H. Rider Haggard
Part 4 out of 6
"I did not say that you were to be killed, Macumazahn, though perhaps I
shall kill you, or perhaps I shall not kill you. It depends upon
whether I find you to be a liar, or not a liar. Now the Boer whom
Tambusa let go against my wish said that you are a mighty magician as
well as a very dangerous man, one who can shoot birds flying on the wing
with a bullet, which is impossible. Can you do so?"
"Sometimes," I answered.
"Very good, Macumazahn. Now we will see if you are a wizard or a liar.
I will make a bet with you. Yonder by your camp is a hill called 'Hloma
Amabutu,' a hill of stones where evildoers are slain. This afternoon
some wicked ones die there, and when they are dead the vultures will
come to devour them. Now this is my bet with you. When those vultures
come you shall shoot at them, and if you kill three out of the first
five on the wing--not on the ground, Macumazahn--then I will spare these
Boers. But if you miss them, then I shall know that you are a liar and
no wizard, and I will kill them every one on the hill Hloma Amabutu. I
will spare none of them except the girl, whom perhaps I will take as a
wife. As to you, I will not yet say what I will do with you."
Now my first impulse was to refuse this monstrous wager, which meant
that the lives of a number of people were to be set against my skill in
shooting. But young Thomas Halstead, guessing the words that were about
to break from me, said in English:
"Accept unless you are a fool. If you don't he will cut the throats of
every one of them and stick your girl into the emposeni" (that is
harem), "while you will become a prisoner as I am."
These were words that I could not resent or neglect, so although despair
was in my heart, I said coolly:
"Be it so, O king. I take your wager. If I kill three vultures out of
five as they hover over the hill, then I have your promise that all
those who travel with me shall be allowed to go hence in safety."
"Yes, yes, Macumazahn; but if you fail to kill them, remember that the
next vultures you shoot at shall be those that come to feed upon their
flesh, for then I shall know that you are no magician, but a common
liar. And now begone, Tho-maas. I will not have you spying on me; and
you, Macumazahn, come hither. Although you talk my tongue so badly, I
would speak with you about the Boers."
So Halstead went, shrugging his shoulders and muttering as he passed me:
"I hope you really _can_ shoot."
After he had left I sat alone for a full hour with Dingaan while he
cross-examined me about the Dutch, their movements and their aims in
travelling to the confines of his country.
I answered his questions as best I could, trying to make out a good case
At length, when he grew weary of talking, he clapped his hands, whereon
a number of fine girls appeared, two of whom carried pots of beer, from
which he offered me drink.
I replied that I would have none, since beer made the hand shake and
that on the steadiness of my hand that afternoon depended the lives of
many. To do him justice he quite understood the point. Indeed, he
ordered me to be conducted back to the camp at once that I might rest,
and even sent one of his own attendants with me to hold a shield over my
head as I walked so that I should be protected from the sun.
"Hamba gachle" (that is "Go softly"), said the wicked old tyrant to me
as I departed under the guidance of Kambula. "This afternoon, one hour
before sundown, I will meet you at Hloma Amabutu, and there shall be
settled the fate of these Amaboona, your companions."
When I reached the camp it was to find all the Boers clustered together
waiting for me, and with them the Reverend Mr. Owen and his people,
including a Welsh servant of his, a woman of middle age who, I remember,
was called Jane.
"Well," said the Vrouw Prinsloo, "and what is your news, young man?"
"My news, aunt," I answered, "is that one hour before sundown to-day I
have to shoot vultures on the wing against the lives of all of you.
This you owe to that false-hearted hound Hernan Pereira, who told
Dingaan that I am a magician. Now Dingaan would prove it. He thinks
that only by magic can a man shoot soaring vultures with a bullet, and
as he is determined to kill you all, except perhaps Marie, in the form
of a bet he has set me a task which he believes to be impossible. If I
fail, the bet is lost, and so are your lives. If I succeed I think your
lives will be spared, since Kambula there tells me that the king always
makes it a point of honour to pay his bets. Now you have the truth, and
I hope you like it," and I laughed bitterly.
When I had finished a perfect storm of execration broke from the Boers.
If curses could have killed Pereira, surely he would have died upon the
spot, wherever he might be. Only two of them were silent, Marie, who
turned very pale, poor girl, and her father. Presently one of them, I
think it was Meyer, rounded on him viciously and asked him what he
thought now of that devil, his nephew.
"I think there must be some mistake," answered Marais quietly, "since
Hernan cannot have wished that we should all be put to death."
"No," shouted Meyer; "but he wished that Allan Quatermain should, which
is just as bad; and now it has come about that once more our lives
depend upon this English boy."
"At any rate," replied Marais, looking at me oddly, "it seems that he is
not to be killed, whether he shoots the vultures or misses them."
"That remains to be proved, mynheer," I answered hotly, for the
insinuation stung me. "But please understand that if all of you, my
companions, are to be slaughtered, and Marie is to be put among this
black brute's women, as he threatens, I have no wish to live on."
"My God! does he threaten that?" said Marais. "Surely you must have
misunderstood him, Allan."
"Do you think that I should lie to you on such a matter--" I began.
But, before I could proceed, the Vrouw Prinsloo thrust herself between
"Be silent, you, Marais, and you too, Allan. Is this a time that you
should quarrel and upset yourself, Allan, so that when the trial comes
you will shoot your worst and not your best? And is this a time, Henri
Marais, that you should throw insults at one on whom all our lives hang,
instead of praying for God's vengeance upon your accursed nephew? Come,
Allan, and take food. I have fried the liver of that heifer which the
king sent us; it is ready and very good. After you have eaten it you
must lie down and sleep a while."
Now among the household of the Reverend Mr. Owen was an English boy
called William Wood, who was not more than twelve or fourteen years of
age. This lad knew both Dutch and Zulu, and acted as interpreter to the
Owen family during the absence on a journey of a certain Mr. Hulley, who
really filled that office. While this conversation was taking place in
Dutch he was engaged in rendering every word of it into English for the
benefit of the clergyman and his family. When Mr. Owen understood the
full terror of the situation, he broke in saying:
"This is not a time to eat or to sleep, but a time to pray that the
heart of the savage Dingaan may be turned. Come, let us pray!"
"Yes," rejoined Vrouw Prinsloo, when William Wood had translated. "Do
you pray, Predicant, and all the rest of you who have nothing else to
do, and while you are about it pray also that the bullets of Allan
Quatermain may not be turned. As for me and Allan, we have other things
to see to, so you must pray a little harder to cover us as well as
yourselves. Now you come along, nephew Allan, or that liver may be
overdone and give you indigestion, which is worse for shooting than even
bad temper. No, not another word. If you try to speak any more, Henri
Marais, I will box your ears," and she lifted a hand like a leg of
mutton, then, as Marais retreated before her, seized me by the collar as
though I were a naughty boy and led me away to the wagons.
By the women's wagon we found the liver cooked in its frying-pan, as the
vrouw had said. Indeed, it was just done to a turn. Selecting a
particularly massive slice, she proceeded to take it from the pan with
her fingers in order to set it upon a piece of tin, from which she had
first removed the more evident traces of the morning meal with her
constant companion, the ancient and unwashen vatdoek. As it chanced the
effort was not very successful, since the boiling liver fat burnt the
vrouw's fingers, causing her to drop it on the grass, and, I am sorry to
add, to swear as well. Not to be defeated, however, having first sucked
her fingers to ease their smart, she seized the sizzling liver with the
vatdoek and deposited it upon the dirty tin.
"There, nephew," she said triumphantly, "there are more ways of killing
a cat than by drowning. What a fool I was not to think of the vatdoek
at first. Allemachte! how the flesh has burnt me; I don't suppose that
being killed would hurt much more. Also, if the worst comes to the
worst, it will soon be over. Think of it, Allan, by to-night I may be
an angel, dressed in a long white nightgown like those my mother gave me
when I was married, which I cut up for baby-clothes because I found them
chilly wear, having always been accustomed to sleep in my vest and
petticoat. Yes, and I shall have wings, too, like those on a white
gander, only bigger if they are to carry _my_ weight."
"And a crown of Glory," I suggested.
"Yes, of course, a crown of Glory--very large, since I shall be a
martyr; but I hope one will only have to wear it on Sundays, as I never
could bear anything heavy on my hair; moreover, it would remind me of a
Kaffir's head-ring done in gold, and I shall have had enough of Kaffirs.
Then there will be the harp," she went on as her imagination took fire
at the prospect of these celestial delights. "Have you ever seen a
harp, Allan? I haven't except that which King David carries in the
picture in the Book, which looks like a broken rimpi chair frame set up
edgeways. As for playing the thing, they will have to teach me, that's
all, which will be a difficult business, seeing that I would sooner
listen to cats on the roof than to music, and as for making it--"
So she chattered on, as I believe with the object of diverting and
amusing me, for she was a shrewd old soul who knew how important it was
that I should be kept in an equable frame of mind at this crisis in our
Meanwhile I was doing my best with the lump of liver, that tasted
painfully of vatdoek and was gritty with sand. Indeed, when the vrouw's
back was turned I managed to throw the most of it to Hans behind me, who
swallowed it at a gulp as a dog does, since he did not wish to be caught
"God in heaven! how fast you eat, nephew," said the vrouw, catching
sight of my empty tin. Then, eyeing the voracious Hottentot
suspiciously, she added: "That yellow dog of yours hasn't stolen it, has
he? If so, I'll teach him."
"No, no, vrouw," answered Hans in alarm. "No meat has passed my lips
this day, except what I licked out of the pan after breakfast."
"Then, Allan, you will certainly have indigestion, which is just what I
wanted to avoid. Have I not often told you that you should chew your
bit twenty times before you swallow, which I would do myself if I had
any back teeth left? Here, drink this milk; it is only a little sour
and will settle your stomach," and she produced a black bottle and
subjected it to the attentions of the vatdoek, growing quite angry when
I declined it and sent for water.
Next she insisted upon my getting into her own bed in the wagon to
sleep, forbidding me to smoke, which she said made the hand shake.
Thither, then, I went, after a brief conversation with Hans, whom I
directed to clean my rifle thoroughly. For I wished to be alone and
knew that I had little chance of solitude outside of that somewhat fusty
To tell the truth, although I shut my eyes to deceive the vrouw, who
looked in occasionally to see how I was getting on, no sleep came to me
that afternoon--at least, not for a long while. How could I sleep in
that hot place when my heart was torn with doubt and terror? Think of
it, reader, think of it! An hour or two, and on my skill would hang the
lives of eight white people--men, women, and children, and the safety or
the utter shame of the woman whom I loved and who loved me. No, she
should be spared the worst. I would give her my pistol, and if there
were need she would know what to do.
The fearful responsibility was more than I could bear. I fell into a
veritable agony; I trembled and even wept a little. Then I thought of
my father and what he would do in such circumstances, and began to pray
as I had never prayed before.
I implored the Power above me to give me strength and wisdom; not to let
me fail in this hour of trouble, and thereby bring these poor people to
a bloody death. I prayed till the perspiration streamed down my face;
then suddenly I fell into sleep or swoon. I don't know how long I lay
thus, but I think it must have been the best part of an hour. At last I
woke up all in an instant, and as I woke I distinctly heard a tiny
voice, unlike any other voice in the whole world, speak inside my head,
or so it seemed to me, saying:
_"Go to the hill Hloma Amabutu, and watch how the vultures fly. Do what
comes into your mind, and even if you seem to fail, fear nothing."_
I sat up on the old vrouw's bed, and felt that some mysterious change
had come over me. I was no longer the same man. My doubts and terrors
had gone; my hand was like a rock; my heart was light. I knew that I
should kill those three vultures. Of course the story seems absurd, and
easy to be explained by the state of my nerves under the strain which
was being put upon them, and for aught I know that may be its true
meaning. Yet I am not ashamed to confess that I have always held, and
still hold, otherwise. I believe that in my extremity some kindly Power
did speak to me in answer to my earnest prayers and to those of others,
giving me guidance and, what I needed still more, judgment and calmness.
At any rate, that this was my conviction at the moment may be seen from
the fact that I hastened to obey the teachings of that tiny, unnatural
Climbing out of the wagon, I went to Hans, who was seated near by in the
full glare of the hot sun, at which he seemed to stare with unblinking
"Where's the rifle, Hans?" I said.
"Intombi is here, baas, where I have put her to keep her cool, so that
she may not go off before it is wanted," and he pointed to a little
grave-like heap of gathered grass at his side.
The natives, I should explain, named this particular gun "Intombi",
which means a young girl, because it was so much slimmer and more
graceful than other guns.
"Is it clean?" I asked.
"Never was she cleaner since she was born out of the fire, baas. Also,
the powder has been sifted and set to dry in the sun with the caps, and
the bullets have been trued to the barrel, so that there may be no
accidents when it comes to the shooting. If you miss the aasvogels,
baas, it will not be the fault of Intombi or of the powder and the
bullets; it will be your own fault."
"That's comforting," I answered. "Well, come on, I want to go to the
"Why, baas, before the time?" asked the Hottentot, shrinking back a
little. "It is no place to visit till one is obliged. These Zulus say
that ghosts sit there even in the daylight, haunting the rocks where
they were made ghosts."
"Vultures sit or fly there also, Hans; and I would see how they fly,
that I may know when and where to shoot at them."
"That is right, baas," said the clever Hottentot. "This is not like
firing at geese in the Groote Kloof. The geese go straight, like an
assegai to its mark. But the aasvogels wheel round and round, always on
the turn; it is easy to miss a bird that is turning, baas."
"Very easy. Come on."
Just as we were starting Vrouw Prinsloo appeared from behind the other
wagon, and with her Marie, who, I noticed, was very pale and whose
beautiful eyes were red, as though with weeping.
The vrouw asked me where we were going. I told her. After considering
a little, she said that was a good thought of mine, as it was always
well to study the ground before a battle.
I nodded, and led Marie aside behind some thorn trees that grew near.
"Oh! Allan, what will be the end of this?" she asked piteously. High as
was her courage it seemed to fail her now.
"A good end, dearest," I answered. "We shall come out of this hole
safely, as we have of many others."
"How do you know that, Allan, which is known to God alone?"
"Because God told me, Marie," and I repeated to her the story of the
voice I had heard in my dream, which seemed to comfort her.
"Yet, yet," she exclaimed doubtfully, "it was but a dream, Allan, and
dreams are such uncertain things. You may fail, after all."
"Do I look like one who will fail, Marie?"
She studied me from head to foot, then answered:
"No, you do not, although you did when you came back from the king's
huts. Now you are quite changed. Still, Allan, you may fail, and
then--what? Some of those dreadful Zulus have been here while you were
sleeping, bidding us all make ready to go to the Hill of Death. They
say that Dingaan is in earnest. If you do not kill the vultures, he
will kill us. It seems that they are sacred birds, and if they escape
he will think he has nothing to fear from the white men and their magic,
and so will make a beginning by butchering us. I mean the rest of us,
for I am to be kept alive, and oh! what shall I do, Allan?"
I looked at her, and she looked at me. Then I took the double-barrelled
pistol out of my pocket and gave it to her.
"It is loaded and on the half-cock," I said.
She nodded, and hid it in her dress beneath her apron. Then without
more words we kissed and parted, for both of us feared to prolong that
The hill Hloma Amabutu was quite close to our encampment and the huts of
the Reverend Mr. Owen, scarcely a quarter of a mile off, I should say,
rising from the flat veld on the further side of a little depression
that hardly amounted to a valley. As we approached it I noticed its
peculiar and blasted appearance, for whereas all around the grass was
vivid with the green of spring, on this place none seemed to grow. An
eminence strewn with tumbled heaps of blackish rock, and among them a
few struggling, dark-leaved bushes; that was its appearance. Moreover,
many of these boulders looked as though they had been splashed and lined
with whitewash, showing that they were the resting-place of hundreds of
I believe it is the Chinese who declare that particular localities have
good or evil influences attached to them, some kind of spirit of their
own, and really Hloma Amabutu and a few other spots that I am acquainted
with in Africa give colour to the fancy. Certainly as I set foot upon
that accursed ground, that Golgotha, that Place of Skulls, a shiver went
through me. It may have been caused by the atmosphere, moral and
actual, of the mount, or it may have been a prescience of a certain
dreadful scene which within a few months I was doomed to witness there.
Or perhaps the place itself and the knowledge of the trial before me
sent a sudden chill through my healthy blood. I cannot say which it
was, but the fact remains as I have stated, although a minute or two
later, when I saw what kind of sleepers lay upon that mount, it would
not have been necessary for me to seek any far-fetched explanation of my
Across this hill, winding in and out between the rough rocks that lay
here, there and everywhere like hailstones after a winter storm, ran
sundry paths. It seems that the shortest road to various places in the
neighbourhood of the Great Kraal ran over it, and although no Zulu ever
dared to set foot there between sun-set and rise, in the daytime they
used these paths freely enough. But I suppose that they also held that
this evil-omened field of death had some spirit of its own, some
invisible but imminent fiend, who needed to be propitiated, lest soon he
should claim them also.
This was their method of propitiation, a common one enough, I believe,
in many lands, though what may be its meaning I cannot tell. As the
traveller came to those spots where the paths cut across each other, he
took a stone and threw it on to a heap that had been accumulated there
by the hands of other travellers. There were many such heaps upon the
hill, over a dozen, I think, and the size of them was great. I should
say that the biggest contained quite fifty loads of stones, and the
smallest not fewer than twenty or thirty.
Now, Hans, although he had never set foot there before, seemed to have
learned all the traditions of the place, and what rites were necessary
to avert its curse. At any rate, when we came to the first heap, he
cast a stone upon it, and begged me to do the same. I laughed and
refused, but when we reached the second heap the same thing happened.
Again I refused, whereon, before we came to a third and larger pile,
Hans sat down upon the ground and began to groan, swearing that he would
not go one step farther unless I promised to make the accustomed
"Why not, you fool?" I asked.
"Because if you neglect it, baas, I think that we shall stop here for
ever. Oh! you may laugh, but I tell you that already you have brought
ill-luck upon yourself. Remember my words, baas, when you miss two of
the five aasvogels."
"Bosh!" I exclaimed, or, rather, its Dutch equivalent. Still, as this
talk of missing vultures touched me nearly, and it is always as well to
conform to native prejudices, at the next and two subsequent heaps I
cast my stone as humbly as the most superstitious Zulu in the land.
By this time we had reached the summit, which may have been two hundred
yards long. It was hog-backed in shape, with a kind of depression in
the middle cleared of stones, either by the hand of man or nature, and
not unlike a large circus in its general conformation.
Oh! the sight that met my eyes. All about lay the picked and scattered
bones of men and women, many of them broken up by the jaws of hyenas.
Some were quite fresh, for the hair still clung to the skulls, others
blanched and old. But new or ancient there must have been hundreds of
them. Moreover, on the sides of the hill it was the same story, though
there, for the most part, the bones had been gathered into gleaming
heaps. No wonder that the vultures loved Hloma Amabutu, the Place of
Slaughter of the bloody Zulu king.
Of these horrible birds, however, at the moment not one was to be seen.
As there had been no execution for a few hours they were seeking their
food elsewhere. Now, for my own purposes, I wanted to see them, since
otherwise my visit was in vain, and presently bethought myself of a
method of securing their arrival.
"Hans," I said, "I am going to pretend to kill you, and then you must
lie quite still out there like one dead. Even if the aasvogels settle
on you, you must lie quite still, so that I may see whence they come and
how they settle."
The Hottentot did not take at all kindly to this suggestion. Indeed, he
flatly refused to obey me, giving sundry good reasons. He said that
this kind of rehearsal was ill-omened; that coming events have a way of
casting their shadow before, and he did not wish to furnish the event.
He said that the Zulus declared that the sacred aasvogels of Hloma
Amabutu were as savage as lions, and that when once they saw a man down
they would tear him to pieces, dead or living. In short, Hans and I
came to ail acute difference of opinion. As for every reason it was
necessary that my view should prevail, however, I did not hesitate to
put matters to him very plainly.
"Hans," I said, "you have to be a bait for vultures; choose if you will
be a live bait or a dead bait," and I cocked the rifle significantly,
although, in truth, the last thing that I wished or intended to do was
to shoot my faithful old Hottentot friend. But Hans, knowing all I had
at stake, came to a different conclusion.
"Allemachte! baas," he said, "I understand, and I do not blame you.
Well, if I obey alive, perhaps my guardian Snake" (or spirit) "will
protect me from the evil omen, and perhaps the aasvogels will not pick
out my eyes. But if once you send a bullet through my stomach--why,
then everything is finished, and for Hans it is 'Good night, sleep
well.' I will obey you, baas, and lie where you wish, only, I pray you,
do not forget me and go away, leaving me with those devil birds."
I promised him faithfully that I would not. Then we went through a very
grim little pantomime. Proceeding to the centre of the arena-like
space, I lifted the gun, and appeared to dash out Hans' brains with its
butt. He fell upon his back, kicked about a little, and lay still.
This finished Act 1.
Act 2 was that, capering like a brute of a Zulu executioner, I retired
from my victim and hid myself in a bush on the edge of the plateau at a
distance of forty yards. After this there was a pause. The place was
intensely bright with sunshine and intensely silent; as silent as the
skeletons of the murdered men about me; as silent as Hans, who lay there
looking so very small and dead in that big theatre where no grass grew.
It was an eerie wait in such surroundings, but at length the curtain
rang up for Act 3.
In the infinite arch of blue above me I perceived a speck, no larger
than a mote of dust. The aasvogel on watch up there far out of the
range of man's vision had seen the deed, and, by sinking downwards,
signalled it to his companions that were quartering the sky for fifty
miles round; for these birds prey by sight, not by smell. Down he came
and down, and long before he had reached the neighbourhood of earth
other specks appeared in the distant blue. Now he was not more than
four or five hundred yards above me, and began to wheel, floating round
the place upon his wide wings, and sinking as he wheeled. So he sank
softly and slowly until he was about a hundred and fifty feet above
Hans. Then suddenly he paused, hung quite steady for a few seconds,
shut his wings and fell like a bolt, only opening them again just before
he reached the earth.
Here he settled, tilting forward in that odd way which vultures have,
and scrambling a few awkward paces until he gained his balance. Then he
froze into immobility, gazing with in awful, stony glare at the
prostrate Hans, who lay within about fifteen feet of him. Scarcely was
this aasvogel down, when others, summoned from the depths of sky, did as
he had done. They appeared, they sank, they wheeled, always from east
to west, the way the sun travels. They hovered for a few seconds, then
fell like stones, pitched on to their beaks, recovered themselves,
waddled forward into line, and sat gazing at Hans. Soon there was a
great ring of them about him, all immovable, all gazing, all waiting for
Presently that something appeared in the shape of an aasvogel which was
nearly twice as big as any of the others. This was what the Boers and
the natives call the "king vulture," one of which goes with every flock.
He it is who rules the roost and also the carcase, which without his
presence and permission none dare to attack. Whether this vile fowl is
of a different species from the others, or whether he is a bird of more
vigorous growth and constitution that has outgrown the rest and thus
become their overlord, is more than I can tell. At least it is certain,
as I can testify from long and constant observation, that almost every
flock of vultures has its king.
When this particular royalty had arrived, the other aasvogels, of which
perhaps there were now fifty or sixty gathered round Hans, began to show
signs of interested animation. They looked at the king bird, they
looked at Hans, stretching out their naked red necks and winking their
brilliant eyes. I, however, did not pay particular attention to those
upon the earth, being amply occupied in watching their fellows in the
With delight I observed that the vulture is a very conservative
creature. They all did what doubtless they have done since the days of
Adam or earlier--wheeled, and then hung that little space of time before
they dropped to the ground like lead. This, then, would be the moment
at which to shoot them, when for four or five seconds they offered
practically a sitting target. Now, at that distance, always under a
hundred yards, I knew well that I could hit a tea plate every shot, and
a vulture is much larger than a tea plate. So it seemed to me that,
barring accidents, I had little to fear from the terrible trial of skill
which lay before me. Again and again I covered the hovering birds with
my rifle, feeling that if I had pressed the trigger I should have
pierced them through.
Thinking it well to practise, I continued this game for a long while,
till at last it came to an unexpected end. Suddenly I heard a scuffling
sound. Dropping my glance I saw that the whole mob of aasvogels were
rushing in upon Hans, helping themselves forward by flapping their great
wings, and that about three feet in front of them was their king. Next
instant Hans vanished, and from the centre of that fluffy, stinking mass
there arose a frightful yell.
As a matter of fact, as I found afterwards, the king vulture had
fastened on to his snub nose, whilst its dreadful companions, having
seized other portions of his frame, were beginning to hang back after
their fashion in order to secure some chosen morsel. Hans kicked and
screamed, and I rushed in shouting, causing them to rise in a great,
flapping cloud that presently vanished this way and that. Within a
minute they had all gone, and the Hottentot and I were left alone.
"That is good," I said. "You played well."
"Good! baas," he answered, "and I with two cuts in my nose in which I
can lay my finger, and bites all over me. Look how my trousers are
torn. Look at my head--where is the hair? Look at my nose. Good!
Played well! It is those verdomde aasvogels that played. Oh! baas, if
you had seen and smelt them, you would not say that it was good. See,
one more second and I, who have two nostrils, should have had four."
"Never mind, Hans," I said, "it is only a scratch, and I will make you a
present of some new trousers. Also, here is tobacco for you. Come to
the bush; let us talk."
So we went, and when Hans was a little composed I told him all that I
had observed about the habits of the aasvogel in the air, and he told me
all that he had observed about their habits on the ground, which, as I
might not shoot them sitting, did not interest me. Still, he agreed
with me that the right moment to fire would be just before they pounced.
Whilst we were still talking we heard a sound of shouts, and, looking
over the brow of the hill that faced towards Umgungundhlovu, we saw a
melancholy sight. Being driven up the slope towards us by three
executioners and a guard of seven or eight soldiers, their hands tied
behind their backs, were three men, one very old, one of about fifty
years of age, and one a lad, who did not look more than eighteen. As I
soon heard, they were of a single family, the grandfather, the father,
and the eldest son, who had been seized upon some ridiculous charge of
witchcraft, but really in order that the king might take their cattle.
Having been tried and condemned by the Nyangas, or witch-doctors, these
poor wretches were now doomed to die. Indeed, not content with thus
destroying the heads of the tribe, present and to come, for three
generations, all their descendants and collaterals had already been
wiped out by Dingaan, so that he might pose as sole heir to the family
Such were the dreadful cruelties that happened in Zululand in those
The doomed three were driven by their murderers into the centre of the
depression, within a few yards of which Hans and I were standing.
After them came the head executioner, a great brute who wore a curiously
shaped leopard-skin cap--I suppose as a badge of office--and held in his
hand a heavy kerry, the shaft of which was scored with many notches,
each of them representing a human life.
"See, White Man," he shouted, "here is the bait which the king sends to
draw the holy birds to you. Had it not been that you needed such bait,
perhaps these wizards would have escaped. But the Black One said the
little Son of George, who is named Macumazahn, needs them that he may
show his magic, and therefore they must die to-day."
Now, at this information I turned positively sick. Nor did it make me
feel better when the youngest of the victims, hearing the executioner's
words, flung himself upon his knees, and began to implore me to spare
him. His grandfather also addressed me, saying:
"Chief, will it not be enough if I die? I am old, and my life does not
matter. Or if one is not sufficient, take me and my son, and let the
lad, my grandson, go free. We are all of us innocent of any witchcraft,
and he is not even old enough to practise such things, being but an
unmarried boy. Chief, you, also, are young. Would not your heart be
heavy if you had to be slain when the sun of your life was still new in
the sky? Think, White Chief, what your father would feel, if you have
one, should he be forced to see you killed before his eyes, that some
stranger might use your body to show his skill with a magic weapon by
slaying the wild things that would eat it."
Now, almost with tears, I broke in, explaining to the venerable man as
well as I could that their horrible fate had nothing to do with me. I
told him that I was innocent of their blood, who was forced to be there
to try to shoot vultures on the wing in order to save my white
companions from a doom similar to their own. He listened attentively,
asking a question now and again, and when he had mastered my meaning,
said with a most dignified calmness:
"Now I understand, White Man, and am glad to learn that you are not
cruel, as I thought. My children," he added, turning to the others,
"let us trouble this Inkoos no more. He only does what he must do to
save the lives of his brethren by his skill, if he can. If we continue
to plead with him and stir his heart to pity, the sorrow swelling in it
may cause his hand to shake, and then they will die also, and their
blood be on his head and ours. My children, it is the king's will that
we should be slain. Let us make ready to obey the king, as men of our
House have always done. White lord, we thank you for your good words.
May you live long, and may good fortune sleep in your hut to the end.
May you shoot straight, also, with your magic tool, and thereby win the
lives of your company out of the hand of the king. Farewell, Inkoos,"
and since he could not lift his bound hands in salutation, he bowed to
me, as did the others.
Then they walked to a little distance, and, seating themselves on the
ground, began to talk together, and after a while to drone some strange
chant in unison. The executioners and the guards also sat down not far
away, laughing, chatting, and passing a horn of snuff from hand to hand.
Indeed, I observed that the captain of them even took some snuff to the
victims, and held it in his palm beneath their noses while they drew it
up their nostrils and politely thanked him between the sneezes.
As for myself, I lit a pipe and smoked it, for I seemed to require a
stimulant, or, rather, a sedative. Before it was finished Hans, who was
engaged in doctoring his scratches made by the vultures' beaks with a
concoction of leaves which he had been chewing, exclaimed suddenly in
his matter-of-fact voice:
"See, baas, here they come, the white people on one side and the black
on the other, just like the goats and the sheep at Judgment Day in the
I looked, and there to my right appeared the party of Boers, headed by
the Vrouw Prinsloo, who held the remnants of an old umbrella over her
head. To the left advanced a number of Zulu nobles and councillors, in
front of whom waddled Dingaan arrayed in his bead dancing dress. He was
supported by two stalwart body-servants, whilst a third held a shield
over his head to protect him from the sun, and a fourth carried a large
stool, upon which he was to sit. Behind each party, also, I perceived a
number of Zulus in their war-dress, all of them armed with broad
The two parties arrived at the stone upon which I was sitting almost
simultaneously, as probably it had been arranged that they should do,
and halted, staring at each other. As for me, I sat still upon my stone
and smoked on.
"Allemachte! Allan," puffed the Vrouw Prinsloo, who was breathless with
her walk up the hill, "so here you are! As you did not come back, I
thought you had run away and left us, like that stinkcat Pereira."
"Yes, Tante (aunt), here I am," I answered gloomily, "and I wish to
heaven that I was somewhere else."
Just then Dingaan, having settled his great bulk upon the stool and
recovered his breath, called to the lad Halstead, who was with him, and
"O Tho-maas, ask your brother, Macumazahn, if he is ready to try to
shoot the vultures. If not, as I wish to be fair, I will give him a
little more time to make his magic medicine."
I replied sulkily that I was as ready as I was ever likely to be.
Then the Vrouw Prinsloo, understanding that the king of the Zulus was
before her, advanced upon him, waving her umbrella. Catching hold of
Halstead, who understood Dutch, she forced him to translate an harangue,
which she addressed to Dingaan.
Had he rendered it exactly as it came from her lips, we should all have
been dead in five minutes, but, luckily, that unfortunate young man had
learnt some of the guile of the serpent during his sojourn among the
Zulus, and varied her vigorous phrases. The gist of her discourse was
that he, Dingaan, was a black-hearted and bloody-minded villain, with
whom the Almighty would come even sooner or later (as, indeed, He did),
and that if he dared to touch one hair of her or of her companions'
heads, the Boers, her countrymen, would prove themselves to be the
ministers of the Almighty in that matter (as, indeed, they did). As
translated by Halstead into Zulu, what she said was that Dingaan was the
greatest king in the whole world; in fact, that there was not, and never
had been, any such a king either in power, wisdom, or personal beauty,
and that if she and her companions had to die, the sight of his glory
consoled them for their deaths.
"Indeed," said Dingaan suspiciously, "if that is what this man-woman
says, her eyes tell one story and her lips another. Oh! Tho-maas, lie
no more. Speak the true words of the white chieftainess, lest I should
find them out otherwise, and give you to the slayers."
Thus adjured, Halstead explained that he had not yet told all the words.
The "man-woman," who was, as he, Dingaan, supposed, a great
chieftainess among the Dutch, added that if he, the mighty and glorious
king, the earth-shaker, the world-eater, killed her or any of her
subjects, her people would avenge her by killing him and his people.
"Does she say that?" said Dingaan. "Then, as I thought, these Boers are
dangerous, and not the peaceful folk they make themselves out to be,"
and he brooded for a while, staring at the ground. Presently he lifted
his head and went on: "Well, a bet is a bet, and therefore I will not
wipe out this handful, as otherwise I would have done at once. Tell the
old cow of a chieftainess that, notwithstanding her threats, I stick to
my promise. If the little Son of George, Macumazahn, can shoot three
vultures out of five by help of his magic, then she and her servants
shall go free. If not, the vultures which he has missed shall feed on
them, and afterwards I will talk with her people when they come to
avenge her. Now, enough of this indaba. Bring those evildoers here
that they may thank and praise me, who give them so merciful an end."
So the grandfather, the father, and the son were hustled before Dingaan
by the soldiers, and greeted him with the royal salute of "bayete."
"O king," said the old man, "I and my children are innocent. Yet if it
pleases you, O king, I am ready to die, and so is my son. Yet we pray
you to spare the little one. He is but a boy, who may grow up to do you
good service, as I have done to you and your House for many years."
"Be silent, you white-headed dog!" answered Dingaan fiercely. "This lad
is a wizard, like the rest of you, and would grow up to bewitch me and
to plot with my enemies. Know that I have stamped out all your family,
and shall I then leave him to breed another that would hate me? Begone
to the World of Spirits, and tell them how Dingaan deals with
The old man tried to speak again, for evidently he loved this grandchild
of his, but a soldier struck him in the face, and Dingaan shouted:
"What! Are you not satisfied? I tell you that if you say more I will
force you to kill the boy with your own hand. Take them away."
Then I turned and hid my face, as did all the white folk. Presently I
heard the old man, whom they had saved to the last that he might witness
the deaths of his descendants, cry in a loud voice:
"On the night of the thirtieth full moon from this day I, the
far-sighted, I, the prophet, summon thee, Dingaan, to meet me and mine
in the Land of Ghosts, and there to pay--"
Then with a roar of horror the executioners fell on him and he died.
When there was silence I looked up, and saw that the king, who had
turned a dirty yellow hue with fright, for he was very superstitious,
was trembling and wiping the sweat from his brow.
"You should have kept the wizard alive," he said in a shaky voice to the
head slayer, who was engaged in cutting three more nicks on the handle
of his dreadful kerry. "Fool, I would have heard the rest of his lying
The man answered humbly that he thought it best it should remain
unspoken, and got himself out of sight as soon as possible. Here I may
remark that by an odd coincidence Dingaan actually was killed about
thirty moons from that time. Mopo, his general, who slew his brother
Chaka, slew him also with the help of Umslopogaas, the son of Chaka. In
after years Umslopogaas told me the story of the dreadful ghost-haunted
death of this tyrant, but, of course, he could not tell me exactly upon
what day it happened. Therefore I do not know whether the prophecy was
[*--For the history of the death of Dingaan, see the Author's "Nada the
The three victims lay dead in the hollow of the Hill of Death.
Presently the king, recovering himself, gave orders that the spectators
should be moved back to places where they could see what happened
without frightening the vultures. So the Boers, attended by their band
of soldiers, who were commanded to slay them at once if they attempted
to escape, went one way, and Dingaan and his Zulus went the other,
leaving Hans and myself alone behind our bush. As the white people
passed me, Vrouw Prinsloo wished me good luck in a cheerful voice,
although I could see that her poor old hand was shaking, and she was
wiping her eyes with the vatdoek. Henri Marais, also in broken tones,
implored me to shoot straight for his daughter's sake. Then came Marie,
pale but resolute, who said nothing, but only looked me in the eyes, and
touched the pocket of her dress, in which I knew the pistol lay hid. Of
the rest of them I took no notice.
The moment, that dreadful moment of trial, had come at last; and oh! the
suspense and the waiting were hard to bear. It seemed an age before the
first speck, that I knew to be a vulture, appeared thousands of feet
above me and began to descend in wide circles.
"Oh, baas," said poor Hans, "this is worse than shooting at the geese in
the Groote Kloof. Then you could only lose your horse, but now--"
"Be silent," I hissed, "and give me the rifle."
The vulture wheeled and sank, sank and wheeled. I glanced towards the
Boers, and saw that they were all of them on their knees. I glanced
towards the Zulus, and saw that they were watching as, I think, they had
never watched anything before, for to them this was a new excitement.
Then I fixed my eyes upon the bird.
Its last circle was accomplished. Before it pounced it hung on wide,
outstretched wings, as the others had done, its head towards me. I drew
a deep breath, lifted the rifle, got the foresight dead upon its breast,
and touched the hair-trigger. As the charge exploded I saw the aasvogel
give a kind of backward twist. Next instant I heard a loud clap, and a
surge of joy went through me, for I thought that the bullet had found
its billet. But alas! it was not so.
The clap was that of the air disturbed by the passing of the ball and
the striking of this air against the stiff feathers of the wings.
Anyone who has shot at great birds on the wing with a bullet will be
acquainted with the sound. Instead of falling the vulture recovered
itself. Not knowing the meaning of this unaccustomed noise, it dropped
quietly to earth and sat down near the bodies, pitching forward in the
natural way and running a few paces, as the others had done that
afternoon. Evidently it was quite unhurt.
"Missed!" gasped Hans as he grasped the rifle to load it. "Oh! why did
you not throw a stone on to the first heap?"
I gave Hans a look that must have frightened him; at any rate, he spoke
no more. From the Boers went up a low groan. Then they began to pray
harder than ever, while the Zulus clustered round the king and whispered
to him. I learned afterwards that he was giving heavy odds against me,
ten to one in cattle, which they were obliged to take, unwillingly
Hans finished loading, capped and cocked the rifle, and handed it to me.
By now other vultures were appearing. Being desperately anxious to get
the thing over one way or another, at the proper moment I took the first
of them. Again I covered it dead and pressed. Again as the gun
exploded I saw that backward lurch of the bird, and heard the clap of
the air upon its wings. Then--oh horror!--this aasvogel turned quietly,
and began to mount the ladder of the sky in the same fashion as it had
descended. I had missed once more.
"The second heap of stones has done this, baas," said Hans faintly, and
this time I did not even look him. I only sat down and buried my face
in my hands. One more such miss, and then--
Hans began to whisper to me.
"Baas," he said, "those aasvogels see the flash of the gun, and shy at
it like a horse. Baas, you are shooting into their faces, for they all
hang with their beaks toward you before they drop. You must get behind
them, and fire into their tails, for even an aasvogel cannot see with
I let fall my hands and stared at him. Surely the poor fellow had been
inspired from on high! I understood it all now. While their beaks were
towards me, I might fire at fifty vultures and never hit one, for each
time they would swerve from the flash, causing the bullet to miss them,
though but by a little.
"Come," I gasped, and began to walk quickly round the edge of the
depression to a rock, which I saw opposite about a hundred yards away.
My journey took me near the Zulus, who mocked me as I passed, asking
where my magic was, and if I wished to see the white people killed
presently. Dingaan was now offering odds of fifty cattle to one against
me, but no one would take the bet even with the king.
I made no answer; no, not even when they asked me "if I had thrown down
my spear and was running away." Grimly, despairingly, I marched on to
the rock, and took shelter behind it with Hans. The Boers, I saw, were
still upon their knees, but seemed to have ceased praying. The children
were weeping; the men stared at each other; Vrouw Prinsloo had her arm
about Marie's waist. Waiting there behind the rock, my courage returned
to me, as it sometimes does in the last extremity. I remembered my
dream and took comfort. Surely God would not be so cruel as to suffer
me to fail and thereby bring all those poor people to their deaths.
Snatching the rifle from Hans, I loaded it myself; nothing must be
trusted to another. As I put on the cap a vulture made its last circle.
It hung in the air just as the others had done, and oh! its tail was
towards me. I lifted, I aimed between the gathered-up legs, I pressed
and shut my eyes, for I did not dare to look.
I heard the bullet strike, or seem to strike, and a few seconds later I
heard something else--the noise of a heavy thud upon the ground. I
looked, and there with outstretched wings lay the foul bird dead, stone
dead, eight or ten paces from the bodies.
"Allemachte! that's better," said Hans. "You threw stones on to _all_
the other heaps, didn't you, baas?"
The Zulus grew excited, and the odds went down a little. The Boers
stretched out their white faces and stared at me; I saw them out of the
corner of my eye as I loaded again. Another vulture came; seeing one of
its companions on the ground, if in a somewhat unnatural attitude,
perhaps it thought that there could be nothing to fear. I leaned
against my rock, aimed, and fired, almost carelessly, so sure was I of
the result. This time I did not shut my eyes, but watched to see what
The bullet struck the bird between its thighs, raked it from end to end,
and down it came like a stone almost upon the top of its fellow.
"Good, good!" said Hans with a guttural chuckle of delight. "Now, baas,
make no mistake with the third, and 'als sall recht kommen' (all shall
"Yes," I answered; "_if_ I make no mistake with the third."
I loaded the rifle again myself, being very careful to ram down the
powder well and to select a bullet that fitted perfectly true to the
bore. Moreover, I cleared the nipple with a thorn, and shook a little
fine powder into it, so as to obviate any chance of a miss-fire. Then I
set on the cap and waited. What was going on among the Boers or the
Zulus I do not know. In this last crisis of all our fates I never
looked, being too intent upon my own part in the drama.
By now the vultures appeared to have realised that something unusual was
in progress, which threatened danger to them. At any rate, although by
this time they had collected in hundreds from east, west, north, and
south, and were wheeling the heavens above in their vast, majestic
circles, none of them seemed to care to descend to prey upon the bodies.
I watched, and saw that among their number was that great king bird
which had bitten Hans in the face; it was easy to distinguish him,
because he was so much larger than the others. Also, he had some white
at the tips of his wings. I observed that certain of his company drew
near to him in the skies, where they hung together in a knot, as though
They separated out again, and the king began to descend, deputed
probably to spy out the land. Down he came in ever-narrowing turns,
till he reached the appointed spot for the plunge, and, according to the
immemorial custom of these birds, hung a while before he pounced with
his head to the south and his great, spreading tail towards me.
This was my chance, and, rejoicing in having so large a mark, I got the
sight upon him and pulled. The bullet thudded, some feathers floated
from his belly, showing that it had gone home, and I looked to see him
fall as the others had done. But alas! he did not fall. For a few
seconds he rocked to and fro upon his great wings, then commenced to
travel upwards in vast circles, which grew gradually more narrow, till
he appeared to be flying almost straight into the empyrean. I stared
and stared. Everybody stared, till that enormous bird became, first a
mere blot upon the blue, and at length but a speck. Then it vanished
altogether into regions far beyond the sight of man.
"Now there is an end," I said to Hans.
"Ja, baas," answered the Hottentot between his chattering teeth, "there
is an end. You did not put in enough powder. Presently we shall all be
"Not quite," I said with a bitter laugh. "Hans, load the rifle, load it
quick. Before they die there shall be another king in Zululand."
"Good, good!" he exclaimed as he loaded desperately. "Let us take that
fat pig of a Dingaan with us. Shoot him in the stomach, baas; shoot him
in the stomach, so that he too may learn what it is to die slowly. Then
cut my throat, here is my big knife, and afterwards cut your own, if you
have not time to load the gun again and shoot yourself, which is
I nodded, for it was in my mind to do these things. Never could I stand
still and see those poor Boers killed, and I knew that Marie would look
Meanwhile, the Zulus were coming towards me, and the soldiers who had
charge of them were driving up Marais's people, making pretence to
thrust them through with their assegais, and shouting at them as men do
at cattle. Both parties arrived in the depression at about the same
time, but remained separated by a little space. In this space lay the
corpses of the murdered men and the two dead aasvogels, with Hans and
myself standing opposite to them.
"Well, little Son of George," puffed Dingaan, "you have lost your bet,
for you did but kill two vultures out of five with your magic, which was
good as far as it went, but not good enough. Now you must pay, as I
would have paid had you won."
Then he stretched out his hand, and issued the dreadful order of "Bulala
amalongu!" (Kill the white people). "Kill them one by one, that I may
see whether they know how to die, all except Macumazahn and the tall
girl, whom I keep."
Some of the soldiers made a dash and seized the Vrouw Prinsloo, who was
standing in front of the party.
"Wait a little, King," she called out as the assegais were lifted over
her. "How do you know that the bet is lost? He whom you call
Macumazahn hit that last vulture. It should be searched for before you
"What does the old woman say?" asked Dingaan, and Halstead translated
"True," said Dingaan. "Well, now I will send her to search for the
vulture in the sky. Come back thence, Fat One, and tell us if you find
The soldiers lifted their assegais, waiting the king's word. I
pretended to look at the ground, and cocked my rifle, being determined
that if he spoke it, it should be his last. Hans stared upwards--I
suppose to avoid the sight of death--then suddenly uttered a wild yell,
which caused everyone, even the doomed people, to turn their eyes to
him. He was pointing to the heavens, and they looked to see at what he
This was what they saw. Far, far above in that infinite sea of blue
there appeared a tiny speck, which his sharp sight had already
discerned, a speck that grew larger and larger as it descended with
terrific and ever-growing speed.
_It was the king vulture falling from the heavens--dead!_
Down it came between the Vrouw Prinsloo and the slayers, smashing the
lifted assegai of one of them and hurling him to the earth. Down it
came, and lay there a mere mass of pulp and feathers.
"O Dingaan," I said in the midst of the intense silence that followed,
"it seems that it is I who have won the bet, not you. I killed this
king of birds, but being a king it chose to die high up and alone, that
Dingaan hesitated, for he did not wish to spare the Boers, and I, noting
his hesitation, lifted my rifle a little. Perhaps he saw it, or perhaps
his sense of honour, as he understood the word, overcame his wish for
their blood. At any rate, he said to one of his councillors:
"Search the carcase of that vulture and see if there is a bullet hole in
The man obeyed, feeling at the mass of broken bones and flesh. By good
fortune he found, not the hole, for that was lost in the general
destruction of the tissues, but the ball itself, which, having pierced
the thick body from below upwards, had remained fast in the tough skin
just by the back-bone where the long, red neck emerges from between the
wings. He picked it out, for it was only hanging in the skin, and held
it up for all to see.
"Macumazahn has won his bet," said Dingaan. "His magic has conquered,
though by but a very little. Macumazahn, take these Boers, they are
yours, and begone with them out of my country."
RETIEF ASKS A FAVOUR
Now and again during our troubled journey through life we reach little
oases of almost perfect happiness, set jewel-like here and there in the
thorny wilderness of time. Sometimes these are hours of mere animal
content. In others they are made beautiful by waters blowing from our
spiritual springs of being, as in those rare instances when the material
veil of life seems to be rent by a mighty hand, and we feel the presence
and the comfort of God within us and about us, guiding our footsteps to
the ineffable end, which is Himself. Occasionally, however, all these,
physical satisfaction and love divine and human, are blended to a whole,
like soul and body, and we can say, "Now I know what is joy."
Such an hour came to me on the evening of that day of the winning of my
bet with Dingaan, when a dozen lives or so were set against my nerve and
skill. These had not failed me, although I knew that had it not been
for the inspiration of the Hottentot Hans (who sent it, I wonder?) they
would have been of no service at all. With all my thought and
experience, it had never occurred to me that the wonderful eyes of the
vultures would see the flash of the powder even through the pervading
sunlight, and swerve before the deadly bullet could reach them.
On that night I was indeed a hero in a small way. Even Henri Marais
thawed and spoke to me as a father might to his child, he who always
disliked me in secret, partly because I was an Englishman, partly
because I was everything to his daughter and he was jealous, and partly
for the reason that I stood in the path of his nephew, Hernan Pereira,
whom he either loved or feared, or both. As for the rest of them, men,
women and children, they thanked and blessed me with tears in their
eyes, vowing that, young as I was, thenceforth I and no other should be
their leader. As may be imagined, although it is true that she set down
my success to her meal of bullock's liver and the nap which she had
insisted on my taking, the Vrouw Prinsloo was the most enthusiastic of
"Look at him," she said, pointing with her fat finger at my
insignificant self and addressing her family. "If only I had such a
husband or a son, instead of you lumps that God has tied to me like
clogs to the heels of a she-ass, I should be happy."
"God did that in order to prevent you from kicking, old vrouw," said her
husband, a quiet man with a vein of sardonic humour. "If only He had
tied another clog to your tongue, I should be happy also"; whereon the
vrouw smacked his head and her children got out of the way sniggering.
But the most blessed thing of all was my interview with Marie. All that
took place between us can best be left to the imagination, since the
talk of lovers, even in such circumstances, is not interesting to
others. Also, in a sense, it is too sacred to repeat. One sentence I
will set down, however, because in the light of after events I feel that
it was prophetic, and not spoken merely by chance. It was at the end of
our talk, as she was handing me back the pistol that I had given her for
a certain dreadful purpose.
"Three times you have saved my life, Allan--once at Maraisfontein, once
from starvation, and now from Dingaan, whose touch would have meant my
death. I wonder whether it will ever be my turn to save yours?"
She looked down for a little while, then lifted her head and laid her
hand upon my shoulder, adding slowly: "Do you know, Allan, I think that
it will at the--" and suddenly she turned and left me with her sentence
So thus it came about that by the help of Providence I was enabled to
rescue all these worthy folk from a miserable and a bloody death. And
yet I have often reflected since that if things had gone differently;
if, for instance, that king aasvogel had found strength to carry itself
away to die at a distance instead of soaring straight upwards like a
towering partridge, as birds injured in the lungs will often do--I
suppose in search of air--it might have been better in the end. Then I
should certainly have shot Dingaan dead and every one of us would as
certainly have been killed on the spot. But if Dingaan had died that
day, Retief and his companions would never have been massacred. Also as
the peaceful Panda, his brother, would, I suppose, have succeeded to the
throne, probably the subsequent slaughter at Weenen, and all the after
fighting, would never have taken place. But so it was fated, and who am
I that I should quarrel with or even question the decrees of fate?
Doubtless these things were doomed to happen, and they happened in due
course. There is nothing more to be said.
Early on the following morning we collected our oxen, which, although
still footsore, were now full fed and somewhat rested. An hour or two
later began our trek, word having come to us from Dingaan that we must
start at once. Also he sent us guides, under the command of the captain
Kambula, to show us the road to Natal.
I breakfasted that day with the Reverend Mr. Owen and his people, my
object being to persuade him to come away with us, as I did not consider
that Zululand was a safe place for white women and children. My mission
proved fruitless. Mrs. Hulley, the wife of the absent interpreter, who
had three little ones, Miss Owen and the servant, Jane Williams, were
all of them anxious enough to do as I suggested. But Mr. and Mrs. Owen,
who were filled with the true fervour of missionaries, would not listen.
They said that God would protect them; that they had only been a few
weeks in the country, and that it would be the act of cowards and of
traitors to fly at the very beginning of their work. Here I may add
that after the massacre of Retief they changed their opinion, small
blame to them, and fled as fast as anyone else.
I told Mr. Owen how very close I had gone to shooting Dingaan, in which
event they might all have been killed with us. This news shocked him
much. Indeed, he lectured me severely on the sins of bloodthirstiness
and a desire for revenge. So, finding that we looked at things
differently, and that it was of no use wasting breath in argument, I
wished him and his people good-bye and good fortune and went upon my
way, little guessing how we should meet again.
An hour later we trekked. Passing by the accursed hill, Hloma Amabutu,
where I saw some gorged vultures sleeping on the rocks, we came to the
gate of the Great Kraal. Here, to my surprise, I saw Dingaan with some
of his councillors and an armed guard of over a hundred men, seated
under the shade of two big milk trees. Fearing treachery, I halted the
wagons and advised the Boers to load their rifles and be ready for the
worst. A minute or so later young Thomas Halstead arrived and told me
that Dingaan wished to speak with us. I asked him if that meant that we
were to be killed. He answered, "No, you are quite safe." The king had
received some news that had put him in a good humour with the white
people, and he desired to bid us farewell, that was all.
So we trekked boldly to where Dingaan was, and, stopping the wagons,
went up to him in a body. He greeted us kindly enough, and even gave me
his fat hand to shake.
"Macumazahn," he said, "although it has cost me many oxen, I am glad
that your magic prevailed yesterday. Had it not done so I should have
killed all these your friends, which would have been a cause of war
between me and the Amaboona. Now, this morning I have learned that
these Amaboona are sending a friendly embassy to me under one of their
great chiefs, and I think that you will meet them on the road. I charge
you, therefore, to tell them to come on, having no fear, as I will
receive them well and listen to all they have to say."
I answered that I would do so.
"Good," he replied. "I am sending twelve head of cattle with you, six
of them for your food during your journey, and six as a present to the
embassy of the Amaboona. Also Kambula, my captain, has charge to see
you safely over the Tugela River."
I thanked him and turned to go, when suddenly his eye fell upon Marie,
who, foolishly enough, took this opportunity to advance from among the
others and speak to me about something--I forget what.
"Macumazahn, is that the maiden of whom you spoke to me?" asked Dingaan;
"she whom you are going to marry?"
I answered, "Yes."
"By the head of the Black One," he exclaimed, "she is very fair. Will
you not make a present of her to me, Macumazahn?"
I answered, "No; she is not mine to give away."
"Well, then, Macumazahn, I will pay you a hundred head of cattle for
her, which is the price of a royal wife, and give you ten of the fairest
girls in Zululand in exchange."
I answered that it could not be.
Now the king began to grow angry.
"I will keep her, whether you wish it or no," he said.
"Then you will keep her dead, O Dingaan," I replied, "for there is more
of that magic which slew the vultures."
Of course, I meant that Marie would be dead. But as my knowledge of the
Zulu tongue was imperfect, he understood the words to mean that _he_
would be dead, and I think they frightened him. At any rate, he said:
"Well, I promised you all safe-conduct if you won your bet, so hamba
gachle (go in peace). I wish to have no quarrel with the white folk,
but, Macumazahn, you are the first of them who has refused a gift to
Dingaan. Still, I bear you no grudge, and if you choose to come back
again, you will be welcome, for I perceive that, although so small, you
are very clever and have a will of your own; also that you mean what you
say and speak the truth. Tell the People of George that my heart is
soft towards them." Then he turned and walked away through the gates of
Glad enough was I to see the last of him, for now I knew that we were
safe, except from such accidents as may overtake any travellers through
a wild country. For the present, at any rate until after he had seen
this embassy, Dingaan wished to stand well with the Boers. Therefore it
was obvious that he would never make an irreparable quarrel with them by
treacherously putting us to death as we trekked through his country.
Being sure of this, we went on our way with light hearts, thanking
Heaven for the mercies which had been shown to us.
It was on the third day of our trek, when we were drawing near to the
Tugela, that we met the Boer embassy, off-saddled by a little stream
where we proposed to outspan to rest the oxen while we ate our midday
meal. They were sleeping in the heat of the day and saw nothing of us
till we were right on to them, when, catching sight of our Zulu advance
guard, they sprang up and ran for their rifles. Then the wagons emerged
from the bush, and they stared astonished, wondering who could be
trekking in that country.
We called to them in Dutch not to be afraid and in another minute we
were among them. While we were yet some way off my eye fell upon a
burly, white-bearded man whose figure seemed to be familiar to me, and
towards him I went, taking no heed of the others, of whom there may have
been six or seven. Soon I was sure, and advancing with outstretched
"Good-day, Mynheer Piet Retief. Who would have thought that we who
parted so far away and so long ago would live to meet among the Zulus?"
He stared at me.
"Who is it? Who is it? Allemachte! I know now. The little Englishman,
Allan Quatermain, who shot the geese down in the Old Colony. Well, I
should not be surprised, for the man you beat in that match told me that
you were travelling in these parts. Only I understood him to say that
the Zulus had killed you."
"If you mean Hernan Pereira," I answered, "where did you meet him?"
"Why, down by the Tugela there, in a bad way. However, he can tell you
all about that himself, for I have brought him with me to show us the
path to Dingaan's kraal. Where is Pereira? Send Pereira here. I want
to speak with him."
"Here I am," answered a sleepy voice, the hated voice of Pereira
himself, from the other side of a thick bush, where he had been
slumbering. "What is it, commandant? I come," and he emerged,
stretching himself and yawning, just as the remainder of my party came
up. He caught sight of Henri Marais first of all, and began to greet
him, saying: "Thank God, my uncle, you are safe!"
Then his eyes fell on me, and I do not think I ever saw a man's face
change more completely. His jaw dropped, the colour left his cheeks,
leaving them of the yellow which is common to persons of Portuguese
descent; his outstretched hand fell to his side.
"Allan Quatermain!" he ejaculated. "Why, I thought that you were dead."
"As I should have been, Mynheer Pereira, twice over if you could have
had your way," I replied.
"What do you mean, Allan?" broke in Retief.
"I will tell you what he means," exclaimed the Vrouw Prinsloo, shaking
her fat fist at Pereira. "That yellow dog means that twice he has tried
to murder Allan--Allan, who saved his life and ours. Once he shot at
him in a kloof and grazed his cheek; look, there is the scar of it. And
once he plotted with the Zulus to slaughter him, telling Dingaan that he
was an evildoer and a wizard, who would bring a curse upon his land."
Now Retief looked at Pereira.
"What do you say to this?" he asked.
"What do I say?" repeated Pereira, recovering himself. "Why, that it is
a lie or a misunderstanding. I never shot at Heer Allan in any kloof.
Is it likely that I should have done so when he had just nursed me back
to life? I never plotted with the Zulus for his death, which would have
meant the deaths of my uncle and my cousin and of all their companions.
Am I mad that I should do such a thing?"
"Not mad, but bad," screamed the vrouw. "I tell you, Heer Retief, it is
no lie. Ask those with me," she added, appealing to the others, who,
with the exception of Marais, answered as with one voice:
"No; it is no lie."
"Silence!" said the commandant. "Now, nephew Allan, tell us your
So I told him everything, of course leaving out all details. Even then
the tale was long, though it did not seem to be one that wearied my
"Allemachte!" said Retief when I had finished, "this is a strange story,
the strangest that ever I heard. If it is true, Hernan Pereira, you
deserve to have your back set against a tree and to be shot."
"God in heaven!" he answered, "am I to be condemned on such a tale--I,
an innocent man? Where is the evidence? This Englishman tells all this
against me for a simple reason--that he has robbed me of the love of my
cousin, to whom I was affianced. Where are his witnesses?"
"As to the shooting at me in the kloof, I have none except God who saw
you," I answered. "As to the plot that you laid against me among the
Zulus, as it chances, however, there is one, Kambula, the captain who
was sent to take me as you had arranged, and who now commands our
"A savage!" exclaimed Pereira. "Is the tale of a savage to be taken
against that of a white man? Also, who will translate his story? You,
Mynheer Quatermain, are the only one here who knows his tongue, if you
do know it, and you are my accuser."
"That is true," remarked Retief. "Such a witness should not be admitted
without a sworn interpreter. Now listen; I pass judgment as commandant
in the field. Hernan Pereira, I have known you to be a rogue in the
past, for I remember that you cheated this very young man, Allan
Quatermain, at a friendly trial of skill at which I was present; but
since then till now I have heard nothing more of you, good or bad.
To-day this Allan Quatermain and a number of my own countrymen bring
grave charges against you, which, however, at present are not capable of
proof or disproof. Well, I cannot decide those charges, whatever my own
opinion may be. I think that you had better go back with your uncle,
Henri Marais, to the trek-Boers, where they can be laid before a court
and settled according to law."
"If so, he will go back alone," said the Vrouw Prinsloo. "He will not
go back with us, for we will elect a field-cornet and shoot him--the
stinkcat, who left us to starve and afterwards tried to kill little
Allan Quatermain, who saved our lives"; and the chorus behind her
"Ja, ja, we will shoot him."
"Hernan Pereira," said Retief, rubbing his broad forehead, "I don't
quite know why it is, but no one seems to want you as a companion.
Indeed, to speak truth, I don't myself. Still, I think you would be
safer with me than with these others whom you seem to have offended.
Therefore, I suggest that you come on with us. But listen here, man,"
he added sternly, "if I find you plotting against us among the Zulus,
that hour you are dead. Do you understand?"
"I understand that I am one slandered," replied Pereira. "Still, it is
Christian to submit to injuries, and therefore I will do as you wish.
As to these bearers of false witness, I leave them to God."
"And I leave you to the devil," shouted Vrouw Prinsloo, "who will
certainly have you soon or late. Get out of my sight, stinkcat, or I
will pull your hair off." And she rushed at him, flapping her dreadful
vatdoek--which she produced from some recess in her raiment--in his
face, driving him away as though he were a noxious insect.
Well, he went I know not where, and so strong was public opinion against
him that I do not think that even his uncle, Henri Marais, sought him
out to console him.
When Pereira was gone, our party and that of Retief fell into talk, and
we had much to tell. Especially was the commandant interested in the
story of my bet with Dingaan, whereby I saved the lives of all my
companions by shooting the vultures.
"It was not for nothing, nephew, that God Almighty gave you the power of
holding a gun so straight," said Retief to me when he understood the
matter. "I remember that when you killed those wildfowl in the Groote
Kloof with bullets, which no other man could have done, I wondered why
you should have such a gift above all the rest of us, who have practised
for so many more years. Well, now I understand. God Almighty is no
fool; He knows His business. I wish you were coming back with me to
Dingaan; but as that tainted man, Hernan Pereira, is of my company,
perhaps it is better that you should stay away. Tell me, now, about
this Dingaan; does he mean to kill us?"
"Not this time, I think, uncle," I answered; "because first he wishes to
learn all about the Boers. Still, do not trust him too far just because
he speaks you softly. Remember, that if I had missed the third vulture,
we should all have been dead by now. And, if you are wise, keep an eye
upon Hernan Pereira."
"These things I will do, nephew, especially the last of them; and now we
must be getting on. Stay; come here, Henri Marais; I have a word to say
to you. I understand that this little Englishman, Allan Quatermain, who
is worth ten bigger men, loves your daughter, whose life he has saved
again and again, and that she loves him. Why, then, do you not let them
marry in a decent fashion?"
"Because before God I have sworn her to another man--to my nephew,
Hernan Pereira, whom everyone slanders," answered Marais sulkily.
"Until she is of age that oath holds."
"Oho!" said Retief, "you have sworn your lamb to that hyena, have you?
Well, look out that he does not crack your bones as well as hers, and
perhaps some others also. Why does God give some men a worm in their
brains, as He does to the wildebeeste, a worm that always makes them run
the wrong way? I don't know, I am sure; but you who are very religious,
Henri Marais, might think the matter over and tell me the answer when
next we meet. Well, this girl of yours will soon be of age, and then,
as I am commandant down yonder where she is going, I'll see she marries
the man she wants, whatever you say, Henri Marais. Heaven above us! I
only wish it were my daughter he was in love with. A fellow who can
shoot to such good purpose might have the lot of them"; and uttering one
of his great, hearty laughs, he walked off to his horse.
On the morrow of this meeting we forded the Tugela and entered the
territory that is now called Natal. Two days' short trekking through a
beautiful country brought us to some hills that I think were called
Pakadi, or else a chief named Pakadi lived there, I forget which.
Crossing these hills, on the further side of them, as Retief had told us
we should do, we found a large party of the trek-Boers, who were already
occupying this land on the hither side of the Bushman's River, little
knowing, poor people, that it was fated to become the grave of many of
them. To-day, and for all future time, that district is and will be
known by the name of Weenen, or the Place of Weeping, because of those
pioneers who here were massacred by Dingaan within a few weeks of the
time of which I write.
Nice as the land was, for some reason or other it did not quite suit my
fancy, and therefore, in view of my approaching marriage with Marie,
having purchased a horse from one of the trek-Boers, I began to explore
the country round. My object was to find a stretch of fertile veld
where we could settle when we were wedded, and such a spot I discovered
after some trouble. It lay about thirty miles away to the east, in the
loop of a beautiful stream that is now known as the Mooi River.
Enclosed in this loop were some thirty thousand acres of very rich,
low-lying soil, almost treeless and clothed with luxuriant grasses where
game was extraordinarily numerous. At the head of it rose a flat-topped
hill, from the crest of which, oddly enough, flowed a plentiful stream
of water fed by a strong spring. Half-way down this hill, facing to the
east, and irrigable by the stream, was a plateau several acres in
extent, which furnished about the best site for a house that I know in
all South Africa. Here I determined we would build our dwelling-place
and become rich by the breeding up of great herds of cattle. I should
explain that this ground, which once, as the remains of their old kraals
showed, had belonged to a Kaffir tribe killed out by Chaka, the Zulu
king, was to be had for the taking.
Indeed, as there was more land than we could possibly occupy, I
persuaded Henri Marais, the Prinsloos and the Meyers, with whom I had
trekked from Delagoa, to visit it with me. When they had seen it they
agreed to make it their home in the future, but meanwhile elected to
return to the other Boers for safety's sake. So with the help of some
Kaffirs, of whom there were a few in the district, remnants of those
tribes which Chaka had destroyed, I pegged out an estate of about twelve
thousand acres for myself, and, selecting a site, set the natives to
work to build a rough mud house upon it which would serve as a temporary
dwelling. I should add that the Prinsloos and the Meyers also made
arrangements for the building of similar shelters almost alongside of my
own. This done, I returned to Marie and the trek-Boers.
On the morning after my return to the camp Piet Retief appeared there
with his five or six companions. I asked him how he had got on with
"Well enough, nephew," he answered. "At first the king was somewhat
angry, saying that we Boers had stolen six hundred head of his cattle.
But I showed him that it was the chief, Sikonyela, who lives yonder on
the Caledon River, who had dressed up his people in white men's clothes
and put them upon horses, and afterwards drove the cattle through one of
our camps to make it appear that we were the thieves. Then he asked me
what was my object in visiting him. I answered that I sought a grant of
the land south of the Tugela to the sea.
"'Bring me back the cattle that you say Sikonyela has stolen,' he said,
'and we will talk about this land.' To this I agreed and soon after
left the kraal."
"What did you do with Hernan Pereira, uncle?" I asked.
"This, Allan. When I was at Umgungundhlovu I sought out the truth of
that story you told me as to his having made a plot to get you killed by
the Zulus on the ground that you were a wizard."
"And what did you discover, uncle?"
"I discovered that it was true, for Dingaan told me so himself. Then I
sent for Pereira and ordered him out of my camp, telling him that if he
came back among the Boers I would have him put on his trial for
attempted murder. He said nothing, but went away."
"Whither did he go?"
"To a place that Dingaan gave him just outside his kraal. The king said
that he would be useful to him, as he could mend guns and teach his
soldiers to shoot with them. So there, I suppose, he remains, unless he
has thought it wiser to make off. At any rate, I am sure that he will
not come here to trouble you or anyone."
"No, uncle, but he may trouble you _there_," I said doubtfully.
"What do you mean, Allan?"
"I don't quite know, but he is black-hearted, a traitor by nature, and
in one way or the other he will stir up sorrow. Do you think that he
will love you, for instance, after you have hunted him out like a
Retief shrugged his shoulders and laughed as he answered:
"I will take my chance of that. What is the use of troubling one's
head about such a snake of a man? And now, Allan, I have something to
ask you. Are you married yet?"
"No, uncle, nor can be for another five weeks, when Marie comes of age.
Her father still holds that his oath binds him, and I have promised that
I will not take her till then."
"Does he indeed, Allan? I think that Henri Marais is 'kransick' (that
is, cracked), or else his cursed nephew, Hernan, has fascinated him, as
a snake does a bird. Still, I suppose that he has the law on his side,
and, as I am commandant, I cannot advise anyone to break the law. Now
listen. It is no use your staying here looking at the ripe peach you
may not pluck, for that only makes the stomach sick. Therefore the best
thing that you can do is to come with me to get those cattle from
Sikonyela, for I shall be very glad of your company. Afterwards, too, I
want you to return with me to Zululand when I go for the grant of all
"But how about my getting married?" I asked in dismay.
"Oh! I dare say you will be able to marry before we start. Or if not,
it must be when we return. Listen now; do not disappoint me in this
matter, Allan. None of us can speak Zulu except you, who takes to these
savage languages like a duck to water, and I want you to be my
interpreter with Dingaan. Also the king specially asked that you should
come with me when I brought the cattle, as he seems to have taken a
great fancy to you. He said that you would render his words honestly,
but that he did not trust the lad whom he has there to translate into
Dutch and English. So you see it will help me very much in this big
business if you come with me."
Still I hesitated, for some fear of the future lay heavy on my heart,
warning me against this expedition.
"Allemachte!" said Retief angrily, "if you will not grant me a favour,
let it be. Or is it that you want reward? If so, all I can promise you
is twenty thousand acres of the best land in the country when we get
"No, Mynheer Retief," I replied; "it is no question of reward; and as
for the land, I have already pegged out my farm on a river about thirty
miles to the east. It is that I do not like to leave Marie alone,
fearing lest her father should play some trick on me as regards her and
"Oh, if that is all you are afraid of, Allan, I can soon settle matters;
for I will give orders to the Predicant Celliers that he is not to marry
Marie Marais to anyone except yourself, even if she asks him. Also I
will order that if Hernan Pereira should come to the camp, he is to be
shut up until I return to try him. Lastly, as commandant, I will name
Henri Marais as one of those who are to accompany us, so that he will be
able to plot nothing against you. Now are you satisfied?"
I said "Yes" as cheerfully as I could, though I felt anything but
cheerful, and we parted, for, of course, the Commandant Retief had much
to occupy him.
Then I went and told Marie what I had promised. Somewhat to my surprise
she said that she thought I had acted wisely.
"If you stayed here," she added, "perhaps some new quarrel would arise
between you and my father which might make bitterness afterwards. Also,
dear, it would be foolish for you to offend the Commandant Retief, who
will be the great man in this country, and who is very fond of you.
After all, Allan, we shall only be separated for a little while, and
when that is done we have the rest of our lives to spend together. As
for me, do not be afraid, for you know I will never marry anyone but
you--no, not to save myself from death."
So I left her somewhat comforted, knowing how sound was her judgment,
and went off to make my preparations for the expedition to Sikonyela's
All this conversation with Retief I have set down in full, as nearly as
I can remember it, because of its fateful consequences. Ah! if I could
have foreseen; if only I could have foreseen!
Two days later we started to recover Dingaan's cattle, sixty or seventy
of us, all well armed and mounted. With us went two of Dingaan's
captains and a number of Zulus, perhaps a hundred, who were to drive the
cattle if we recovered them. As I could speak their language I was more
or less in command of this Zulu contingent, and managed to make myself
very useful in that capacity. Also, during the month or so of our
absence, by continually conversing with them, I perfected myself
considerably in my knowledge of their beautiful but difficult tongue.
Now it is not my intention to write down the details of this expedition,
during which there was no fighting and nothing serious happened. We
arrived in due course at Sikonyela's and stated our errand. When he saw
how numerous and well armed we were, and that behind us was all the
might of the Zulu army, that wily old rascal thought it well to
surrender the stolen cattle without further to-do, and with these some
horses which he had lifted from the Boers. So, having received them, we
delivered them over to the Zulu captains, with instructions to drive
them carefully to Umgungundhlovu. The commandant sent a message by
these men to the effect that, having fulfilled his part of the compact,
he would wait upon Dingaan as soon as possible in order to conclude the
treaty about the land.
This business finished, Retief took me and a number of the Boers to
visit other bodies of the emigrant Dutch who were beyond the
Drakensberg, in what is now the Transvaal territory. This occupied a
long time, as these Boers were widely scattered, and at each camp we had
to stop for several days while Retief explained everything to its
leaders. Also he arranged with them to come down into Natal, so as to
be ready to people it as soon as he received the formal cession of the
country from Dingaan. Indeed, most of them began to trek at once,
although jealousies between the various commandants caused some of the
bands, luckily for themselves, to remain on the farther side of the
At length, everything being settled, we rode away, and reached the
Bushman's River camp on a certain Saturday afternoon. Here, to my joy,
we found all well. Nothing had been heard of Hernan Pereira, while the
Zulus, if we might judge from messengers who came to us, seemed to be
friendly. Marie, also, had now quite recovered from the fears and
hardships which she had undergone. Never had I seen her look so sweet
and beautiful as she did when she greeted me, arrayed no longer in rags,
but in a simple yet charming dress made of some stuff that she had
managed to buy from a trader who came up to the camp from Durban.
Moreover, I think that there was another reason for the change, since
the light of dawning happiness shone in her deep eyes.
The day, as I have said, was Saturday, and on the Monday she would come
of age and be free to dispose of herself in marriage, for on that day
lapsed the promise which we had given to her father. But, alas! by a
cursed perversity of fate, on this very Monday at noon the Commandant
Retief had arranged to ride into Zululand on his second visit to
Dingaan, and with Retief I was in honour bound to go.
"Marie," I said, "will not your father soften towards us and let us be
married to-morrow, so that we may have a few hours together before we
"I do not know, my dear," she answered, blushing, "since about this
matter he is very strange and obstinate. Do you know that all the time
you were absent he never mentioned your name, and if anyone else spoke
it he would get up and go away!"
"That's bad," I said. "Still, if you are willing, we might try."
"Indeed and indeed, Allan, I am willing, who am sick of being so near to
you and yet so far. But how shall we do so?"
"I think that we will ask the Commandant Retief and the Vrouw Prinsloo
to plead for us, Marie. Let us go to seek them."
She nodded, and hand in hand we walked through the Boers, who nudged
each other and laughed at us as we passed to where the old vrouw was
seated on a stool by her wagon drinking coffee. I remember that her
vatdoek was spread over her knees, for she also had a new dress, which
she was afraid of staining.
"Well, my dears," she said in her loud voice, "are you married already
that you hang so close together?"
"No, my aunt," I answered; "but we want to be, and have come to you to
"That I will do with all my heart, though to speak truth, young people,
at your age, as things are, I should have been inclined to help myself,
as I have told you before. Heaven above us! what is it that makes
marriage in the sight of God? It is that male and female should declare
themselves man and wife before all folk, and live as such. The pastor
and his mumblings are very well if you can get them, but it is the
giving of the hand, not the setting of the ring upon it; it is the
vowing of two true hearts, and not words read out of a book, that make
marriage. Still, this is bold talk, for which any reverend predicant
would reprove me, for if young folk acted on it, although the tie might
hold good in law, what would become of his fee? Come, let us seek the
commandant and hear what he has to say. Allan, pull me up off this
stool, where, if I had my way, after so much travelling, I should like
to sit while a house was built over my head and for the rest of my
I obeyed, not without difficulty, and we went to find Retief.
At the moment he was standing alone, watching two wagons that had just
trekked away. These contained his wife with other members of his
family, and some friends whom he was sending, under the charge of the
Heer Smit, to a place called Doornkop, that lay at a distance of fifteen
miles or more. At this Doornkop he had already caused a rough house, or
rather shed, to be built for the Vrouw Retief's occupation, thinking
that she would be more comfortable and perhaps safer there during his
absence than at the crowded camp in a wagon.
"Allemachte! Allan," he said, catching sight of me, "my heart is sore; I
do not know why. I tell you that when I kissed my old woman good-bye
just now I felt as though I should never see her again, and the tears
came into my eyes. I wish we were all safe back from Dingaan. But
there, there, I will try to get over to see her to-morrow, as we don't
start till Monday. What is it that you want, Allan, with that 'mooi
mesje' of yours?"--and he pointed to the tall Marie.
"What would any man want with such a one, save to marry her?" broke in
the Vrouw Prinsloo. "Now, commandant, listen while I set out the tale."
"All right, aunt, only be brief, for I have no time to spare."
She obeyed, but I cannot say that she was brief.
When at last the old lady paused, breathless, Retief said:
"I understand everything; there is no need for you young people to talk.
Now we will go and see Henri Marais, and, if he is not madder than
usual, make him listen to reason."
So we walked to where Marais's wagon stood at the end of the line, and
found him sitting on the disselboom cutting up tobacco with his
"Good-day, Allan," he said, for we had not met since my return. "Have
you had a nice journey?"
I was about to answer when the commandant broke in impatiently:
"See here, see here, Henri, we have not come to talk about Allan's
journey, but about his marriage, which is more important. He rides with
me to Zululand on Monday, as you do, and wants to wed your daughter
to-morrow, which is Sunday, a good day for the deed."
"It is a day to pray, not to give and be given in marriage," commented
Marais sulkily. "Moreover, Marie does not come of age before Monday,
and until then the oath that I made to God holds."
"My vatdoek for your oath!" exclaimed the vrouw, flapping that awful rag
in his face. "How much do you suppose that God cares what you in your
folly swore to that stinkcat of a nephew of yours? Do you be careful,
Henri Marais, that God does not make of your precious oath a stone to
fall upon your head and break it like a peanut-shell."
"Hold your chattering tongue, old woman," said Marais furiously. "Am I
to be taught my duty to my conscience and my daughter by you?"
"Certainly you are, if you cannot teach them to yourself," began the
vrouw, setting her hands upon her hips.
But Retief pushed her aside, saying:
"No quarrelling here. Now, Henri Marais, your conduct about these two
young people who love each other is a scandal. Will you let them be
married to-morrow or not?"
"No, commandant, I will not. By the law I have power over my daughter
till she is of age, and I refuse to allow her to marry a cursed
Englishman. Moreover, the Predicant Celliers is away, so there is none
to marry them."
"You speak strange words, Mynheer Marais," said Retief quietly,
"especially when I remember all that this 'cursed Englishman' has done
for you and yours, for I have heard every bit of that story, though not
from him. Now hearken. You have appealed to the law, and, as
commandant, I must allow your appeal. But after twelve o'clock
to-morrow night, according to your own showing, the law ceases to bind
your daughter. Therefore, on Monday morning, if there is no clergyman
in the camp and these two wish it, I, as commandant, will marry them
before all men, as I have the power to do."
Then Marais broke into one of those raving fits of temper which were
constitutional in him, and to my mind showed that he was never quite
sane. Oddly enough, it was on poor Marie that he concentrated his
wrath. He cursed her horribly because she had withstood his will and
refused to marry Hernan Pereira. He prayed that evil might fall on her;
that she might never bear a child, and that if she did, it might die,
and other things too unpleasant to mention.
We stared at him astonished, though I think that had he been any other
man than the father of my betrothed, I should have struck him. Retief,
I noticed, lifted his hand to do so, then let it fall again, muttering:
"Let be; he is possessed with a devil."
At last Marais ceased, not, I think, from lack of words, but because he
was exhausted, and stood before us, his tall form quivering, and his
thin, nervous face working like that of a person in convulsions. Then
Marie, who had dropped her head beneath this storm, lifted it, and I saw
that her deep eyes were all ablaze and that she was very white.
"You are my father," she said in a low voice, "and therefore I must
submit to whatever you choose to say to me. Moreover, I think it likely
that the evil which you call down will fall upon me, since Satan is
always at hand to fulfil his own wishes. But if so, my father, I am
sure that this evil will recoil upon your own head, not only here, but
hereafter. There justice will be done to both of us, perhaps before
very long, and also to your nephew, Hernan Pereira."
Marais made no answer; his rage seemed to have spent itself. He only
sat himself again upon the disselboom of the wagon and went on cutting
up the tobacco viciously, as though he were slicing the heart of a foe.
Even the Vrouw Prinsloo was silent and stared at him whilst she fanned
herself with the vatdoek. But Retief spoke.
"I wonder if you are mad, or only wicked, Henri Marais," he said. "To
curse your own sweet girl like this you must be one or the other--a
single child who has always been good to you. Well, as you are to ride
with me on Monday, I pray that you will keep your temper under control,
lest it should bring us into trouble, and you also. As for you, Marie,
my dear, do not fret because a wild beast has tried to toss you with his
horns, although he happens to be your father. On Monday morning you
pass out of his power into your own, and on that day I will marry you to
Allan Quatermain here. Meanwhile, I think you are safest away from this
father of yours, who might take to cutting your throat instead of that
tobacco. Vrouw Prinsloo, be so good as to look after Marie Marais, and
on Monday morning next bring her before me to be wed. Until then, Henri
Marais, I, as commandant, shall set a guard over you, with orders to
seize you if it should be necessary. Now I advise you to take a walk,
and when you are calm again, to pray God to forgive you your wicked
words, lest they should be fulfilled and drag you down to judgment."
Then we all went, leaving Henri Marais still cutting up his tobacco on
On the Sunday I met Marais walking about the camp, followed by the guard
whom Retief had set over him. To my surprise he greeted me almost with
"Allan," he said, "you must not misunderstand me. I do not really wish
ill to Marie, whom I love more dearly than I do my life; God alone knows
how much I love her. But I made a promise to her cousin, Hernan, my
only sister's only child, and you will understand that I cannot break
that promise, although Hernan has disappointed me in many ways--yes, in
many ways. But if he is bad, as they say, it comes with that Portuguese
blood, which is a misfortune that he cannot help, does it not? However
bad he may be, as an honest man I am bound to keep my promise, am I not?
Also, Allan, you must remember that you are English, and although you
may be a good fellow in yourself, that is a fault which you cannot
expect me to forgive. Still, if it is fated that you should marry my
daughter and breed English children--Heaven above! to think of it,
English children!--well, there is nothing more to be said. Don't
remember the words I spoke to Marie. Indeed, I can't remember them
myself. When I grow angry, a kind of rush of blood comes into my brain,
and then I forget what I have said," and he stretched out his hand to
I shook it and answered that I understood he was not himself when he
spoke those dreadful words, which both Marie and I wished to forget.
"I hope you will come to our wedding to-morrow," I added, "and wipe them
out with a father's blessing."
"To-morrow! Are you really going to be married to-morrow?" he
exclaimed, his sallow face twitching nervously. "O God, it was another
man that I dreamed to see standing by Marie's side. But he is not here;
he has disgraced and deserted me. Well, I will come, if my gaolers will
suffer it. Good-bye, you happy bridegroom of to-morrow, good-bye."
Then he swung round and departed, followed by the guards, one of whom
touched his brow and shook his head significantly as he passed me.
I think that Sunday seemed the longest day I ever spent. The Vrouw
Prinsloo would scarcely allow me even a glimpse of Marie, because of
some fad she had got into her mind that it was either not proper or not
fortunate, I forget which, that a bride and bridegroom should associate
on the eve of their marriage. So I occupied myself as best I could.
First I wrote a long letter to my father, the third that I had sent,
telling him everything that was going to happen, and saying how grieved
I was that he could not be present to marry us and give us his blessing.
This letter I gave to a trader who was trekking to the bay on the
following morning, begging him to forward it by the first opportunity.
That duty done, I saw about the horses which I was taking into Zululand,
three of them, two for myself and one for Hans, who accompanied me as
after-rider. Also the saddlery, saddle-bags, guns and ammunition must
be overhauled, all of which took some time.
"You are going to spend a strange wittebroodsweek [white-bread-week, or,
in other words, honeymoon], baas," said Hans, squinting at me with his
little eyes, as he brayed away at a buckskin which was to serve as a
saddle-cloth. "Now, if _I_ was to be married to-morrow, I should stop
with my pretty for a few days, and only ride off somewhere else when I
was tired of her, especially if that somewhere else chanced to be
Zululand, where they are so fond of killing people."
"I dare say you would, Hans; and so would I, if I could, you be sure.
But, you see, the commandant wants me to interpret, and therefore it is
my duty to go with him."
"Duty; what is duty, baas? Love I understand. It is for love of you
that I go with you; also for fear lest you should cause me to be beaten
if I refused. Otherwise I would certainly stop here in the camp, where
there is plenty to eat and little work to do, as, were I you, I should
do also for love of that white missie. But duty--pah! that is a
fool-word, which makes bones of a man before his time and leaves his
girl to others."
"Of course, you do not understand, Hans, any more than you coloured
people understand what gratitude is. But what do you mean about this
trek of ours? Are you afraid?"
He shrugged his shoulders. "A little, perhaps, baas. At least, I
should be if I thought about the morrow, which I don't, since to-day is
enough for me, and thinking about what one can't know makes the head
ache. Dingaan is not a nice man, baas; we saw that, didn't we? He is a
hunter who knows how to set a trap. Also he has the Baas Pereira up
there to help him. So perhaps you might be more comfortable here
kissing Missie Marie. Why do you not say that you have hurt your leg
and cannot run? It would not be much trouble to walk about on a crutch
for a day or two, and when the commandant was well gone, your leg might
heal and you could throw the stick away."
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