just begun—just begun. Hau! Did I not say it was going to be a horrible place?”But they were destined to reach the end of it without mishap, and right glad were they to find themselves crawling along a narrow ledge overhung by a great rock, still skirting the abyss, but at any rate there was hard ground under them; not a mere shaky network of more or less rotten roots.“Is this the only way, Josane?” said Eustace at length, as they paused for a few minutes to recover breath, and, truth to say, to steady their nerves a trifle. Even he put the question with some diffidence, for as they drew nearer and nearer to the locality of their weird quest the old Gcaléka’s manner had undergone a still further change. He had become morose and taciturn, gloomy and abstracted to a degree.“It is not,” he answered. “It is the only way I know. When I came here my eyes were shut; when I went away they were open. Then I approached it from above; now we have approached from below. The way by which I left, is the way you have seen.”“O Lord! I wouldn’t travel the last infernal hundred yards again for a thousand pounds,” muttered Hoste ruefully. “And now, I’ve got to do it again for nothing. I’d sooner run the gauntlet of the whole Gcaléka tribe, as we did before.”“We may have to do that as well,” remarked Shelton. “But I think Inever did see such an utterly dismal and God-forsaken corner in my life. Looks as if Old Nick had built it out of sheer devilment.”There was reason in what he said. The immense funnel-like hole seemed an extraordinary caprice of Nature. Nothing grew at the bottom but coarse herbage and a few stunted bushes. It seemed absolutely lacking in raison d’être. Occurring at the top of a mountain, it would at once have suggested an ancient crater. Occurring, as it did, in solid ground on the steep slope of a lofty river bank that theory seemed not to hold good. On all sides, save the narrow defile they had come through, it was shut in by lofty wooded heights breaking here and there into a red iron-stone cliff.Their guide resumed his way, advancing in a listening attitude, and with intense caution. The ledge upon which they crept, now on all-fours, widened considerably. The projecting rock overhead jutted out further and further, till it overhung the abyss for a considerable distance. Beneath its shade they were already in semi-gloom. Crawling along, toilsomely, laboriously, one behind the other, each man with all his senses, all his faculties, on the alert, the fact that their guide had stopped came upon them as a surprise. Then, as they joined him, and crouched there side by side—each man’s heart beat quicker, each man’s face slightly changed colour. For the overhanging rock had heightened—the ledge had widened to an area of fifteen or twenty feet. Flooring and rock-roof no longer met. At the bottom of this area, both yawned away from each other in a black horizontal rift.Save through this rift there was no getting any further. Quickly each mind grasped the solution. The cave yawning in front of them was—“Where does that hole lead to, Josane?” said Hoste.“Kwa ’zinyoka,” replied the Gcaléka, impressively.Such creatures are we of the light and air, that it is safe to assert that not even the boldest among us can undertake the most cursory exploration into the bowels of the earth without a consciousness of ever so slight a sobering influence, a kind of misgiving begotten of the idea of