The Witch’s Head

Book III

Chapter I

Hans’s City of Rest

Rider Haggard

MR. ALSTON, Ernest, and Jeremy had very good sport among the elephants, killing in all nineteen bulls. It was during this expedition that an incident occurred which in its effect endeared Ernest to Mr. Alston more than ever.

The boy Roger, who always went wherever Mr. Alston went, was the object of his father’s most tender solicitude. He believed in the boy as he believed in little else in the world—for at heart Mr. Alston was a sad cynic—and to a certain extent the boy justified his belief. He was quick, intelligent, and plucky, much such a boy as you may pick up by the dozen out of any English public school, except that his knowledge of men and manners was more developed, as is usual among young colonists. At the age of twelve Master Roger Alston knew many things denied to most children of his age. On the subject of education Mr. Alston had queer ideas. “The best education for a boy,” he would say, “is to mix with grown-up gentlemen. If you send him to school, he learns little except mischief; if you let him live with gentlemen, he learns, at any rate, to be a gentleman.”

But whatever Master Roger knew, he did not know much about elephants, and on this point he was destined to gain some experience.

One day—it was just after they had got into the elephant country—they were all engaged in following the fresh spoor of a solitary bull. But though an elephant is a big beast, it is hard work catching him up because he never seems to get tired, and this was exactly what our party of hunters found. They followed that energetic elephant for hours, but they could not catch him, though the spoorers told them that he was certainly not more than a mile or so ahead. At last the sun began to get low, and their legs had already grown weary; so they gave it up for that day, determining to camp where they were.

This being so, after a rest, Ernest and the boy Roger started out of camp to see if they could not shoot a buck or some birds for supper. Roger had a repeating Winchester carbine, Ernest a double-barrelled shot-gun. Hardly had they left the camp, when Aasvögel, Jeremy’s Hottentot, came running in, and reported that he had seen the elephant, an enormous bull with a white spot upon his trunk, feeding in a clump of mimosa, not a quarter of a mile away. Up jumped Mr. Alston and Jeremy, as fresh as though they had not walked a mile, and, seizing their double-eight elephant rifles, started off with Aasvögel.

Meanwhile Ernest and Roger had been strolling towards this identical clump of mimosa. As they neared it, the former saw some guinea-fowl run into the shelter of the trees.

“Capital!” he said. “Guinea-fowl are first-class eating. Now, Roger, just you go into the bush and drive the flock over me. I’ll stand here, and make believe they are pheasants.”

The lad did as he was bid. But in order to get well behind the covey of guinea-fowl, which are dreadful things to run, he made a little circuit through the thickest part of the clump. As he did so his quick eye was arrested by a most unusual performance on the part of one of the flat-crowned mimosa-trees. Suddenly, and without the slightest apparent reason, it rose into the air, and then, behold! where its crown had been a moment before, appeared its roots.

Such an “Alice in Wonderland” sort of performance on the part of a tree could not but excite the curiosity of an intelligent youth. Accordingly, Roger pushed forwards, and slipped round an intervening tree. This was what he saw. In a little glade about ten paces from him, flapping its ears, stood an enormous elephant with great white tusks, looking as large as a house and as cool as a cucumber. Nobody, to look at the brute, would have believed that he had given them a twenty miles’ trot under a burning sun. He was now refreshing himself by pulling up mimosa-trees as easily as though they were radishes, and eating the sweet fibrous roots.

Roger saw this, and his heart burned with ambition to kill that elephant—the mighty great beast, about a hundred times as big as himself, who could pull up a large tree and make his dinner off the roots. Roger was a plucky boy, and, in his sportsmanlike zeal, he quite forgot that a repeating carbine is not exactly the weapon one would choose to shoot elephants with. Indeed, without giving the matter another thought, he lifted the little rifle, aimed it at the great beast’s head, and fired. He hit it somewhere, that was very clear, for next moment the air resounded with the most terrific scream of fury that it had ever been his lot to hear. That scream was too much for him; he turned and fled swiftly. Elephants were evidently difficult things to kill.

Fortunately for Roger, the elephant could not for some seconds make out where his tiny assailant was. Presently, however, he winded him, and came crashing after him, screaming shrilly, with his trunk and tail well up. On hearing the shot and the scream of the elephant, Ernest, who was standing some way out in the open, in anticipation of a driving shot of the guinea-fowl, had run towards the spot where Roger had entered the bush; and, just as he got opposite to it, out he came, scuttling along for his life, with the elephant not more than twenty paces behind him.

Then Ernest did a brave thing.

“Make for the bush!” he yelled to the boy, who at once swerved to the right. On thundered the elephant, straight towards Ernest. But with Ernest it was evident that he considered he had no quarrel, for presently he tried to swing himself round after Roger. Then Ernest lifted his shot-gun, and sent a charge of No. 4 into the brute’s face, stinging him sadly. It was, humanly speaking, certain death which he courted, but at the moment his main idea was to save the boy. Screaming afresh, the elephant abandoned the pursuit of Roger, and made straight for Ernest, who fired the other barrel of small-shot, in the vain hope of blinding him. By now the boy had pulled up, being some forty yards off, and seeing Ernest just about to be crumpled up, wildly fired the repeating rifle in their direction. Some good angel must have guided the little bullet; for, as it happened, it struck the elephant in the region of the knee, and, forcing its way in, slightly injured a tendon, and brought the great beast thundering to the ground. Ernest had only just time to dodge to one side as the huge mass came to the earth; indeed, as it was, he got a tap from the tip of the elephant’s trunk which knocked him down, and, though he did not feel it at the time, made him sore for days afterwards. In a moment, however, he was up again, and away at his best speed, legging it as he had never legged it before in his life; and so was the elephant. People have no idea at what a pace an elephant can go when he is out of temper, until they put it to the proof. Had it not been the slight injury to the knee, and the twenty-yards’ start he got, Ernest would have been represented by little pieces before he was ten seconds older. As it was, when, a hundred and fifty yards farther on, elephant and Ernest broke upon the astonished view of Mr. Alston and Jeremy, who were hurrying up to the scene of action, they were almost one flesh; that is, the tip of the elephant’s trunk was now up in the air, and now about six inches off the seat of Ernest’s trousers, at which it snapped, convulsively.

Up went Jeremy’s rifle, which luckily he had in his hand.

“Behind the shoulder, half-way down the ear,” said Mr. Alston, beckoning to a Kafir to bring his rifle, which he was carrying. The probability of Jeremy’s stopping the beast at that distance—they were quite sixty yards off—was infinitesimal.

There was a second’s pause. The snapping tip touched the retreating trousers, but did not get hold of them, and the contact sent a magnetic thrill up Ernest’s back.

“Boom—thud—crash!” and the elephant was down dead as a door-nail. Jeremy had made no mistake: the bullet went straight through the great brute’s heart, and broke the shoulder on the other side. He was one of those men who not only rarely miss, but always seem to hit their game in the right place.

Ernest sank exhausted on the ground, and Mr. Alston and Jeremy rushed up rejoicing.

“Near go that, Ernest,” said the former.

Ernest nodded in reply. He could not speak.

“By Jove! where is Roger?” he went on, turning pale as he missed his son for the first time.

But at this moment that young gentleman hove in sight, and, recovering from his fright when he saw that the great animal was stone-dead, rushed up with yells of exultation, and, climbing on to the upper tusk, began to point out where he had hit him.

Meanwhile Mr. Alston had extracted the story of the adventure from Ernest.

“You young rascal,” he said to his son, “come off that tusk. Do you know that if it had not been for Mr. Kershaw here, who courted almost certain death to save you from the results of your own folly, you would be as dead as that elephant and as flat as a biscuit? Come down, sir, and offer up your thanks to Providence and Mr. Kershaw that you have a sound square inch of skin left on your worthless young body!”

Roger descended accordingly, considerably crestfallen.

“Never you mind, Roger; that was a most rattling good shot of yours at his knee,” said Ernest, who had now got his breath back again. “You would not do it again if you fired at elephants for a week.”

And so the matter passed off; but afterwards Mr. Alston thanked Ernest with tears in his eyes for saving his son’s life.

This was the first elephant they killed, and also the largest. It measured ten feet eleven inches at the shoulder, and the tusks weighed, when dried out, about sixty pounds each.

They remained in the elephant country for nearly four months, when the approach of the unhealthy season forced them to leave it—not, however, before they had killed a great quantity of large game of all sorts. It was a most successful hunt, so successful, indeed, that the ivory they brought down paid all the expenses of the trip, and left a handsome surplus over.

It was on the occasion of their return to Pretoria that Ernest made the acquaintance of a curious character in a curious way.

As soon as they reached the boundaries of the Transvaal, Ernest bought a horse from a Boer, on which he used to ride after the herds of buck which swarmed upon the high veld. They had none with them, because in the country where they had been shooting no horse would live. One day as they were travelling slowly along a little before midday, a couple of bull-vilderbeeste galloped across the waggon-track about two hundred yards in front of the oxen. The voorlooper stopped the oxen in order to give Ernest, who was sitting on the waggon-box with a rifle by his side, a steady shot. Ernest fired at the last of the two galloping bulls. The line was good; but he did not make sufficient allowance for the pace at which the bull was travelling, with the result that instead of striking it forwards and killing it, the bullet shattered its flank, and did not stop its career.

“Dash it!” said Ernest, when he saw what he had done, “I can’t leave the poor beast like that. Bring me my horse; I will go after him, and finish him.”

The horse, which was tied already saddled behind the waggon, was quickly brought, and Ernest, mounting, told them not to keep the waggons for him, as he would strike across country and meet them at the outspan place, about a mile or so on. Then he started after his wounded bull, which could be plainly discerned standing with one leg up on the crest of a rise about a thousand yards away. But if ever a vilderbeeste was possessed by a fixed determination not to be finished off, it was that particular vilderbeeste. The pace at which a vilderbeeste can travel on three legs when he is not too fat is perfectly astonishing, and Ernest had traversed a couple of miles of great rolling plain before he even got within fair galloping distance of him.

He had a good horse, however, and at last he got within fifty yards, and then away they went at a merry pace, Ernest’s object being to ride alongside and put a bullet through him. Their gallop lasted a good two miles or more. On the level, Ernest gained on the vilderbeeste, but whenever they came to a patch of ant-bear holes or a ridge of stones, the vilderbeeste had the pull, and drew away again. At last they came to a dry pan or lake about half a mile broad, crowded with hundreds of buck of all sorts, which scampered away as they came tearing along. Here Ernest at length drew up level with his quarry, and grasping the rifle with his right hand, tried to get it so that he could put a bullet through the beast, and drop him. But it was no easy matter, as any one who has ever tried it will know, and, while he was still making up his mind, the vilderbeeste slewed round, and came at him bravely. Had his horse been unused to the work, he must have had his inside ripped out by the crooked horns; but he was an old hunter, and equal to the occasion. To turn was impossible, the speed was too great, but he managed to slew, with the result that the charging animal brushed his head, instead of landing himself in his belly. At the same moment Ernest stretched out his rifle and pulled the trigger, and, as it chanced, put the bullet right through the vilderbeeste and dropped him dead.

Then he pulled up, and, dismounting, cut off some of the best of beef with his hunting-knife, stowed it away in a saddle-bag, and set off on his horse, now pretty well fagged, to find the waggons. But to find a waggon-track on the great veld, unless you have in the first instance taken the most careful bearings, is almost as difficult as it would be to return from a distance to any given spot on the ocean without a compass. There are no trees or hills to guide the travellers; nothing but a vast wilderness of land resembling a sea petrified in a heavy swell.

Ernest rode on for three or four miles, as he thought, retracing his steps over the line of country he had traversed, and at last, to his joy, struck the path. There were waggon-tracks on it; but he thought they did not look quite fresh. However, he followed them faute de mieux for some five miles. Then he became convinced that they could not have been made by his waggons. He had overshot the mark, and must hark back. So he turned his weary horse’s head, and made his way along the road to the spot where his spoor struck into it. The waggons must be out-spanned, waiting for him a little farther back. He went on, one mile, two, three—no waggons. A little to the left of the road was an eminence. He rode to it, and up and scanned the horizon. O joy! there far away, five or six miles off, was the white cap of a waggon. He rode to it straight across country. Once he got bogged in a vlei or swamp, and had to throw himself off, and drag his horse out by the bridle. He struggled on, and at last came to the dip in which he had seen the waggon-tent. It was a great white stone perched on a mound of brown ones.

By this time he had utterly lost his reckoning. Just then, to make matters worse, a thunder-shower came up with a bitter wind, and drenched him to the skin. The rain passed, but the wind did not. It blew like ice, and chilled his frame, enervated with the tropical heat in which he had been living through and through. He wandered on aimlessly, till suddenly his tired horse put his foot in a hole and fell heavily, throwing him on to his head and shoulder. For a few minutes his senses left him; but he recovered, and, mounting his worn-out horse, wandered on again. Luckily, he had broken no bones. Had he done so, he would probably have perished miserably in that lonely place.

The sun was sinking now, and he was faint for want of food, for he had eaten nothing that day but a biscuit. He had not even a pipe of tobacco with him. Just as the sun vanished he hit a little path, or what might once have been a path. He followed it till the pitchy darkness set in; then he got off his horse and took off the saddle, which he put down on the bare black veld, for a fire had recently swept off the dry grass, and wrapping the saddle-cloth round his feet, laid his aching head upon the saddle. The reins he hitched round his arm, lest the horse should stray away from him to look for food. The wind was bitterly cold, and he was wet through; the hyenas came and howled at him. He cut off a piece of the raw vilderbeeste-beef and chewed it, but it turned his stomach and he spat it out. Then he shivered and sank into a torpor from which there was a poor chance of his awakening.

How long he lay so he did not know—it seemed a few minutes; it was really an hour—when suddenly he was awakened by feeling something shaking him by the shoulder.

“What is it?” he said wearily.

“Wat is it? Ach Himmel! wat is it? dat is just wat I wants to know. Wat do you here? You shall die so.”

The voice was the voice of a German, and Ernest knew German well.

“I have lost my way,” he said, in that language; “I cannot find the waggons.”

“Ah, you can speak the tongue of the Vaterland,” said his visitor, still addressing him in English. “I will embrace you;” and he did so.

Ernest sighed. It is a bore to be embraced in the dark by an unknown male German when you feel that you are not far off dissolution.

“You are hungered?” said the German.

Ernest signified that he was.

“And athirsted?”

Again he signified assent.

“And perhaps you have no ‘gui’ (tobacco)?”

“No, none.”

“Good! my little wife, my Wilhelmina, shall find you all these things.”

“What the devil,” thought Ernest to himself, “can a German be doing with his little wife in this place?”

By this time the stars had come out, and gave some light.

“Come, rouse yourself, and come and see my little wife. O, the pferd!” (horse)—“we will tie him to my wife. Ah, she is beautiful, though her leg shakes. O yes, you will love her.”

“The deuce I shall!” ejaculated Ernest; and then, mindful of the good things the lady in question was to provide him with, he added solemnly, “Lead on, Macduff.”

“Macduffer! my name is not so, my name is Hans; all ze great South Africa know me very well, and all South Africa love my wife.”

“Really!” said Ernest.

Although he was so miserable, he began to feel that the situation was interesting. A lady to whom his horse was to be tied, and whom all South Africa was enamoured of, could hardly fail to be interesting. Rising, he advanced a step or two with his friend, who he could now see was a large burly man with white hair, apparently about sixty years of age. Presently they came to something that in the dim light reminded him of the hand-hearse in Kesterwick Church, only it had two wheels instead of four, and no springs.

“Behold my beautiful wife,” said the German. “Soon I will show you how her leg shakes; it shakes, O, horrid!”

“Is—is the lady inside?” asked Ernest. It occurred to him that his friend might be carting about a corpse.

“Inside! no, she is outside, she is all over”; and stepping back, the German put his head on one side in a most comical fashion, and, regarding the unofficial hearse with the deepest affection, said in a low voice, “Ah, liebe vrouw, ah, Wilhelmina, is you tired, my dear? and how is your poor leg?” and he caught hold of a groggy wheel and shook it.

Had Ernest been a little less wretched, and one degree further off starvation, it is probable that he would have exploded with laughter, for he had a keen sense of the ludicrous; but he had not got a laugh left in him, and, besides, he was afraid of offending the German. So he merely murmured, “Poor, poor leg!” sympathetically, and then alluded to the question of eatables.

“Ah, yes, of course. Let us see what Wilhelmina shall give us;” and he trotted round to the back end of the cart, which, in keeping with its hearse-like character, opened by means of two little folding-doors, and pulled out, first, two blankets, one of which he gave to Ernest to put round his shoulders; second, a large piece of biltong, or sun-dried game flesh, and some biscuits; and, third, a bottle of peach-brandy. On these viands they fell to, and though they were not in themselves of an appetising nature, Ernest never enjoyed anything more in his life. Their meal did not take very long, and after it his friend Hans produced some excellent Boer tobacco, and over their pipes Ernest told him how he had lost his way. Hans asked him what road he had been travelling on.

“The Rustenburg road.”

“Then, my friend, you are not more than one thousand paces off it. My wife and I we travel along him all day, till just now Wilhelmina she think she would like to come up here, and so I come, and now you see the reason why. She know you lie here and die in the cold, and she turn up to save your life. Ah, the good woman!”

Ernest was greatly relieved to hear that he was so near the road, as, once upon it, he would have no difficulty in falling in with the waggons. Clearly, during the latter part of his wanderings, he must have unknowingly approached it. His mind, relieved upon this point, was at liberty to satisfy its curiosity about his friend. He soon discovered that he was a harmless lunatic, whose craze it was to wander all over South Africa, dragging his hand-cart after him. He made no fixed point, nor had he any settled round. The beginning of the year might find him near the Zambesi, and the end near Cape Town, or anywhere else. By the natives he was looked upon as inspired, and invariably treated with respect, and he lived upon what was given to him, or what he shot as he walked along. This mode of life he had pursued for years, and though he had many adventures, he never came to harm.

“You see, my friend,” said the simple man, in answer to Ernest’s inquiries, “I make my wife down there in Scatterdorp, in the old colony. The houses are a long way off each other there, and the church it is in the middle. And the good volk there, they die very fast, and did get tired of carrying each other to be buried. And so they come to me and say, ‘Hans, you are a carpenter, you must make a beautiful black cart to put us in when we die.’ And so I set to, and I work, and work, and work at my cart till I gets quite—what do you call him?—stoopid. And then one night, just as my cart was finished, I dreams that she and I are travelling along a wide straight road, like the road on the high veld, and I knows that she is my wife, and that we must travel always together till we reach the City of Rest. And far, far away, above the top of a high mountain like the Drakensberg, I see a great wide tree, rooted on a cloud and covered all over with beautiful snow, that shined in the sunlight like the diamonds at Kimberley. And I know that under that tree is the gate of the real Rustenburg, the City of Rest, and my wife and I, we must journey on, on, on till we find it.”

“Where do you come from now?”

“From Utrecht, from out of the east, where the sun rises so red every morning over Zululand, the land of bloodshed. O, the land will run with blood there. I know it; Wilhelmina told me as we came along; but I don’t know when. But you are tired. Good! you shall sleep with Wilhelmina; I will sleep beneath her. No, you shall, or she will be—what you call him?—offended.”

Ernest crept into the cavity, and at once fell asleep, and dreamed that he had been buried alive. Suddenly in the middle of the night there was a most fearful jolt, caused by his horse, which was tied to the pole of Wilhelmina, having pulled the prop aside and let the pole down with a run. This Ernest mistook for the resurrection, and was extremely relieved to find himself in error. At dawn he emerged, bade his friend farewell, and gaining the road, rejoined the waggons in safety.

The Witch’s Head - Contents    |     Book III - Chapter II - Ernest Accepts a Commission

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