of bush and rock held the lurking remnants of the Gcaléka bands who were still under arms, and should these discover the presence of intruders, the position of the four men, dismounted, scantily supplied with food, and hampered with their worse than useless charge, would be serious indeed.The latter they still deemed it necessary to keep carefully secured. His transition to the upper air had effected a curious change in him. He was no longer violent. He seemed dazed, utterly subdued. He would blink and shut his eyes, as if the light hurt them. Then he would open them again and stare about him with a gaze of the most utter bewilderment. A curious feature in his demeanour was that the world at large seemed to excite his interest rather than its living inhabitants. In these, as represented by his rescuers, he seemed to evince no interest at all. His gaze would wander past them, as though unaware of their presence, to the broad rugged river-valley, with its soaring krantzes and savage forest-clad depths, as if he had awakened in a new world. And indeed he had. Think of it! Seven or eight months spent in utter darkness; seven or eight months without one glimmer of the blessed light of Heaven; seven or eight months in the very bowels of the earth, in starvation and filth, among living horrors which had turned his brain; the only glint of light, the only sound of the human voice vouchsafed to him being on those occasions when his barbarous tormentors came to taunt him and bring him his miserable food! Small wonder that the free air, the light, and the spreading glories of Nature, had a dazing, subduing effect on the poor lunatic.His own safety necessitated the continuance of his bonds—that of his rescuers, that he should be kept securely gagged. It would not do, out of mistaken kindness, to run any risks; to put it in the poor fellow’s power to break forth into one of his paroxysms of horrible howls, under circumstances when their lives might depend upon secrecy and silence. It would be time enough to attempt the restoration of the poor clouded brain, when they should have conveyed him safe home again. It was a curious thing that necessity should oblige his rescuers to bring him back bound as though a prisoner.Their camp—rather their halting place, for caution would preclude
great open space.Into this muster of fierce and excited savages Eustace found himself guided. If the demeanour of his guards had hitherto been good-humoured and friendly, it was so no longer. Those immediately about him kept turning to brandish their assegais in his face as they marched, going through the pantomime of carving him to pieces, uttering taunts and threats of the most blood-curdling character.“Hau umlúngu! Are you cold? The fire will soon be ready. Then you will be warm—warm, ha-ha!” they sang, rubbing their hands and spreading them out before an imaginary blaze. “The wood is hot—ah-ah! It burns! ah-ah!” And then they would skip first on one foot, then on another, as if trying to avoid a carpeting of glowing coals. Or, “The fighting men of the Ama-Gcaléka are thirsty. But they will soon have to drink. Blood—plenty of blood—the drink of warriors—the drink that shall make their hearts strong. Hau!” And at this they would feign to stab the prisoner—bringing their blades near enough to have frightened a nervous man out of his wits. Or again: “The ants are hungry. The black ants are swarming for their food. It shall soon be theirs. Ha-ha! They want it alive. They want eyes. They want brains. They want blood! Ha-ha! The black, ants are swarming for their food.” Here the savages would squirm and wriggle as in imitation of a man being devoured alive by insects. For this was an allusion to a highly popular barbarity among these children of Nature; one not unfrequently meted out to those who had incurred the envy or hostility of the chiefs and witch-doctors, and had been “smelt out” accordingly.When all were gathered within the open space the war chant ceased. The great muster of excited barbarians had formed up into crescent rank and now dropped into a squatting posture. To the open side of this, escorted by about fifty warriors, the prisoner was marched.As he passed through that sea of fierce eyes, all turned on him with a bloodthirsty stare, between that great crowd of savage forms, squatted around like tigers on the crouch, Eustace felt his pulses quicken. The critical time had arrived.Even at that perilous moment he took in the place and its surroundings. He noted the faces of women, behind the dark serried ranks of the warriors, peering eagerly at him. There were, however, but few, and they wore a crushed and anxious look. He noted, further, that the huts were of recent and hasty construction, and that the cattle inclosure was small and scantily stocked. All this pointed to the conclusion that the kraal was a temporary one. The bulk of the women and cattle would be stowed away in some more secure hiding place. Only for a moment, however, was he thus suffered to look around. His thoughts were quickly diverted to a far more important consideration.His guards had fallen back a few paces, leaving him standing alone. In front, seated on the ground, was a group consisting of a dozen or fourteen persons, all eyeing him narrowly. These he judged to be the principal chiefs and councillors of the Gcaléka tribe. One glance at the most prominent figure among these convinced him that he stood in the presence of the Paramount Chief himself.Kreli, or Sarili, as the name is accurately rendered—the former being, however, that by which he was popularly, indeed, historically known—the chief of the Gcalékas and the suzerain head of all the Xosa race, was at that time about sixty years of age. Tall and erect in person, dignified in demeanour, despising gimcrack and chimney-pot hat counterfeits of civilisation, he was every inch a fine specimen of the savage ruler. His shrewd, massive countenance showed character in every line, and the glance of his keen eyes was straight and manly. His beard, thick and bushy for a Kafir, was only just beginning to show a frost of grey among its jetty blackness. Such was the man before whom Eustace Milne stood—so to speak—arraigned.For some moments the august group sat eyeing the prisoner in silence. Eustace, keenly observing those dark impassive faces, realised that there was not one there which was known to him. He had seen Hlangani’s gigantic form, resplendent or the reverse in the most wildly elaborate war costume, seated among the fighting men. Here in the group before him all were strangers.While some of his chiefs were arrayed in costumes of plumes and
skins and cow-tails exceeding fantastic, Kreli himself had eschewed all martial adornments. An ample red blanket swathed his person, and above his left elbow he wore the thick ivory armlet affected by most Kafirs of rank or position. But there was that about his personality which marked him out from the rest. Eustace, gazing upon the arbiter of his fate, realised that the latter looked every inch a chief—every inch a man.“Why do you come here making war upon me and my people, umlúngu!” said the chief, shortly.“There is war between our races,” answered Eustace. “It is every man’s duty to fight for his nation, at the command of his chief.”“Who ordered you to take up arms against us? You are not a soldier, nor are you a policeman.”This was hard hitting. Eustace felt a trifle nonplussed. But he conceived that boldness would best answer his purpose.“There were not enough regular troops or Police to stand against the might of the Gcaléka nation,” he replied. “Those of us who owned property were obliged to take up arms in defence of our property.”“Was your property on the eastern side of the Kei? Was it on this side of the Bashi?” pursued the chief. “When a man’s house is threatened does he go four days’ journey away from it in order to protect it?” A hum of assent—a sort of native equivalent for “Hear, hear,” went up from the councillors at this hard hit.“Do I understand the chief to mean that we whose property lay along the border were to wait quietly for the Gcaléka forces to come and ‘eat us up’ while we were unprepared?” said Eustace quietly. “That because we were not on your side of the Kei we were to do nothing to defend ourselves; to wait until your people should cross the river?”“Does a dog yelp out before he is kicked?”“Does it help him, anyway, to do so after?” replied the prisoner, with a slight smile over this new rendering of an old proverb. “But the chiefcannot be talking seriously. He is joking.”“Hau!” burst forth the amapakati in mingled surprise and resentment.“You are a bold man, umlúngu,” said Kreli, frowning. “Do you know that I hold your life in my hand?”This was coming to the point with a vengeance. Eustace realised that, like Agag, he must “walk delicately.” It would not do to take up a defiant attitude. On the other hand to show any sign of trepidation might prove equally disastrous. He elected to steer as near as possible a middle course.“That is so,” he replied. “I am as anxious to live as most people. But this is war-time. When a man goes to war he does not lock up his life behind him at home. What would the Great Chief gain by my death?”“His people’s pleasure,” replied Kreli, with sombre significance, waving a hand in the direction of the armed crowd squatted around. Then turning, he began conferring in a low tone with his councillors, with the result that presently one of the latter directed that the prisoner should be removed altogether beyond earshot.Eustace accordingly was marched a sufficient distance from the debating group, a move which brought him close to the ranks of armed warriors. Many of the latter amused themselves by going through a wordless, but highly suggestive performance illustrative of the fate they hoped awaited him. One would imitate the cutting out of a tongue, another the gouging of an eye, etc., all grinning the while in high glee.Even Eustace, strong-nerved as he was, began to feel the horrible strain of the suspense. He glanced towards the group of chiefs and amapakati much as the prisoner in the dock might eye the door of the room where the jury was locked up. He began talking to his guards by way of diversion.“Who is that with Hlangani, who has just joined the amapakati?” he asked.“Ukiva.”He looked with new interest at the warrior in question, in whose name he recognised that of a fighting chief of some note, and who was reported to have commanded the enemy in the fight with Shelton’s patrol.“And the man half standing up—who is he?”“Sigcau—the great chief’s first son. Whau umlúngu!” broke off his informant. “You speak with our tongue even as one of ourselves. Yet the chiefs and principal men of the House of Gcaléka are unknown lo you by sight.”“Those of the House of Gaika are not. Tell me. Which is Botmane?”“Botmane? Lo!” replied several of the Kafirs emphatically. “He next to the Great Chief.”Eustace looked with keen interest upon the man pointed out—an old man with a grey head, and a shrewd, but kindly natured face. He was Kreli’s principal councillor and at that time was reported to be somewhat in disfavour by reason of having been strenuously opposed to a war with the whites. He was well-known to Eustace by name; in fact the latter had once, to his considerable chagrin, just missed meeting him on the occasion of a political visit he had made to the Komgha some months previously.Meanwhile the prisoner might well feel anxious as he watched the group of amapakati, for they were debating nothing less than the question whether he should be put to death or not.The chief Kreli was by no means a cruel or bloodthirsty ruler—and he was a tolerably astute one. It is far from certain that he himself had ever been in favour of making war at that time. He was too shrewd and far-seeing to imagine that success could possibly attend his arms in the long run, but on the other hand he bore a deep and latent grudge against the English by reason of the death at their hands of his father, Hintza, who had been made a prisoner not altogether under circumstances of an
unimpeachable kind and shot while attempting to escape. This had occurred forty years earlier.So when the young bloods of the tribe, thirsting for martial distinction, had forced the hands of their elders and rulers, by provoking a series of frictions with their Fingo neighbours then under British protection, the old chief had exercised no very strenuous opposition to their indulging themselves to the top of their bent.Having, however, given way to the war spirit, he left no stone unturned to insure success. Runners were sent to the Gaika and Hlambi tribes located in British Kaffraria, viz.: within the Colonial limits—but although plenty of young men owning those nationalities drifted across the Kei in squads to join his standard, the bulk of the tribes themselves were slow to respond to his appeal. Had it been otherwise, the position of the border people would have been more serious. With the enemy at their very doors they would have found plenty of occupation at home, instead of being free to pour their forces into the Transkei. Things, however, had turned out differently. The Gcaléka country had been ravaged from end to end, and the old chief was at that moment practically a fugitive. It may readily be imagined, therefore, that he was in rather an ugly humour, and not likely to show much clemency towards the white prisoner in his power.There was another consideration which militated against the said clemency. Although he had made no allusion to it, it must not be supposed that Kreli was all this time unaware of the identity of his prisoner. The latter’s friendship with many of the Gaika rulers was a rank offence in the eyes of the Paramount Chief just then. Had he not sent his “word” to those chiefs, and had not his “word” fallen on ears dull of hearing? Instead of rising at his call they were yet “sitting still.” What more likely than that white men, such as this one, were influencing them —were advising them contrary to their allegiance to him, the Paramount Chief?Some of the amapakati were in favour of sparing the prisoner at present. He might be of use to them hereafter. He seemed not like an ordinary white man. He spoke their tongue and understood their customs.There was no knowing but that he might eventually serve them materially with his own people. Others, again, thought they might just as well give him over to the people to be put to death in their own way. It would please the fighting men—many of whom had lost fathers and brothers at the hands of the whites. Yet again, one or two more originated another proposal. They had heard something of this white man being a bit of a wizard—that he owned a “charm” which had turned the blade of a broad assegai from his heart. Let him be handed over to Ngcenika, the great witch-doctress. Let her try whether his “charm” was too strong for her.This idea met with something like universal acceptance. Shrewd and intelligent as they are in ordinary matters, Kafirs are given to the most childish superstitions, and, in adopting the above suggestion, these credulous savages really did look forward to witnessing something novel in the way of a competition in magic. In their minds the experiment was likely to prove a thing worth seeing.“Ewa! Ewa!” (“Yes—yes”) they cried emphatically. “Let Ngcenika be called.”“So be it,” assented Kreli. “Let the witch-doctress be sought.”But almost before the words had left his lips—there pealed forth a wild, unearthly shriek—a frightful yell—emanating from the line of rugged and bush-grown rocks which shut in one side of the clearing. Chiefs, amapakati, warriors—all turned towards the sound, an anxious expression upon every face—upon many, one of apprehension, of fear. Even to the white prisoner the interruption was sufficiently startling. And then there bounded forth into their midst a hideous, a truly appalling apparition.Chapter Thirty.The Witch-Doctress.
Man, woman, or demon—which was it?
A grim, massive face, a pair of fierce, rolling eyes, which seemed to sparkle with a cruel and blood thirsty scintillation, a large, strongly built trunk, whose conformation alone betrayed the sex of the creature. Limbs and body were hung around thickly with barbarous “charms” in hideous and disgusting profusion—birds’ heads and claws, frogs and lizards, snakes’ skins, mingling with the fresh and bloody entrails of some animal. But the head of this revolting object was simply demoniacal in aspect. The hair, instead of being short and woolly, had been allowed to attain some length, and hung down on each side of the frightful face in a black, kinky mane, save for two lengths of it, which, stiffened with some sort of horrid pigment, stood erect like a couple of long red horns on each side of the wearer’s ears. Between these “horns,” and crowning the creature’s head, grinned a human skull, whose eyeless sockets were smeared round with a broad circle in dark crimson. And that nothing should be wanting to complete the diabolical horror of her appearance, the repulsive and glistening coils of a live serpent were folding and unfolding about the left arm and shoulder of the sorceress.Something like a shudder of fear ran through the ranks of the armed warriors as they gazed upon this frightful apparition. Brave men all— fearless fighters when pitted against equal forces—now they quailed, sat there in their armed might, thoroughly cowed before this female fiend. She would require blood—would demand a life, perhaps several—that was certain. Whose would it be?The wild, beast-like bounds of the witch-doctress subsided into a kind of half-gliding, half-dancing step—her demoniacal words into a weird nasal sort of chant—as she approached the chief and his councillors.“Seek not for Ngcenika, O son of Hintza, father of the children of Xosa!” she cried in a loud voice, fixing her eyes upon Kreli. “Seek not for Ngcenika, O amapakati, wise men of the House of Gcaléka, when your wisdom is defeated by the witchcraft of your enemies. Seek not Ngcenika, O ye fighting men, children of the Great Chief, your father, when your blood is spilled in battle, and your bullets fly harmless from the bodies of the whites because of the evil wiles of the enemy within your ranks. Seek her not, for she is here—here to protect you—here to ‘smell out’ the evil wizard in your midst. She needs no seeking; she needs noThen an ugly report got wind in Komgha—whispered at first. A disaster had befallen. Several men belonging to the expected corps had been killed. They had constituted a patrol, report said—then a shooting party straying from the main body. Anyway, they had been cut off by the enemy and massacred to a man. It was only the Moordenaar’s Kop affair over again, people said.Later the rumour began to boil down a little. Only four men had come to grief as reported. They had left the main body to get up a bushbuck hunt on the banks of the Bashi. They must have crossed the river for some reason or other, probably in pursuance of their hunt; anyhow, they were surprised by the Kafirs and killed. And the missing men were Hoste, Payne, Carhayes, and Eustace Milne.The rumour spread like wildfire. The excitement became prodigious. Men stood in eager knots at the street corners, at the bars, everywhere, each trying to appear as if he knew more about it than his fellows; each claiming to be a greater authority upon the probabilities or improbabilities of the case than all the rest put together. But all were agreed on one point —that the errand of breaking the news to those most concerned was the duty of anybody but themselves. And three of the unfortunate men were married; two of their wives—now widows, alas—being actually resident in the place, within a stone’s throw, in fact. It was further agreed that, by whoever eventually performed, the longer this duty could be deferred the better. Further information might arrive any moment. It would be as well to wait.For once, public opinion was sound in its judgment. Further information did arrive, this time authentic, and it had the effect of boiling down rumour considerably—in fact, by one-half. The four men had set out and crossed the Bashi into the Bomvana country, as at first stated. They had been attacked by the Kafirs in overwhelming numbers, and after a terrible running fight Hoste and Payne had escaped. Their horses had been mortally wounded and themselves forced to lie hidden among the thick bush and krantzes along the Bashi River for two nights and a day, when they were found in a half-starved condition by a strong patrol of the Rangers, which had turned back to search for them. The other two men were missing, and from the report of the survivors no hope could be
entertained of their escape. In fact, their fate was placed beyond the shadow of a doubt, for the Rangers had proceeded straight to the scene of the conflict, and though they did not discover the bodies—which the jackals and other wild animals might have accounted for meanwhile— they found the spots, not very far apart, where both men had been slain, and in or near the great patches of dried-up blood were fragments of the unfortunate men’s clothing and other articles, including a new and patent kind of spur known to have belonged to Milne.This was better. The killed had been reduced from four to two, the number of widows from three to one. Still, it was sufficiently terrible. Both men had lived in their midst—one for many years, the other for a shorter time—and were more or less well-known to all. This time the news was genuine, for three of the Rangers themselves had ridden in with all particulars. The sensation created was tremendous. Everybody had something to say.“Tell you what it is, boys,” a weather-beaten, grizzled old farmer was saying—haranguing a gathering of idlers on the stoep of the hotel. “There’s always something of that sort happens every war. Fellers get so darn careless. They think because Jack Kafir funks sixty men he’s in just as big a funk of six. But he ain’t. They reckon, too, that because they can’t see no Kafirs that there ain’t no Kafirs to see. Jest as if they weren’t bein’ watched every blessed step they take. No, if you go out in a big party to find Jack Kafir you won’t find him, but if you go out in a small one, he’ll be dead sure to find you. You may jest bet drinks all round on that. Hey? Did you say you’d take me, Bill?” broke off the old fellow with a twinkle in his eye as he caught that of a crony in the group.“Haw, haw! No, I didn’t, but I will though. Put a name to it, old Baas.”“Well, I’ll call it ‘French.’ Three star for choice.”The liquid was duly brought and the old fellow, having disposed of two-thirds at a gulp, resumed his disquisition.“It’s this way,” he went on. “I’m as certain of it as if I’d seen it. Them oxen were nothin’ more or less than a trap. The Kafirs had been watchingthe poor devils all along and jest sent the oxen as a bait to draw them across the river. It’s jest what might have been expected, but I’m surprised they hadn’t more sense than to be took so easily. Hoste and Payne especially—not being a couple of Britishers—”“Here, I say, governor—stow all that for a yarn,” growled one of a brace of fresh-faced young Police troopers, who were consuming a modest “split” at a table and resented what they thought was an imputation.“Well, I don’t mean no offence,” returned the old fellow testily. “I only mean that Britishers ain’t got the experience us Colonial chaps has, and ’ll go runnin’ their heads into a trap where we should know better.”“All the more credit to their pluck,” interrupted another patriotically disposed individual.“Oh, shut up, Smith. Who the deuce is saying anything against their pluck?” cried someone else.“Well, I’m sure I wasn’t,” went on the original speaker. “Tom Carhayes, now, is as plucky a fellow as ever lived—was, rather—and—”“You don’t call Tom Carhayes a Britisher, do you?” objected another man.“Yes, I do. At least, perhaps not altogether. He’s been here a good number of years now and got into our ways. Still, I remember when he first came out. And Milne only came out the other day.”“Well, Milne’s ‘blanket friends’ have paid him off in a coin he didn’t bargain for. Wonder what he thinks of ’em now—if he can think,” said someone, with an ill-natured sneer—for Eustace, like most men with any character in them, was not beloved by everybody.“Ah, poor chap,” went on the old man. “Milne was rather too fond of the Kafirs and Carhayes was a sight too much down on ’em. And now the Kafirs have done for them both, without fear, favour, or—”
“Tsh—tsh—tsh! Shut up, man alive, shut up!”This was said in a low, warning whisper, and the speaker’s sleeve was violently plucked.“Eh? What’s the row?” he asked, turning in amazement.“Why, that’s her!” was the reply, more earnest than grammatical.“Her? Who?”“His wife, of course.”A Cape cart was driving by, containing two ladies and two young girls. Of the former one was Mrs Hoste, the other Eanswyth. As they passed quite close to the speakers, Eanswyth turned her head with a bow and a smile to someone standing in front of the hotel. A dead, awkward silence fell upon the group of talkers.“I say. She didn’t hear, did she?” stage-whispered the old man eagerly, when the trap had gone by.“She didn’t look much as though she had—poor thing!” said another whom the serene, radiant happiness shining in that sweet face had not escaped.“Poor thing, indeed,” was the reply. “She ought to be told, though. But I wouldn’t be the man to do it, no—not for fifty pounds. Why, they say she can hardly eat or sleep since she heard Tom Carhayes was coming back, she’s so pleased. And now, poor Tom—where is he? Lying out there hacked into Kafir mince-meat.” And the speaker, jerking his hand in the direction of the Transkei, stalked solemnly down the steps of the stoep, heaving a prodigious sigh.Chapter Twenty Five.“The Curse has come upon me...”