himself from ducking violently as the head of a huge puff-adder noiselessly shot up horribly close to his ear, and a very marked quaver came into his whistling notes.As the cavern narrowed to its former tunnel-like dimensions the serpentsgrew perceptibly scarcer. One or two would be seen to wriggle away, he and there; then no more were met with. The sickening closeness of the air still continued, and now this stood amply accounted for. It was due to the foetid exhalations produced by this mass of noisome reptiles congregated within a confined space far removed from the outer air.“Faugh!” ejaculated Hoste. “Thank Heaven these awful brutes seem to grown scarce again. Shall we have to go back through them, Josane?”“It is not yet time to talk of going back,” was the grim reply. Then he had hardly resumed his magic song before he broke it off abruptly. At the same time the others started, and their faces blanched in the semi-darkness.For, out of the black gloom in front of them, not very far in front either, there burst forth such a frightful diabolical howl as ever curdled the heart’s blood of an appalled listener.Chapter Forty Five.A Fearful Discovery.They stood there, turned to stone. They stood there, strong men as they were, their flesh creeping with horror. The awful sound was succeeded by a moment of silence, then it burst forth again and again, the grim subterraneous walls echoing back its horrible import in ear-splitting reverberation. It sounded hardly human in its mingled intonation of frenzied ferocity and blind despair. It might have been the shriek of a lost soul, struggling in the grasp of fiends on the brink of the nethermost
The cry broke from Shelton. All started, so great was the state of tension that their nerves were undergoing. Following his glance they promptly discovered what it was that had evoked it.Lying upon a great slab of rock, about on a level with their chests, was an enormous puff-adder. The bloated proportions of the hideous reptile were disposed in a sinuous coil—shadowy, repulsive to the last degree, in the light of the lantern. A shudder ran through every one of the three white men.“Quick, Josane. Hand me one of your kerries,” said Shelton. “I can get a whack at him now.”But the Kafir, peremptorily, almost angrily refused.“Why did you not listen to my words?” he said. “Look neither to the right nor to the left, was what I told you. Then you would have seen nothing. Now let us move on.”But Shelton and Hoste stood, irresolutely staring at the horrid reptile as though half fascinated. It—as if resenting the intrusion—began to unwind its sluggish folds, and raising its head, emitted a low, warning hiss, at the same time blowing itself out with a sound as of a pair of bellows collapsing, after the fashion which has gained for this most repulsive of all serpents its distinctive name.“You must not kill it,” repeated the Kafir, in a tone almost of command. “This is ‘The Home of the Serpents,’ remember. Did I not warn you?”They saw that he was deadly in earnest. Here in this horrible den, right in the heart of the earth, the dark-skinned, superstitious savage seemed the one to command. It was perhaps remarkable that no thought of disobeying him entered the mind of any one of the three white men; still more so, that no resentment entered in either. They resumed their way without a murmur; not, however, without some furtive glances behind, as though dreading an attack on the part of the deadly reptile they were leaving in their rear. More than once they thought to detect thesound of that slow, crawling glide—to discern an indistinct and sinuous shadow moving in the subdued light.“This is ‘The Home of the Serpents’!” chanted Josane, taking up once more his weird refrain.“This is The Home of the Serpents, the abode of the Spirit-dead. O Inyoka ’Nkúlu (Great Serpent) do us no hurt! O Snake of Snakes, harm us not!“The shades of thy home are blacker than blackest night.“We tread the dark shades of thy home in search of the white man’s friend.“Give us back the white man’s friend, so may we depart in peace—“In peace from The Home of the Serpents, the abode of the Spirit-dead.“Into light from the awe-dealing gloom, where the shades of our fathers creep.“So may we return to the daylight in safety with him whom we seek.“Harm us not, O Snake of snakes! Do us no hurt,O Inyoka ’Nkúlu!”The drawn out notes of this lugubrious refrain were uttered with a strange, low, concentrative emphasis which was indescribably thrilling. Eustace, the only one of the party who thoroughly grasped its burden, felt curiously affected by it. The species of devil worship implied in the heathenish invocation communicated its influence to himself. His spirits, up till now depressed and burdened as with a weight of brooding evil, seemed to rise to an extraordinary pitch of exaltation, as though rejoicing at the prospect of prompt admission into strange mysteries. Far otherwise, however, were the other two affected by the surroundings.
Indeed, it is by no means certain that had their own inclinations been the sole guide in the matter, they would there and then have turned round and beat a hasty and ignominious retreat, leaving Tom Carhayes and his potential fate to the investigation of some more enterprising party.The atmosphere grew more foetid and pestilential. Suddenly the cavern widened out. Great slabs of rock jutted horizontally from the sides, sometimes so nearly meeting that there was only just room to pass in single file between. Then a low cry of horror escaped the three white men. They stopped short, as though they had encountered a row of fixed bayonets, and some, at any rate, of the party were conscious of the very hair on their heads standing erect.For, lying about upon the rock slabs were numbers of shadowy, sinuous shapes, similar to the one they had just disturbed. Some were lying apart, some were coiled up together in a heaving, revolting mass. As the light of the lantern flashed upon them, they began to move. The hideous coils began to separate, gliding apart, head erect, and hissing till the whole area of the grisly cavern seemed alive with writhing, hissing serpents. Turn the light which way they would, there were the same great wriggling coils, the same frightful heads. Many, hitherto unseen, were pouring their loathsome, gliding shapes down the rocks overhead, and the dull, dragging heavy sound, as the horrible reptiles crawled over the hard and stony surface, mingled with that of strident hissing. What a sight to come upon in the heart of the earth!It is safe to assert that no object in Nature is held in more utter and universal detestation by man than the serpent. And here were these men penned up within an underground cave in the very heart of the earth, with scores, if not hundreds, of these frightful and most deadly reptiles—some too, of abnormal size—around them; all on the move, and so near that it was as much as they could do to avoid actual contact. Small wonder that their flesh should creep and that every drop of blood should seem to curdle within their veins. It was a position to recur to a man in his dreams until his dying day.“Oh, I can’t stand any more of this,” said Hoste, who was walking last. “Hang it. Anything above ground, you know—but this—! Faugh!We’ve got no show at all. Ugh-h!”Something cold had come in contact with his hand. He started violently. But it was only the clammy surface of a projecting rock.And now the whole of the gloomy chamber resounded with shrill and angry hissing, as the disturbed reptiles glided hither and thither—was alive with waving necks and distended jaws, glimpsed shadowy on the confines of the disk of light which shot into the remote corners of the frightful den. Curiously enough, not one of the serpents seemed to be lying in the pathway itself. All were on the ledges of rock which bordered it.“Keep silence and follow close on my steps,” said Josane shortly. Then he raised his voice and threw a marvellously strange, soft melodiousness into the weird song, which he had never ceased to chant. Eustace, who was the first to recover to some extent his self-possession, and who took in the state of affairs, now joined in with a low, clear, whistling accompaniment. The effect was extraordinary. The writhing contortions of the reptiles ceased with a suddenness little short of magical. With heads raised and a slight waving motion of the neck they listened, apparently entranced. It was a wonderful sight, terrible in its weird ghastliness—that swarm of deadly serpents held thus spell-bound by the eerie barbaric music. It really looked as though there was more than met the eye in that heathenish adjuration as they walked unharmed through the deadly reptiles to the refrain of the long-drawn, lugubrious chant.“Harm us not, O Snake of Snakes! Do us no hurt,O Inyoka ’Nkúlu!”Thus they passed through that fearful chamber, sometimes within a cou of yards of two or three serpents lying on a level with their faces.Once it was all that even Eustace, the self-possessed, could do to keephimself from ducking violently as the head of a huge puff-adder noiselessly shot up horribly close to his ear, and a very marked quaver came into his whistling notes.As the cavern narrowed to its former tunnel-like dimensions the serpentsgrew perceptibly scarcer. One or two would be seen to wriggle away, he and there; then no more were met with. The sickening closeness of the air still continued, and now this stood amply accounted for. It was due to the foetid exhalations produced by this mass of noisome reptiles congregated within a confined space far removed from the outer air.“Faugh!” ejaculated Hoste. “Thank Heaven these awful brutes seem to grown scarce again. Shall we have to go back through them, Josane?”“It is not yet time to talk of going back,” was the grim reply. Then he had hardly resumed his magic song before he broke it off abruptly. At the same time the others started, and their faces blanched in the semi-darkness.For, out of the black gloom in front of them, not very far in front either, there burst forth such a frightful diabolical howl as ever curdled the heart’s blood of an appalled listener.Chapter Forty Five.A Fearful Discovery.They stood there, turned to stone. They stood there, strong men as they were, their flesh creeping with horror. The awful sound was succeeded by a moment of silence, then it burst forth again and again, the grim subterraneous walls echoing back its horrible import in ear-splitting reverberation. It sounded hardly human in its mingled intonation of frenzied ferocity and blind despair. It might have been the shriek of a lost soul, struggling in the grasp of fiends on the brink of the nethermost
pit.“Advance now, cautiously, amakosi,” said Josane. “Look where you are stepping or you may fall far. Keep your candles ready to light. The Home of the Serpents is a horrible place. There is no end to its terrors. Be prepared to tread carefully.”His warning was by no means superfluous. The ground ended abruptly across their path. Suddenly, shooting up, as it were, beneath their very feet, pealed forth again that frightful, blood-curdling yell.It was awful. Starting backward a pace or two, the perspiration pouring from their foreheads, they stood and listened. On the Kafir no such impression had the incident effected. He understood the position in all its grim significance.“Look down,” he said, meaningly. “Look down, amakosi.”They did so. Before them yawned an irregular circular hole or pit, about thirty feet deep by the same in diameter. The sides were smooth and perpendicular; indeed, slightly overhanging from the side on which they stood. Opposite, the glistening surface of the rock rose into a dome. But with this hole the cavern abruptly ended, the main part of it, that is, for a narrow cleft or “gallery” branched off abruptly at right angles. From this pit arose such a horrible effluvium that the explorers recoiled in disgust.“Look down. Look down,” repeated Josane.The luminous disk from the lantern swept round the pit. Upon its nearly level floor crawled the loathsome, wriggling shapes of several great serpents. Human skulls strewn about, grinned hideously upwards, and the whole floor of this ghastly hell-pit seemed literally carpeted with a crackling layer of pulverised bones. But the most awful sight of all was yet to come.Gathered in a heap, like a huge squatting toad, crouched a human figure. Human? Could it be? Ah! it had been once. Nearly naked, save fora few squalid rags black with filth, this fearful object, framed within the brilliantly defined circle of the bull’s-eye, looked anything but human. The head and face were one mass of hair, and the long, bushy, tangled beard screening almost the whole body in its crouching attitude imparted to the creature the appearance of a head alone, supported on two hairy, ape-like arms, half man, half tarantula. The eyes were glaring and blinking in the light with mingled frenzy and terror, and the mouth was never still for a moment. What a sight the grizzly denizen of that appalling hell-pit— crouching there, mopping and mowing among the gliding, noisome reptiles, among the indescribable filth and the grinning human skulls! No wonder that the spectators stood spell-bound, powerless, with a nerveless, unconquerable repulsion.Suddenly the creature opened its mouth wide and emitted that fearful demoniacal howl which had frozen their blood but a few moments back. Then leaping to its feet, it made a series of desperate springs in its efforts to get at them. Indeed it was surprising the height to which these springs carried it, each failure being signalled by that blood-curdling yell. Once it fell back upon a serpent. The reptile, with a shrill hiss, struck the offending leg. But upon the demoniac those deadly fangs seemed to produce no impression whatever. Realising the futility of attempting to reach them, the creature sank back into a corner, gathering itself together, and working its features in wild convulsions. Then followed a silence—a silence in its way almost as horrible as the frightful shrieks which had previously broken it.The spectators looked at each other with ashy faces. Heavens! could this fearful thing ever have been a man—a man with intellect and a soul —a man stamped with the image of his maker?“He is the last, Amakosi,” said the grave voice of Josane. “He is the last, but not the first. There have been others before him,” designating the skulls which lay scattered about. “Soon he will be even as they—as I should have been had I not escaped by a quick stroke of luck.”“Great Heaven, Josane! Who is he?” burst from the horror-stricken lips of Shelton and Hoste simultaneously. Eustace said nothing, for at that moment as he gazed down upon the mouldering skulls, there came
back to him vividly the witch-doctress’s words, “They who look upon ‘The Home of the Serpents’ are seen no more in life.” Well did he understand them now.“The man whom you seek,” was the grave reply. “He whom the people call Umlilwane.”An ejaculation of horror again greeted the Kafir’s words. This awful travesty, this wreck of humanity, that this should be Tom Carhayes! It was scarcely credible. What a fate! Better had he met his death, even amid torture, at the time they had supposed, than be spared for such an end as this.Then amid the deep silence and consternation of pity which this lugubrious and lamentable discovery evoked, there followed an intense, a burning desire for vengeance upon the perpetrators of this outrage; and this feeling found its first vent in words. Josane shook his head.“It might be done,” he muttered. “It might be done. Are you prepared to spend several days in here, Amakosi?”This was introducing a new feature into the affair—the fact being that each of the three white men was labouring under a consuming desire to find himself outside the horrible hole once more—again beneath the broad light of day. It was in very dubious tones, therefore, that Shelton solicited an explanation.“Even a maniac must eat and drink,” answered Josane. “Those who keep Umlilwane here do not wish him to die—”“You mean that some one comes here periodically to bring him food?”“Ewa.”“But it may not be the persons who put him here; only some one sent by them,” they objected.“This place is not known to all the Gcaléka nation,” said Josane.
“There are but two persons known to me who would dare to come within a distance of it. Those are Ngcenika, the witch-doctress, and Hlangani, who is half a witch-doctor himself.”“By lying in wait for them we might capture or shoot one or both of them when they come to bring the poor devil his food, eh, Josane?” said Shelton. “When are they likely to come?”“It may not be for days. But there is another side to that plan. What if they should have discovered that we are in here and decide to lie in wait for us?”“Oh, by Jove! That certainly is a reverse side to the medal,” cried Hoste, with a long whistle of dismay. And indeed the idea of two such formidable enemies as the redoubted Gcaléka warrior and the ferocious witch-doctress lurking in such wise as to hold them entirely at their mercy was not a pleasant one. There was hardly a yard of the way where one determined adversary, cunningly ambushed, would not hold their lives in his hand. No. Any scheme for exacting reprisals had better keep until they were once more in the light of day. The sooner they rescued their unfortunate friend and got quit of the place the better.And even here they had their work fully cut out for them. How were they to get at the wretched maniac? The idea of descending into that horrible pit was not an alluring one; and, apart from this, what sort of reception would they meet with from its occupant? That the latter regarded them in anything but a friendly light was manifest. How, then, were they ever to convey to the unfortunate creature that their object was the reverse of hostile? Tom Carhayes was well-known to be a man of great physical power. Tom Carr hayes—a gibbering, mouthing lunatic—a furious demoniac—no wonder they shrank from approaching him.“Silence! Darken the light!”The words, quick, low, peremptory—proceeded from Josane. In an instant Eustace obeyed. The slide of the lantern was turned.“I listen—I hear,” went on the Kafir in the same quick whisper. “Theremuch.”“I quite agree with you,” said the other, who was something of a boxer. “To form the centre of attraction to a howling, yahooing rabble, making an undignified exhibition of yourself bashing and being bashed by some other fellow like a couple of butcher’s boys in the gutter, is bound to be a revolting process whichever way you look at it. Even the law of the pistol seems to be an improvement on it.”“I think so, too. It puts men on better terms of equality. Any man may become a dead shot and a quick drawer, but not one man in ten can fulfil all the conditions requisite to becoming a good boxer. The fact is, however, I hate rows of any kind, even when only a spectator. When fellows say they like them I never altogether believe them.”“Unless they are very young. But the Berserk taint soon wears off as you get on into life a bit,” said Errington.“Well now—I turn off here. Good-evening.”Chapter Thirty Seven.“It is the Voice of an Oracle.”Swaanepoel’s Hoek, poor Tom Carhayes’ other farm, was situated in the division of Somerset East, somewhere between the Great and Little Fish Rivers. It was rather an out-of-the-way place, lying in a mountainous district, sparsely inhabited and only reached by rough wheel-tracks through narrow, winding poorts. But the scenery was wild and romantic to a degree. The bold sweep of bush-grown slopes, the lofty heights culminating in red iron-bound krantzes whose inaccessible hedges afforded nesting place for colonies of aasvogels, the thunder of the mountain torrent pent-up between black rocky walls where the maiden-hair fern hung in solid festoons from every crack and cranny, the cheerful and abundant sounds of bird and animal life—all this rendered the place a wonderfully pleasant and attractive, if somewhat out-of-the-way, residence.
To Eanswyth Carhayes, however, this very isolation constituted an additional charm. The solemn grandeur of the soaring mountains, the hush of the seldom trodden valleys, conveyed to her mind, after the bustle and turmoil of the crowded frontier settlement, the perfection of peace. She felt that she could spend her whole life on this beautiful spot. And it was her own.She had only once before visited the place—shortly after her marriage—and then had spent but three or four days there. Its beauties had failed at that time to strike her imagination. Now it was different. All the world was a Paradise. It seemed that there was nothing left in life for her to desire.The house was a fair size, almost too large for the overseer and his family. That worthy had asked Eustace whether Mrs Carhayes would prefer that they should vacate it. There was a substantial outbuilding, used—or rather only half of it was used—as a store, and a saddle and harness room. They could make themselves perfectly snug in that, if Mrs Carhayes wished to have the house to herself.“I can answer for it: Mrs Carhayes wishes nothing of the sort,” he had replied. “In fact, we were talking over that very thing on the way down.”“Sure the children won’t disturb her, Mr Milne?”“Well, it hasn’t looked like it up till now. Those youngsters of yours don’t seem particularly obstreperous, Bentley, and Mrs Carhayes appears rather to have taken a fancy to them than otherwise.”“If there’s a kind sweet lady in this world, Mr Milne, it’s Mrs Carhayes,” said the overseer earnestly. “I know the wife’ll make her right comfortable while she’s here. She’ll save her all bother over housekeeping or anything of that sort. Excuse the question, but is she likely to be making a long stay?”“I shouldn’t wonder. You see, there’s nowhere else for her to go, and the quiet of this place suits her after all she has gone through. And shehas gone through some pretty lively times, I need hardly tell you.”“I should think so. Why, what a narrow escape she had that time you were bringing her away from Anta’s Kloof, when the trap broke down. That was a frightful position for any lady to be in, in all conscience.”“Oh, you heard of that, did you? Ah, I forgot. It was in every paper in the Colony—more or less inaccurately reported, of course,” added Eustace drily, and then the two men lit their pipes and chatted for an hour or so about the war and its events.“By the way, Bentley,” said Eustace presently. “Talking about that outbuilding. I’ve decided to knock out the partition—it’s only a wooden one—between the two rooms next to the storeroom, turn them into one, and use it as a bedroom for myself. The house is rather congested with the lot of us in it, after all. We might go to work at it this afternoon.”“Certainly, Mr Milne, certainly,” replied the overseer. And forthwith the tool-chest was laid under requisition, and in a couple of hours the necessary alterations were effected.This move did not altogether meet with Eanswyth’s approval, and she expostulated accordingly.“Why should you be the one turned out in the cold,” she said. “There’s no earthly necessity for it. You will be horribly uncomfortable over there, Eustace, and in winter the nights will be quite bitter. Then again, the roof is a thatched one, and the first rain we get will start it leaking like a sieve. Besides, there’s plenty of room in the house.”“It isn’t that, you dear, thoughtful, considerate guardian angel,” he answered. “It isn’t quite that, though I put it that way for Bentley’s behoof. It is something of a concession to Mother Grundy, for even here that arch-hag can make her upas power felt, and I don’t want to have all the tongues in the district wagging like the tails of a pack of foxhounds just unkennelled. We had enough of that at Komgha. So I’ve arranged that at any rate we shan’t be under the same roof. See?”
“Yes; but it’s ridiculous all the same. As if we weren’t relations, too.”“And will be closer relations soon—in fact, the closest. I suppose we must wait a year—but that rests with you.”“I don’t know. It’s an awfully long time,” and she sighed. Then rather hesitatingly: “Darling, you have never yet shown me the little silver box. We are alone now, and—”“And you are dying to see it. Well, Eanswyth, it is really a most remarkable coincidence—in fact, almost makes a man feel superstitious.”It was near sundown. A soft, golden light rested upon the great slopes, and the cooing of doves floated melodiously from the mealie lands in the valley. The mountain stream roared through its rocky bed at their feet, and among the crannies and ledges of a profusion of piled up boulders forming miniature cliffs around, a whole colony of bright eyed little dasjes (The “rock rabbit”—really a species of marmot) were disporting themselves, scampering in and out with a boldness which augured volumes in favour of the peaceable aspect of the two human intruders upon their sequestered haunt.“As you say, the time and place are indeed fitting,” said Eustace, sitting down upon a boulder and taking the box from its place of concealment. “Now, my darling, look at this. The assegai point is broken short off, driven with such force that it has remained embedded in the lid.”It was even as he said. Had the blade been driven with a powerful hammer it could not have been more firmly wedged within the metal.“That was the blow I received during the fight,” he went on. “The dent at the side of it was done when I stood up to the witch-doctress. It did not penetrate much that time; not that the blow wasn’t hard enough, for it nearly knocked me down, but the assegai was a rotten one and made of soft iron, and the point flattened out like a Snider bullet. Heavens! but that was an ordeal—something of a nerve-tickler!” he added, with a grave and meditative look in his eyes, as if he were mentally re-enacting that trying and critical scene.Eanswyth shuddered, but said nothing. She nestled rather closer to his side, as he continued:“Now to open the box—a thing I haven’t done since, partly from superstitious motives—partly that I intended we should do so together—if we ever were to be again together, that is.”He pressed the spring, but it was out of order. It needed the wrench of a strong knife blade before the lid flew open.“Look at that. The assegai point is so firmly wedged that it would take a hammer to drive it out—but I propose to leave it in—use it as a ‘charm’ next war perhaps. Now for the letter. It has gone through and through it—through the photograph too—and has just dinted the bottom of the box.”He spread out the letter. Those last tender, loving words, direct from her overflowing heart, were pierced and lacerated by the point of the murderous weapon.“If this is not an oracle, there never was such a thing,” he went on. “Look at this”—reading—“‘I dare not say “God bless you.” Coming from me it would entail a curse, rather than a blessing...’ The point has cut clean through the words ‘a curse’—Mfulini’s assegai has made short work of that malediction. Is not that the voice of an oracle?”She made no reply. She was watching the development of the investigation with rapt, eager attention.“Here again—‘Were anything to befall you—were you never to come back to me my heart would be broken...’ As the paper is folded it has cut through the word ‘heart’—And—by Jove, this is more than a coincidence! Here again, it has gone clean through the same word. Look at the end. ‘I want you in all your dangers and hardships to have, with you, these poor little lines, coming, as they are, warm from my hand and heart’... And now for the photograph. It is a sweetly lifelike representation of you, my dearest—”