The Witch’s Head

Book II

Chapter VIII

A Homeric Combat

Rider Haggard

WHEN Mr. Alston and Ernest found themselves safe upon Transvaal soil, they determined to give up the idea of following any more big game for the present, and to content themselves with the comparatively humble vilderbeeste, blesbok, springbok, and other small antelopes. The plan they pursued was to slowly journey from one point of the country to another, stopping wherever they found the buck particularly plentiful. In this way they got excellent sport, and spent several months very agreeably, with the further advantage that Ernest obtained considerable knowledge of the country and its inhabitants, the Boers.

It was a wild rough life that they led, but by no means a lowering one. The continual contact with Nature in all her moods, and in her wildest shapes, to a man of impressionable mind like Ernest, was an education in itself. His mind absorbed something of the greatness round him, and seemed to grow wider and deeper during those months of lonely travel. The long struggle, too, with the hundred difficulties which arise in waggon-journeys, and the quickness of decision necessary to avoid danger or discomfort in such a mode of life, were of great service to him in shaping his character. Nor was he left without suitable society, for in his companion he found a friend for whose talents and intelligence he had the highest respect.

Mr. Alston was a very quiet individual; he never said a thing unless he had first considered it in all its bearings; but when he did say it, it was always well worth hearing. He was a man who had spent his life in the closest observation of human nature in the rough. Now you, my reader, may think that there is a considerable difference between human nature “in the rough,” as exemplified by a Zulu warrior stalking out of his kraal in a kaross and brandishing an assegai, and yourself, say, strolling up the steps of your club in a frock-coat, and twirling one of Brigg’s umbrellas. But, as a matter of fact, the difference is of a most superficial character, bearing the same proportion to the common substance that the furniture polish does to the table. Scratch the polish, and there you have best raw Zulu human nature. Indeed, to anybody who has taken the trouble to study the question, it is simply absurd to observe how powerless high civilisation has been to do anything more than veneer that raw material, which remains identical in each case.

To return. The result of Mr. Alston’s observations had been to make him an extremely shrewd companion, and an excellent judge of men and their affairs. There were few subjects which he had not quietly considered during all the years that he had been trading or shooting or serving the Government in one capacity or another; and Ernest was astonished to find, although he had only spent some four months of his life in England, how intimate was his knowledge of the state of political parties, of the great social questions of the day, and even of matters connected with literature and art. It is not too much to say that it was from Mr. Alston that Ernest imbibed principles on all these subjects which he never deserted in after-life, and that subsequent experience proved to be for the most part sound.

Thus, between shooting and philosophical discussion, the time passed on pleasantly enough, till at length they drew near to Pretoria, the capital of the Transvaal, where they had decided to rest the oxen for a month or two before making arrangements for a real big-game excursion up towards Central Africa. They struck into the Pretoria road just above a town called Heidelberg, about sixty miles from the former place, and proceeded by easy stages towards their destination.

As they went on, they generally found it convenient to outspan at spots which it was evident had been used for the same purpose by some waggon that was travelling one stage ahead of them. So frequently did this happen, that during their first five or six outspans they were able on no less than three occasions to avail themselves of the dying fires of their predecessors’ camp. This was a matter of lively interest to Ernest, who always did cook; and a very good cook he became. One of the great bothers of South African travelling is the fire question. Indeed, how to make sufficient fire to boil a kettle when you have no fuel to make it of is the great question of South African travel. A ready-made fire is, therefore, peculiarly acceptable; and for the last half-hour of the trek was Ernest always in a great state of expectation as to whether the waggon before them had or had not been considerate enough to leave theirs burning.

Thus it came to pass that one morning, when they were about fifteen miles from Pretoria, which they expected to reach the same evening, and the waggon was slowly drawing up to the outspan-place, Ernest, accompanied by Mazooku, who lounged after him like a black shadow, ran forward to see if their predecessors had or had not been considerate. In this instance energy was rewarded, for the fire was still burning.

“Hoorah!” said Ernest. “Get the sticks, Mazooku, and go and fill the kettle. By Jove! there’s a knife.”

There was a knife, a many-bladed knife, with a buckhorn handle and a corkscrew in it, left by the dying fire. Ernest took it up and looked at it; somehow it seemed familiar to him. He turned it round, examined the silver plate upon it, and suddenly started.

“What is the matter, Ernest?” said Mr. Alston, who had joined them.

“Look here,” he answered, pointing to two initials on the knife.

“Well, I see some fellow has left his knife; so much the better for the finder.”

“You have heard me speak of my friend Jeremy. That is his knife; I gave it to him years ago. Look—J. J.”

“Nonsense! it is some knife like it; I have seen hundreds of that make.”

“I believe that it is the same. He must be here.”

Mr. Alston shrugged his shoulders.

“Not probable,” he said.

Ernest made no answer. He stood staring at the knife.

“Have you written to your people lately, Ernest?”

“No; the last letter I wrote was down there in Secocoeni’s country; you remember I sent it by the Basuto who was going to Lydenburg, just before Jeffries died.”

“Like enough he never got to Lydenburg. He would not have dared to go to Lydenburg after the war broke out. You should write.”

“I mean to, from Pretoria; but somehow I have had no heart for writing.”

Nothing more was said about the matter, and Ernest put the knife into his pocket.

That evening they trekked down through the “Poort” that commands the most charming view of the South African towns, and, on the plain below, Pretoria, bathed in the bright glow of the evening sunshine, smiled its welcome to them. Mr. Alston, who knew the town, determined to trek straight through it and outspan the waggon on the farther side, where he thought there would be better grazing for the cattle. Accordingly, they rumbled on past the gaol, past the pleasant white building which was at that moment occupied by the English Special Commissioner and his staff, about whose doings all sorts of rumours had reached them during their journey, and on to the market-square. This area was at the moment crowded with Boer waggons, whose owners had trekked in to celebrate their “nachtmaal” (communion), of which it is their habit, in company with their wives and children, to partake four times a year. The “Volksraad,” or local Parliament, was also in special session to consider the proposals made to it on behalf of the Imperial Government, so that the little town was positively choked with visitors. The road down which they were passing ran past the buildings used as Government offices, and between this and the Dutch church a considerable crowd was gathered, which, to judge from the shouts and volleys of oaths—Dutch and English—that proceeded from it, was working itself up into a state of excitement.

“Hold on,” shouted Ernest to the voorlooper; and then, turning to Mr. Alston, “There is a jolly row going on there; let us go and see what it is.”

“All right, my boy; where the fighting is, there will the Englishmen be gathered together;” and they climbed down off the waggon and made for the crowd.

The row was this. Among the Boers assembled for the “nachtmaal” festival was a well-known giant of the name of Van Zyl. This man’s strength was a matter of public notoriety all over the country, and many were the feats which were told of him. Among others it was said that he could bear the weight of the after-part of an African buck waggon on his shoulders, with a load of three thousand pounds of corn upon it, while the wheels were greased. He stood about six feet seven high, weighed eighteen stone and a half, and had a double row of teeth. On the evening in question this remarkable specimen of humanity was sitting on his waggon-box with a pipe, of which the size was proportionate to his own, clinched firmly between his double row of teeth. About ten paces of him stood a young Englishman, also of large size, though he looked quite small beside the giant, who was contemplating the phenomenon on the waggon-box, and wondering how many inches he measured round the chest. That young Englishman had just descended from a newly-arrived waggon, and his name was Jeremy Jones.

To these advances a cringing Hottentot boy of small size. The Hottentot is evidently the servant or slave of the giant, and a man standing by Jeremy, who understands Dutch, informs him that he is telling his master than an ox has strayed. Slowly the giant rouses himself, and, descending from the waggon-box, seizes the trembling Tottie with one hand, and, taking a reim of buffalo-hide, lashes him to the waggon-wheel.

“Now,” remarked Jeremy’s acquaintance, “you will see how a Boer deals with a nigger.”

“You don’t mean to say that great brute is going to beat that poor little devil?”

Just then a small fat woman put her head out of a tent pitched by the waggon, and inquired what the matter was. She was the giant’s wife. On being informed of the straying of the ox, her wrath knew no bounds.

“Slaat em! slaat de swartsel!” (Thrash him! thrash the black creature!) she cried out in a shrill voice, running to the waggon, and with her own fair hands drawing out a huge “sjambock,” that is, a strip of prepared hippopotamus-hide used to drive the after-oxen with, and giving it to her spouse. “Cut the liver out of the black devil!” she went on, “but mind you don’t hit his head, or he won’t be able to go to work afterwards. Never mind about making the blood come; I have got lots of salt to rub in.”

Her harangue, and the sight of the Hottentot tied to the wheel, had by this time attracted quite a crowd of Boers and Englishmen who were idling about the market-square.

“Softly, Vrouw, softly; I will thrash enough to satisfy even you, and we all know that must be very hard where a black creature is in question.”

A roar of laughter from the Dutch people round greeted this sally of wit, and the giant, taking the sjambock with a good-humoured smile—for, like most giants, he was easy-tempered by nature—lifted it, whirled his great arm, as thick as the leg of an average man, round his head, and brought the whip down on the back of the miserable Hottentot. The poor wretch yelled with pain, and no wonder, for the greasy old shirt he wore was divided clean in two, together with the skin beneath it, and the blood was pouring from the gash.

“Allamachter! dat is een lecker slaat” (Almighty! that was a nice one), said the old woman; at which the crowd laughed again.

But there was one man who did not laugh, and that man was Jeremy. On the contrary, his clear eyes flashed and his brown cheek burned with indignation. Nor did he stop at that. Stepping forward he placed himself between the giant and the howling Hottentot, and said to the former, in the most nervous English:

“You are a damned coward!”

The Boer stared at him, and smiled, and then, turning, asked what the “English fellow” was saying. Somebody translated Jeremy’s remark, whereupon the Boer, who was not a bad-natured fellow, smiled again, and remarked that Jeremy must be madder than the majority of “accursed Englishmen.” Then he turned to continue thrashing the Hottentot, but, lo! the mad Englishman was still there. This put the Dutchman out.

“Footsack, carl; ik is Van Zyl!” (Get out, fellow; I am Van Zyl!) This was interpreted to Jeremy by the bystanders.

“All right; and tell him that I am Jones, a name he may have heard before,” was the reply.

“What does this brain-sick fellow want?” shouted the giant.

Jeremy explained that he wanted him to stop his brutality.

“And what will the little man do if I refuse?”

“I shall try to make you,” was the answer.

This remark was received with a shout of laughter from the crowd which had now collected, in which the giant joined very heartily when it was interpreted to him.

Giving Jeremy a shove to one side, he again lifted the great sjambock, with the purpose of bringing it down on the Hottentot. Another second, and Jeremy had snatched the whip from his hand, and sent it flying fifty yards away. Then, realising that his antagonist was really in earnest, the great Dutchman solemnly set himself to crush him. Doubling a fist which was the size of a Welsh leg of mutton, he struck with all his strength straight at the Englishman’s head. Had the blow caught Jeremy, it would in all probability have killed him; but he was a practised boxer, and, without moving his body, he swung his head to one side. The Boer’s fist passed him harmlessly, and, striking the panel of the waggon, went clean through it. Next instant several of the giant’s double row of teeth were rolling loose in his mouth. Jeremy had returned the stroke by a righthander, into which he put all his power, and which would have knocked any other man backwards.

A great shout from the assembled Englishmen followed this blow, and a counter-shout from the crowd of Dutchmen, who pointed triumphantly to the hole in the stout yellow-wood panel made by their champion’s fist, and asked who the madman was who dared to stand against him.

The Boer turned and spat out some of his superfluous teeth, and at the same instant a young Englishman came and caught hold of Jeremy by the arm.

“For Heaven’s sake, my dear fellow, be careful! That man will kill you; he is the strongest fellow in the Transvaal. You are a fellow to be proud of, though!”

“He may try,” said Jeremy laconically, stripping off his coat and waistcoat. “Will you hold these for me?”

“Hold them?” answered the young fellow, who was a good sort; “ay, that I will, and I would give half I have to see you lick him. I saw him stun an ox once with a blow of his fist.”

Jeremy smiled.

“Stop,” he said. “Ask that miserable coward, if I best him, if he will let off that miserable beggar?” and he pointed to the trembling Hottentot.

The question was put, and the great man answered. “Yah, yah! I will make you a present of him!” ironically, and then expressed his intention of knocking Jeremy into small pieces in the course of the next two minutes.

Then they faced one another. The giant was a trifle over six feet seven high; Jeremy was a trifle under six feet two and a half, and looked short beside him. But one or two critical observers, looking at the latter now that he was stripped for the encounter, shrewdly guessed that the Dutchman would have his work cut out. Jeremy did not, it is true, scale more than fourteen stone six, but his proportions were perfect. The great deep chest, the brawny arms—not very large, but a mass of muscle—the short strong neck, the quick eye, and massive leg, all bespoke the strength of a young Hercules. It was evident, too, that though he was so young, and not yet come to his full power, he was in the most perfect training. The Boer, on the other hand, was enormous, but his flesh was somewhat soft. Still, knowing his feats, the Englishmen present sighed for their champion, feeling that he had no chance.

For a moment they stood facing each other; then Jeremy made a feint, and, getting in, planted a heavy blow with his left hand on his adversary’s chest. But he was to pay for it, for the next second the Dutchman got in his right hand, and Jeremy was lifted clean off his feet, and sent flying backwards among the crowd.

The Boers cheered, the giant smiled, and the Englishmen looked sad. They knew how it would be.

But Jeremy picked himself up little the worse. The stroke had struck the muscles of his chest, and had not hurt him greatly. As he advanced, the gradually increasing crowd of Englishmen cheered him warmly, and he swore in his heart that he would justify those cheers, or die for it.

It was at this juncture that Ernest and Mr. Alston came up.

“Good heavens!” exclaimed the former; “it is Jeremy.”

Mr. Alston took in the situation at a glance.

“Don’t let him see you; you will put him off,” he said. “Get behind me.”

Ernest obeyed, overwhelmed. Mr. Alston shook his head. He recognised that Jeremy had a poor chance, but he did not say so to Ernest.

Meanwhile Jeremy came up and faced the Dutchman. Encouraged by his late success, presently his adversary struck a tremendous blow at him. Jeremy dodged, and next instant succeeded in landing such a fearful right and left full on the giant’s face that the latter went reeling backwards.

A yell of frantic excitement arose from the English portion of the crowd. This was indeed a David.

The Dutchman soon recovered, however, and, rendered more cautious, in his turn, kept out of Jeremy’s reach, trying to strike him down from a distance. For a round or two no important blow was struck, till at last a brilliant idea took possession of the young fellow who had charge of Jeremy’s coat.

“Hit him about the body,” he whispered; “he’s soft.”

Jeremy took the advice, and next round succeeded in getting in two or three blows straight from the shoulder, every one of which bruised the Boer’s huge body sadly, and made him rather short of wind.

Next round he repeated the same tactics, receiving himself a stroke on the shoulder from Van Zyl’s right hand that for a moment rendered his left arm helpless. Before another second was over, however, Jeremy had his revenge, and the blood was pouring from his adversary’s lips.

Now the popular excitement on both sides grew intense, for to the interest attaching to the encounter was added that of national feeling, which was then at a high state of tension. Englishmen, Dutchmen, and a mob of Kafirs yelled and shouted, and each of the former two felt that the honour of his people was on the issue. And yet it was an unequal fight.

“I believe that your friend will be a match for Van Zyl,” said Mr. Alston, coolly, but the flash of his eye belied his coolness; “and, I tell you what, he’s a devilish fine fellow, too.”

At that moment, however, an untoward thing happened. The giant struck out his strongest, and Jeremy could not succeed in entirely warding off the blow, though he broke its force. Crashing through his guard, it struck him on the forehead, and for a moment he dropped senseless. His second rushed up and dashed some water over him, and in another instant he was on his legs again; but for the rest of that round he contented himself with dodging his adversary’s attack, at which the Dutchmen cheered, thinking that his iron strength was broken.

But presently, when for the sixth time Jeremy came up with the same quiet look of determination in his eyes, and, except for the gaping of the nostrils and the twitching of the lip showed a certain measure of distress, looking but little the worse, they turned with anxiety to examine the condition of the giant. It was not very promising. He was perspiring profusely, and his enormous chest rose and fell in jerks. Wherever Jeremy’s strokes had fallen, also, a great blue bruise had risen on his flesh. It was evident that his condition was the worse of the two, but still the Boers had little doubt of the issue. It could not be that the man would be worsted by an English lad, who, for a bet, with one hand had once quelled the struggles of a wild ox, holding it for the space of five minutes by the horn. So they called on him to stop playing with the English boy, and crush him.

Thus encouraged, the giant man came on, striking out with fearful force, but wildly, for he could not box. For thirty seconds or more Jeremy contented himself with avoiding the blows; then, seeing an opportunity, he planted a heavy one on his adversary’s chest. This staggered Van Zyl and threw him off his guard, and, taking the offensive, Jeremy dodged in right under the huge fists that beat the air above him and hit upwards with all his power. Thud, thud! The sound of the blows could be heard fifty yards off. Nor were they without their effect. The giant staggered, threw up his arms, and, amidst fearful shouts and groans, fell like an ox struck with a pole-axe. But it was not over yet. In another moment he was on his legs again, and spitting out blood and teeth, whirling his hands like the sails of a windmill, reeled straight at Jeremy, a fearful and alarming spectacle. As he came, again Jeremy hit him in the face, but it did not stop him, and in another second the huge arms had closed round him and held him like a vice.

“Not fair! no holding!” shouted the Englishmen; but the Boer held on. Indeed, he did more. Putting all his vast strength into the effort, he strained and tugged, meaning to lift Jeremy up and dash him on the ground. But lo! amid frantic shouts from the crowd, Jeremy stood firm, moving not an inch. Whereupon the Boers called out, saying that he was not a mortal, but a man possessed with a devil! Again the Dutchman gripped him, and this time succeeded in lifting him a few inches from the ground.

“By George, he will throw him next time!” said Mr. Alston to Ernest, who was shaking like a leaf with the excitement; “look!—he is turning white; the grip is choking him.”

And, indeed, Jeremy was in evil case; his senses were fast being crushed out of him in that fearful embrace, and he was thinking with bitter sorrow that he must fail after all, for an Englishman does not like to be beaten even when he has fought his best. Just then it was, when things were beginning to swim around him, that a voice he loved, and which he had been listening for these many months, rang in his ears; whether it was fancy or whether he really heard it he knew not.

“Remember ‘Marsh Joe,’ Jeremy, and lift him. Don’t be beat. For God’s sake, lift him!” said the voice.

Now there was a trick, which I will not tell you, that a famous Eastern Counties’ wrestler, known as Marsh Joe, had taught to Jeremy. So well had he taught him, indeed, that at the age of seventeen Jeremy had hoisted his teacher with his own trick.

Just at the moment that Jeremy heard the voice, the giant shifted his hold a little, preparatory to making a fresh effort, and thus enabled his antagonist to fill his lungs with air. Ernest saw the broad white chest heave with relief, for by this time most of the upper clothing of the combatants had been wrenched away, and the darkening eye grow bright again, and he knew that Jeremy had heard him, and that he would conquer or die where he was.

And then—lo, and behold! just as the Boer, feeling that at last he was master of the situation, leisurely enough prepared himself for the final struggle, suddenly the Englishman advanced his right leg a few inches, and with the rapidity of lightning entirely shifted his grip. Then he gathered himself for the effort. What secret reserve of strength he drew on, who can say? But Ernest’s voice had excited it, and it came at his call: and he did a thing that few living men could have done, the fame of which will go down in South Africa from generation to generation. For the Englishman’s lithe arms had found their hold; they tightened and gripped till they sunk in almost level with the flesh of his mighty foe. Then slowly Jeremy began to gather purchase, swaying backwards and forwards, and the Dutchman swayed with him.

“Make an end of him! make an end of him!” shouted the Boers. But behold! their champion’s eyes are starting from his blackened face; his head sinks lower and lower, his buttocks rise; he cannot stir.

To and fro sways Jeremy, and now the giant’s feet are lifted from the ground. Then one slow and mighty effort—oh, gallant Jeremy!—up, still up above the gasping of the wonder-stricken crowd, up to his shoulder—by Heaven, over it! Crash!

Van Zyl fell, to be carried away by six strong men a cripple for life.

The Witch’s Head - Contents    |     Book II - Chapter IX - Ernest’s Love-Letter

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