The Mystery of Sasassa Valley


Arthur Conan Doyle

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First published in Chambers’s Journal, September 6, 1879.

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The Mystery of Sasassa Valley

Do I know why Tom Donahue is called “Lucky Tom?” Yes; I do; and that is more than one in ten of those who call him so can say. I have knocked about a deal in my time, and seen some strange sights, but none stranger than the way in which Tom gained that sobriquet and his fortune with it. For I was with him at the time.—Tell it? Oh, certainly; but it is a longish story and a very strange one; so fill up your glass again, and light another cigar while I try to reel it off. Yes; a very strange one; beats some fairy stories I have heard; but it’s true sir, every word of it. There are men alive at Cape Colony now who’ll remember it and confirm what I say. Many a time has the tale been told round the fire in Boers’ cabins from Orange State to Griqualand; yes, and out in the Bush and at the Diamond Fields too.

I’m roughish now sir; but I was entered at the Middle Temple once, and studied for the Bar. Tom—worse luck!—was one of my fellow-students; and a wildish time we had of it, until at last our finances ran short, and we were compelled to give up our so-called studies, and look about for some part of the world where two young fellows with strong arms and sound constitutions might make their mark. In those days the tide of emigration had scarcely begun to set in towards Africa, and so we thought our best chance would be down at Cape Colony. Well—to make a long story short—we set sail, and were deposited in Cape Town with less than five pounds in our pockets; and there we parted. We each tried our hands at many things, and had ups and downs; but when, at the end of three years, chance led each of us up-country and we met again, we were, I regret to say, in almost as bad a plight as when we started.

Well, this was not much of a commencement; and very disheartened we were, so disheartened that Tom spoke of going back to England and getting a clerkship. For you see we didn’t know that we had played out all our small cards, and that the trumps were going to turn up. No; we thought our “hands” were bad all through. It was a very lonely part of the country that we were in, inhabited by a few scattered farmers, whose houses were stockaded and fenced in to defend them against the Kaffirs. Tom Donahue and I had a little hut right out in the Bush; but we were known to possess nothing, and to be handy with our revolvers, so we had little to fear. There we waited doing odd jobs, and hoping that something would turn up. Well, after we had been there about a month something did turn up upon a certain night, something which was the making of both of us; and it’s about that night sir, that I’m going to tell you. I remember it well. The wind was howling past our cabin, and the rain threatened to burst in our rude window. We had a great wood-fire crackling and sputtering on the hearth, by which I was sitting mending a whip, while Tom was lying in his bunk groaning disconsolately at the chance which had led him to such a place.

“Cheer up, Tom—cheer up,” said I. “No man ever knows what may be awaiting him.”

“III-luck, ill-luck, Jack,” he answered. “I always was an unlucky dog. Here have I been three years in this abominable country; and I see lads fresh from England jingling the money in their pockets, while I am as poor as when I landed. Ah, Jack, if you want to keep your head above water, old friend, you must try your fortune away from me.”

“Nonsense, Tom; you’re down in your luck to-night. But hark! Here’s some one coming outside. Dick Wharton, by the tread; he’ll rouse you, if any man can.”

Even as I spoke the door was flung open, and honest Dick Wharton, with the water pouring from him, stepped in, his hearty red face looking through the haze like a harvest-moon. He shook himself, and after greeting us sat down by the fire to warm himself.

“Whereaway, Dick, on such a night as this?” said I. “You’ll find the rheumatism a worse foe than the Kaffirs, unless you keep more regular hours.”

Dick was looking unusually serious, almost frightened, one would say, if one did not know the man. “Had to go,” he replied—“had to go. One of Madison’s cattle has been straying down Sasassa Valley, and of course none of our blacks would go down that Valley at night; and if we lad waited till morning, the brute would have been in Kaffirland.”

“Why wouldn’t they go down Sasassa Valley at night?” asked Tom.

“Kaffirs, I suppose,” said I.

“Ghosts,” said Dick.

We both laughed.

“I suppose they didn’t give such a matter-of-fact fellow as you a sight of their charms?” said Tom from the bunk.

“Yes,” said Dick seriously—“yes; I saw what the niggers talk about; and I promise you, lads, I don’t want ever to see it again.”

Tom sat up in his bed. “Nonsense, Dick; you’re joking, man! Come, tell us all about it. The legend first, and your own experience afterwards.—Pass him over the bottle, Jack.”

“Well, as to the legend,” began Dick “—it seems that the niggers have had it handed down to them that Sasassa Valley is haunted by a frightful fiend. Hunters and wanderers passing down the defile have seen its glowing eyes under the shadows of the cliff; and the story goes that whoever has chanced to encounter that baleful glare, has had his after-life blighted by the malignant power of this creature. Whether that be true or not,” continued Dick ruefully, “I may have an opportunity of judging for myself.”

“Go on, Dick—go on,” cried Tom. “Let’s hear about what you saw.”

“Well, I was groping down the Valley, looking for that cow of Madison’s, and I had, I suppose, got half-way down, where a black craggy cliff juts into the ravine on the right, when I halted to have a pull at my flask. I had my eye fixed at the time upon the projecting cliff I have mentioned, and noticed nothing unusual about it. I then put up my flask and took a step or two forward, when in a moment there burst apparently from the base of the rock, about eight feet from the ground and a hundred yards from me, a strange lurid glare, flickering and oscillating, gradually dying away and then reappearing again.—No, no; I’ve seen many a glow-worm and firefly—nothing of that sort. There it was burning away, and I suppose I gazed at it, trembling in every limb, for fully ten minutes. Then I took a step forwards, when instantly it vanished, vanished like a candle blown out. I stepped back again; but it was some time before I could find the exact spot and position from which it was visible. At last, there it was, the weird reddish light, flickering away as before. Then I screwed up my courage, and made for the rock; but the ground was so uneven that it was impossible to steer straight; and though I walked along the whole base of the cliff, I could see nothing. Then I made tracks for home; and I can tell you, boys, that until you remarked it, I never knew it was raining, the whole way along.—But hollo! what’s the matter with Tom?”

What indeed? Tom was now sitting with his legs over the side of the bunk, and his whole face betraying excitement so intense as to be almost painful. “The fiend would have two eyes. How many lights did you see, Dick? Speak out!”

“Only one.”

“Hurrah!” cried Tom—“that’s better!” Whereupon he kicked the blankets into the middle of the room, and began pacing up and down with long feverish strides. Suddenly he stopped opposite Dick, and laid his hand upon his shoulder: “I say, Dick, could we get to Sasassa Valley before sunrise?”

“Scarcely,” said Dick.

“Well, look here; we are old friends, Dick Wharton, you and I. Now, don’t you tell any other man what you have told us, for a week. You’ll promise that; won’t you?”

I could see by the look on Dick’s face as he acquiesced that he considered poor Tom to be mad; and indeed I was myself completely mystified by his conduct. I had, however, seen so many proofs of my friend’s good sense and quickness of apprehension, that I thought it quite possible that Wharton’s story had had a meaning in his eyes which I was too obtuse to take in.

All night Tom Donahue was greatly excited, and when Wharton left he begged him to remember his promise, and also elicited from him a description of the exact spot at which he had seen the apparition, as well as the hour at which it appeared. After his departure, which must have been about four in the morning, I turned into my bunk and watched Tom sitting by the fire splicing two sticks together, until I fell asleep. I suppose I must have slept about two hours; but when I awoke, Tom was still sitting working away in almost the same position. He had fixed the one stick across the top of the other so as to form a rough T, and was now busy in fitting a smaller stick into the angle between them, by manipulating which, the cross one could be either cocked up or depressed to any extent. He had cut notches too in the perpendicular stick, so that by the aid of the small prop, the cross one could be kept in any position for an indefinite time.

“Look here, Jack!” he cried, whenever he saw that I was awake, “Come, and give me your opinion. Suppose I put this cross-stick pointing straight at a thing, and arranged this small one so as to keep it so, and left it, I could find that thing again if I wanted it—don’t you think I could, Jack—don’t you think so?” he continued nervously, clutching me by the arm.

“Well,” I answered, “it would depend on how far off the thing was, and how accurately it was pointed. If it were any distance, I’d cut sights on your cross-stick; then a string tied to the end of it, and held in a plumb-line forwards, would lead you pretty near what you wanted. But surely, Tom, you don’t intend to localise the ghost in that way?”

“You’ll see to-night, old friend—you’ll see tonight. I’ll carry this to the Sasassa Valley. You get the loan of Madison’s crowbar, and come with me; but mind you tell no man where you are going, or what you want it for.”

All day Tom was walking up and down the room, or working hard at the apparatus. His eyes were glistening, his cheek hectic, and he had all the symptoms of high fever. “Heaven grant that Dick’s diagnosis be not correct!” I thought, as I returned with the crowbar; and yet, as evening drew near, I found myself imperceptibly sharing the excitement.

About six o’clock Tom sprang to his feet and seized his sticks. “I can stand it no longer, Jack,” he cried; “up with your crowbar, and hey for Sasassa Valley! To-night’s work, my lad, will either make us or mar us! Take your six-shooter, in case we meet the Kaffirs. I daren’t take mine, Jack,” he continued, putting his hands upon my shoulders—“I daren’t take mine; for if my ill-luck sticks to me to-night, I don’t know what I might not do with it.”

Well, having filled our pockets with provisions, we set out, and as we took our wearisome way towards the Sasassa Valley, I frequently attempted to elicit from my companion some clue as to his intentions. But his only answer was: “Let us hurry on, Jack. Who knows how many have heard of Wharton’s adventure by this time! Let us hurry on, or we may not be first in the field!”

Well sir, we struggled on through the hills for a matter of ten miles; till at last, after descending a crag, we saw opening out in front of us a ravine so sombre and dark that it might have been the gate of Hades itself; cliffs many hundred feet high shut in on every side the gloomy boulder-studded passage which led through the haunted defile into Kaffirland. The moon rising above the crags, threw into strong relief the rough irregular pinnacles of rock by which they were topped, while all below was dark as Erebus.

“The Sasassa Valley?” said I.

“Yes,” said Tom.

I looked at him. He was calm now; the flush and feverishness had passed away; his actions were deliberate and slow. Yet there was a certain rigidity in his face and glitter in his eye which shewed that a crisis had come.

We entered the pass, stumbling along amid the great boulders. Suddenly I heard a short quick exclamation from Tom. “That’s the crag!” he cried, pointing to a great mass looming before us in the darkness. “Now Jack, for any favour use your eyes! We’re about a hundred yards from that cliff, I take it; so you move slowly towards one side, and I’ll do the same towards the other. When you see anything, stop, and call out. Don’t take more than twelve inches in a step, and keep your eye fixed on the cliff about eight feet from the ground. Are you ready?”

“Yes.” I was even more excited than Tom by this time. What his intention or object was, I could not conjecture, beyond that he wanted to examine by daylight the part of the cliff from which the light came. Yet the influence of the romantic situation and of my companion’s suppressed excitement was so great, that I could feel the blood coursing through my veins and count the pulses throbbing at my temples.

“Start!” cried Tom; and we moved off, he to the right, Ito the left, each with our eyes fixed intently on the base of the crag. I had moved perhaps twenty feet, when in a moment it burst upon me. Through the growing darkness there shone a small ruddy glowing point, the light from which waned and increased, flickered and oscillated, each change producing a more weird effect than the last. The old Kaffir superstition came into my mind, and I felt a cold shudder pass over me. In my excitement, I stepped a pace backwards, when instantly the light went out, leaving utter darkness in its place; but when I advanced again, there was the ruddy glare glowing from the base of the cliff. “Tom, Tom!” I cried.

“Ay, ay!” I heard him exclaim, as he hurried over towards me.

“There it is—there, up against the cliff!”

Tom was at my elbow. “I see nothing,” said he.

“Why, there, there, man, in front of you!” I stepped to the right as I spoke, when the light instantly vanished from my eyes.

But from Tom’s ejaculations of delight it was clear that from my former position it was visible to him also. “Jack,” he cried, as he turned and wrung my hand—“Jack, you and I can never complain of our luck again. Now heap up a few stones where we are standing.—That’s right. Now we must fix my sign-post firmly in at the top. There! It would take a strong wind to blow that down; and we only need it to hold out till morning. 0 Jack, my boy, to think that only yesterday we were talking of becoming clerks, and you saying that no man knew what was awaiting him too! By Jove, Jack, it would make a good story!”

By this time we had firmly fixed the perpendicular stick in between two large stones; and Tom bent down and peered along the horizontal one. For fully a quarter of an hour he was alternately raising and depressing it, until at last, with a sigh of satisfaction, he fixed the prop into the angle, and stood up. “Look along, Jack,” he said. “You have as straight an eye to take a sight as any man I know of.”

I looked along. There, beyond the further sight was the ruddy scintillating speck, apparently at the end of the stick itself, so accurately had it been adjusted. “And now, my boy,” said Tom, “let’s have some supper, and a sleep. There’s nothing more to be done to-night; but we’ll need all our wits and strength tomorrow. Get some sticks, and kindle a fire here, and then we’ll be able to keep an eye on our signal-post, and see that nothing happens to it during the night.”

Well sir, we kindled a fire, and had supper with the Sasassa demon’s eye rolling and glowing in front of us the whole night through. Not always in the same place though; for after supper, when I glanced along the sights to have another look at it, it was nowhere to be seen. The information did not, however, seem to disturb Tom in any way. He merely remarked: “It’s the moon, not the thing, that has shifted;” and coiling himself up, went to sleep.

By early dawn we were both up, and gazing along our pointer at the cliff; but we could make out nothing save one dead monotonous slaty surface, rougher perhaps at the part we were examining than elsewhere, but otherwise presenting nothing remarkable.

“Now for your idea, Jack!” said Tom Donahue, unwinding a long thin cord from round his waist. “You fasten it, and guide me while I take the other end.” So saying he walked off to the base of the cliff, holding one end of the cord, while I drew the other taut, and wound it round the middle of the horizontal stick, passing it through the sight at the end. By this means I could direct Tom to the right or left, until we had our string stretching from the point of attachment, through the sight, and on to the rock, which it struck about eight feet from the ground. Tom drew a chalk circle of about three feet diameter round the spot, and then called to me to come and join him. “We’ve managed this business together, Jack,” he said, “and we’ll find what we are to find, together.” The circle he had drawn embraced a part of the rock smoother than the rest, save that about the centre there were a few rough protuberances or knobs. One of these Tom pointed to with a cry of delight. It was a roughish brownish mass about the size of a man’s closed fist, and looking like a bit of dirty glass let into the wall of the cliff. “That’s it!” he cried—“that’s it!”

“That’s what?”

“Why, man, a diamond, and such a one as there isn’t a monarch in Europe but would envy Tom Donahue the possession of. Up with your crowbar, and we’ll soon exorcise the demon of Sasassa Valley!”

I was so astounded that for a moment I stood speechless with surprise, gazing at the treasure which had so unexpectedly fallen into our hands.

“Here, hand me the crowbar,” said Tom. “Now, by using this little round knob which projects from the cliff here, as a fulcrum, we may be able to lever it off.—Yes; there it goes. I never thought it could have come so easily. Now, Jack, the sooner we get back to our hut and then down to Cape Town, the better.”

We wrapped up our treasure, and made our way across the hills, towards home. On the way, Tom told me how, while a law-student in the Middle Temple, he had come upon a dusty pamphlet in the library, by one Jans van Hounym, which told of an experience very similar to ours, which had befallen that worthy Duchman in the latter part of the seventeenth century, and which resulted in the discovery of a luminous diamond. This tale it was which had come into Tom’s head as he listened to honest Dick Wharton’s ghost-story; while the means which he had adopted to verify his supposition sprang from his own fertile Irish brain.

“We’ll take it down to Cape Town,” continued Tom, “and if we can’t dispose of it with advantage there, it will be worth our while to ship for London with it. Let us go along to Madison’s first, though; he knows something of these things, and can perhaps give us some idea of what we may consider a fair price for our treasure.”

We turned off from the track accordingly, before reaching our hut, and kept along the narrow path leading to Madison’s farm. He was at lunch when we entered; and in a minute we were seated at each side of him, enjoying South African hospitality.

“Well,” he said, after the servants were gone, “what’s in the wind now? I see you have something to say to me. What is it?”

Tom produced his packet, and solemnly untied the handkerchiefs which enveloped it. “There!” he said, putting his crystal on the table; “what would you say was a fair price for that?”

Madison took it up and examined it critically. “Well,” he said, laying it down again, “in its crude state about twelve shillings per ton.”

“Twelve shillings!” cried Tom, starting to his feet. “Don’t you see what it is?”

“Rock-salt!”

“Rock fiddle; a diamond.”

“Taste it!” said Madison.

Torn put it to his lips, dashed it down with a dreadful exclamation, and rushed out of the room.

I felt sad and disappointed enough myself; but presently remembering what Tom had said about the pistol, I, too, left the house, and made for the hut, leaving Madison open-mouthed with astonishment. When I got in, I found Tom lying in his bunk with his face to the wall, too dispirited apparently to answer my consolations. Anathematising Dick and Madison, the Sasassa demon, and everything else, I strolled out of the hut, and refreshed myself with a pipe after our wearisome adventure. I was about fifty yards away from the hut, when I heard issuing from it the sound which of all others I least expected to hear. Had it been a groan or an oath, I should have taken it as a matter of course; but the sound which caused me to stop and take the pipe out of my mouth was a hearty roar of laughter! Next moment, Tom himself emerged from the door, his whole face radiant with delight. “Game for another ten-mile walk, old fellow?”

“What! for another lump of rock-salt, at twelve shillings a ton?”

“‘No more of that, Hal, an you love me,’” grinned Tom. “Now look here, Jack. What blessed fools we are to be so floored by a trifle! Just sit on this stump for five minutes, and I’ll make it as clear as daylight. You’ve seen many a lump of rock-salt stuck in a crag, and so have I, though we did make such a mull of this one. Now, Jack, did any of the pieces you have ever seen shine in the darkness brighter than any fire-fly?”

“Well, I can’t say they ever did.”

“I’d venture to prophesy that if we waited until night, which we won’t do, we would see that light still glimmering among the rocks. Therefore, Jack, when we took away this worthless salt, we took the wrong crystal. It is no very strange thing in these hills that a piece of rock-salt should be lying within a foot of a diamond. It caught our eyes, and we were excited, and so we made fools of ourselves, and left the real stone behind. Depend upon it, Jack, the Sasassa gem is lying within this magic circle of chalk upon the face of yonder cliff. Come, old fellow, light your pipe and stow your revolver, and we’ll be off before that fellow Madison has time to put two and two together.”

I don’t know that I was very sanguine this time. I had begun in fact to look upon the diamond as a most unmitigated nuisance. However, rather than throw a damper on Tom’s expectations, I announced myself eager to start. What a walk it was! Tom was always a good mountaineer, but his excitement seemed to lend him wings that day, while I scrambled along after him as best I could. When we got within half a mile he broke into the “double,” and never pulled up until he reached the round white circle upon the cliff. Poor old Tom! when I came up, his mood had changed, and he was standing with his hands in his pockets, gazing vacantly before him with a rueful countenance.

“Look!” he said—“look!” and he pointed at the cliff. Not a sign of anything in the least resembling a diamond there. The circle included nothing but flat slate-coloured stone, with one large hole, where we had extracted the rock-salt, and one or two smaller depressions. No sign of the gem. “I’ve been over every inch of it,” said poor Tom. “It’s not there. Some one has been here and noticed the chalk, and taken it. Come home, Jack; I feel sick and tired. Oh! had any man ever luck like mine!”

I turned to go, but took one last look at the cliff first. Tom was already ten paces off.

“Honor!” I cried, “don’t you see any change in that circle since yesterday?”

“What d’ye mean?” said Tom.

“Don’t you miss a thing that was there before?”

“The rock-salt?” said Tom.

“No; but the little round knob that we used for a fulcrum. I suppose we must have wrenched it off in using the lever. Let’s have a look at what it’s made of.”

Accordingly, at the foot of the cliff we searched about among the loose stones.

“Here you are, Jack! We’ve done it at last! We’re made men!”

I turned round, and there was Tom radiant with delight, and with a little corner of black rock in his hand. At first sight it seemed to be merely a chip from the cliff; but near the base there was projecting from it an object which Tom was now exultingly pointing out. It looked at first something like a glass eye; but there was a depth and brilliancy about it such as glass never exhibited. There was no mistake this time; we had certainly got possession of a jewel of great value; and with light hearts we turned from the valley, bearing away with us the “fiend” which had so long reigned there.

There sir; I’ve spun my story out too long, and tired you perhaps. You see when I get talking of those rough old days, I kind of see the little cabin again, and the brook beside it, and the bush around, and seem to hear Tom’s honest voice once more. There’s little for me to say now. We prospered on the gem. Tom Donahue, as you know, has set up here, and is well known about town. I have done well, farming and ostrich-raising in Africa. We set old Dick Wharton up in business, and he is one of our nearest neighbours. If you should ever be coming up our way sir, you’ll not forget to ask for Jack Turnbull—Jack Turnbull of Sasassa Farm.

This web edition published by:

eBooks@Adelaide
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University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005