Alan Quatermain, by H. Rider Haggard

Chapter 17

The Storm Breaks

And now it was that the trouble which at first had been but a cloud as large as a man’s hand began to loom very black and big upon our horizon, namely, Sorais’ preference for Sir Henry. I saw the storm drawing nearer and nearer; and so, poor fellow, did he. The affection of so lovely and highly-placed a woman was not a thing that could in a general way be considered a calamity by any man, but, situated as Curtis was, it was a grievous burden to bear.

To begin with, Nyleptha, though altogether charming, was, it must be admitted, of a rather jealous disposition, and was sometimes apt to visit on her lover’s head her indignation at the marks of what Alphonse would have called the ‘distinguished consideration’ with which her royal sister favoured him. Then the enforced secrecy of his relation to Nyleptha prevented Curtis from taking some opportunity of putting a stop, or trying to put a stop, to this false condition of affairs, by telling Sorais, in a casual but confidential way, that he was going to marry her sister. A third sting in Sir Henry’s honey was that he knew that Good was honestly and sincerely attached to the ominous-looking but most attractive Lady of the Night. Indeed, poor Bougwan was wasting himself to a shadow of his fat and jolly self about her, his face getting so thin that his eyeglass would scarcely stick in it; while she, with a sort of careless coquetry, just gave him encouragement enough to keep him going, thinking, no doubt, that he might be useful as a stalking-horse. I tried to give him a hint, in as delicate a way as I could, but he flew into a huff and would not listen to me, so I was determined to let ill along, for fear of making it worse. Poor Good, he really was very ludicrous in his distress, and went in for all sorts of absurdities, under the belief that he was advancing his suit. One of them was the writing — with the assistance of one of the grave and revered signiors who instructed us, and who, whatever may have been the measure of his erudition, did not understand how to scan a line — of a most interminable Zu–Vendi love-song, of which the continually recurring refrain was something about ‘I will kiss thee; oh yes, I will kiss thee!’ Now among the Zu–Vendi it is a common and most harmless thing for young men to serenade ladies at night, as I believe they do in the southern countries of Europe, and sing all sorts of nonsensical songs to them. The young men may or may not be serious; but no offence is meant and none is taken, even by ladies of the highest rank, who accept the whole thing as an English girl would a gracefully-turned compliment.

Availing himself of this custom, Good bethought him that would serenade Sorais, whose private apartments, together with those of her maidens, were exactly opposite our own, on the further side of a narrow courtyard which divided one section of the great palace from another. Accordingly, having armed himself with a native zither, on which, being an adept with the light guitar, he had easily learned to strum, he proceeded at midnight — the fashionable hour for this sort of caterwauling — to make night hideous with his amorous yells. I was fast asleep when they began, but they soon woke me up — for Good possesses a tremendous voice and has no notion of time — and I ran to my window-place to see what was the matter. And there, standing in the full moonlight in the courtyard, I perceived Good, adorned with an enormous ostrich feather head-dress and a flowing silken cloak, which it is the right thing to wear upon these occasions, and shouting out the abominable song which he and the old gentleman had evolved, to a jerky, jingling accompaniment. From the direction of the quarters of the maids of honour came a succession of faint sniggerings; but the apartments of Sorais herself — whom I devoutly pitied if she happened to be there — were silent as the grave. There was absolutely no end to that awful song, with its eternal ‘I will kiss thee!’ and at last neither I nor Sir Henry, whom I had summoned to enjoy the sight, could stand it any longer; so, remembering the dear old story, I put my head to the window opening, and shouted, ‘For Heaven’s sake, Good, don’t go on talking about it, but kiss her and let’s all go to sleep!’ That choked him off, and we had no more serenading.

The whole thing formed a laughable incident in a tragic business. How deeply thankful we ought to be that even the most serious matters have generally a silver lining about them in the shape of a joke, if only people could see it. The sense of humour is a very valuable possession in life, and ought to be cultivated in the Board schools — especially in Scotland.

Well, the more Sir Henry held off the more Sorais came on, as is not uncommon in such cases, till at last things got very queer indeed. Evidently she was, by some strange perversity of mind, quite blinded to the true state of the case; and I, for one, greatly dreaded the moment of her awakening. Sorais was a dangerous woman to be mixed up with, either with or without one’s consent. At last the evil moment came, as I saw it must come. One fine day, Good having gone out hawking, Sir Henry and I were sitting quietly talking over the situation, especially with reference to Sorais, when a Court messenger arrived with a written note, which we with some difficulty deciphered, and which was to the effect that ‘the Queen Sorais commanded the attendance of the Lord Incubu in her private apartments, whither he would be conducted by the bearer’.

‘Oh my word!’ groaned Sir Henry. ‘Can’t you go instead, old fellow?’

‘Not if I know it,’ I said with vigour. ‘I had rather face a wounded elephant with a shot-gun. Take care of your own business, my boy. If you will be so fascinating you must take the consequences. I would not be in your place for an empire.’

‘You remind me of when I was going to be flogged at school and the other boys came to console me,’ he said gloomily. ‘What right has this Queen to command my attendance, I should like to know? I won’t go.’

‘But you must; you are one of her officers and bound to obey her, and she knows it. And after all it will soon be over.’

‘That’s just what they used to say,’ he said again. ‘I only hope she won’t put a knife into me. I believe that she is quite capable of it.’ And off he started very faintheartedly, and no wonder.

I sat and waited, and at the end of about forty-five minutes he returned, looking a good deal worse than when he went.

‘Give me something to drink,’ he said hoarsely.

I got him a cup of wine, and asked what was the matter.

‘What is the matter? Why if ever there was trouble there’s trouble now. You know when I left you? Well, I was shown straight into Sorais’ private chamber, and a wonderful place it is; and there she sat, quite alone, upon a silken couch at the end of the room, playing gently upon that zither of hers. I stood before her, and for a while she took no notice of me, but kept on playing and singing a little, and very sweet music it was. At last she looked up and smiled.

‘“So thou art come,” she said. “I thought perchance thou hadst gone about the Queen Nyleptha’s business. Thou art ever on her business, and I doubt not a good servant and a true.”

‘To this I merely bowed, and said I was there to receive the Queen’s word.

‘“Ah yes, I would talk with thee, but be thou seated. It wearies me to look so high,” and she made room for me beside her on the couch, placing herself with her back against the end, so as to have a view of my face.

‘“It is not meet,” I said, “that I should make myself equal with the Queen.”

‘“I said be seated,” was her answer, so I sat down, and she began to look at me with those dark eyes of hers. There she sat like an incarnate spirit of beauty, hardly talking at all, and when she did, very low, but all the while looking at me. There was a white flower in her black hair, and I tried to keep my eyes on it and count the petals, but it was of no use. At last, whether it was her gaze, or the perfume in her hair, or what I do not know, but I almost felt as though I was being mesmerized. At last she roused herself.

‘“Incubu,” she said, “lovest thou power?”

‘I replied that I supposed all men loved power of one sort or another.

‘“Thou shalt have it,” she said. “Lovest thou wealth?”

‘I said I liked wealth for what it brought.

‘“Thou shalt have it,” she said. “And lovest thou beauty?”

‘To this I replied that I was very fond of statuary and architecture, or something silly of that sort, at which she frowned, and there was a pause. By this time my nerves were on such a stretch that I was shaking like a leaf. I knew that something awful was going to happen, but she held me under a kind of spell, and I could not help myself.

‘“Incubu,” she said at length, “wouldst thou be a king? Listen, wouldst thou be a king? Behold, stranger, I am minded to make thee king of all Zu–Vendis, ay and husband of Sorais of the Night. Nay, peace and hear me. To no man among my people had I thus opened out my secret heart, but thou art an outlander and therefore I speak without shame, knowing all I have to offer and how hard it had been thee to ask. See, a crown lies at thy feet, my lord Incubu, and with that fortune a woman whom some have wished to woo. Now mayst thou answer, oh my chosen, and soft shall thy words fall upon mine ears.”

‘“Oh Sorais,” I said, “I pray thee speak not thus” — you see I had not time to pick and choose my words — “for this thing cannot be. I am betrothed to thy sister Nyleptha, oh Sorais, and I love her and her alone.”

‘Next moment it struck me that I had said an awful thing, and I looked up to see the results. When I spoke, Sorais’ face was hidden in her hands, and as my words reached her she slowly raised it, and I shrank back dismayed. It was ashy white, and her eyes were flaming. She rose to her feet and seemed to be choking, but the awful thing was that she was so quiet about it all. Once she looked at a side table, on which lay a dagger, and from it to me, as though she thought of killing me; but she did not take it up. At last she spoke one word, and one only —

‘“Go!

‘And I went, and glad enough I was to get out of it, and here I am. Give me another cup of wine, there’s a good fellow, and tell me, what is to be done?’

I shook my head, for the affair was indeed serious. As one of the poets says,

‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’,

more especially if the woman is a queen and a Sorais, and indeed I feared the very worst, including imminent danger to ourselves.

‘Nyleptha had better be told of this at once,’ I said, ‘and perhaps I had better tell her; she might receive your account with suspicion.’

‘Who is captain of her guard tonight?’ I went on.

‘Good.’

‘Very well then, there will be no chance of her being got at. Don’t look surprised. I don’t think that her sister would stick at that. I suppose one must tell Good of what has happened.’

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ said Sir Henry. ‘It would hurt his feelings, poor fellow! You see, he takes a lively personal interest in Sorais.’

‘That’s true; and after all, perhaps there is no need to tell him. He will find out the truth soon enough. Now, you mark my words, Sorais will throw in her lot with Nasta, who is sulking up in the North there, and there will be such a war as has not been known in Zu–Vendis for centuries. Look there!’ and I pointed to two Court messengers, who were speeding away from the door of Sorais’ private apartments. ‘Now follow me,’ and I ran up a stairway into an outlook tower that rose from the roof of our quarters, taking the spyglass with me, and looked out over the palace wall. The first thing we saw was one of the messengers speeding towards the Temple, bearing, without any doubt, the Queen’s word to the High Priest Agon, but for the other I searched in vain. Presently, however, I spied a horseman riding furiously through the northern gate of the city, and in him I recognized the other messenger.

‘Ah!’ I said, ‘Sorais is a woman of spirit. She is acting at once, and will strike quick and hard. You have insulted her, my boy, and the blood will flow in rivers before the stain is washed away, and yours with it, if she can get hold of you. Well, I’m off to Nyleptha. Just you stop where you are, old fellow, and try to get your nerves straight again. You’ll need them all, I can tell you, unless I have observed human nature in the rough for fifty years for nothing.’ And off I went accordingly.

I gained audience of the Queen without trouble. She was expecting Curtis, and was not best pleased to see my mahogany-coloured face instead.

‘Is there aught wrong with my Lord, Macumazahn, that he waits not upon me? Say, is he sick?’

I said that he was well enough, and then, without further ado, I plunged into my story and told it from beginning to end. Oh, what a rage she flew into! It was a sight to see her, she looked so lovely.

‘How darest thou come to me with such a tale?’ she cried. ‘It is a lie to say that my Lord was making love to Sorais, my sister.’

‘Pardon me, oh Queen,’ I answered, ‘I said that Sorais was making love to thy lord.’

‘Spin me no spiders’ webs of words. Is not the thing the same thing? The one giveth, the other taketh; but the gift passes, and what matters it which is the most guilty? Sorais! oh, I hate her — Sorais is a queen and my sister. She had not stooped so low had he not shown the way. Oh, truly hath the poet said that man is like a snake, whom to touch is poison, and whom none can hold.’

‘The remark, oh Queen, is excellent, but methinks thou hast misread the poet. Nyleptha,’ I went on, ‘thou knowest well that thy words are empty foolishness, and that this is no time for folly.’

‘How darest thou?’ she broke in, stamping her foot. ‘Hast my false lord sent thee to me to insult me also? Who art thou, stranger, that thou shouldst speak to me, the Queen, after this sort? How darest thou?’

‘Yea, I dare. Listen. The moments which thou dost waste in idle anger may well cost thee thy crown and all of us our lives. Already Sorais’ horsemen go forth and call to arms. In three days’ time Nasta will rouse himself in his fastnesses like a lion in the evening, and his growling will be heard throughout the North. The “Lady of the Night” (Sorais) hath a sweet voice, and she will not sing in vain. Her banner will be borne from range to range and valley to valley, and warriors will spring up in its track like dust beneath a whirlwind; half the army will echo her war-cry; and in every town and hamlet of this wide land the priests will call out against the foreigner and will preach her cause as holy. I have spoken, oh Queen!’

Nyleptha was quite calm now; her jealous anger had passed; and putting off the character of a lovely headstrong lady, with a rapidity and completeness that distinguished her, she put on that of a queen and a woman of business. The transformation was sudden but entire.

‘Thy words are very wise, Macumazahn. Forgive me my folly. Ah, what a Queen I should be if only I had no heart! To be heartless — that is to conquer all. Passion is like the lightning, it is beautiful, and it links the earth to heaven, but alas it blinds!

‘And thou thinkest that my sister Sorais would levy war upon me. So be it. She shall not prevail against me. I, too, have my friends and my retainers. There are many, I say, who will shout “Nyleptha!” when my pennon runs up on peak and pinnacle, and the light of my beacon fires leaps tonight from crag to crag, bearing the message of my war. I will break her strength and scatter her armies. Eternal night shall be the portion of Sorais of the Night. Give me that parchment and the ink. So. Now summon the officer in the ante-room. He is a trusty man.’

I did as I was bid! and the man, a veteran and quiet-looking gentleman of the guard, named Kara, entered, bowing low.

‘Take this parchment,’ said Nyleptha; ‘it is thy warrant; and guard every place of in and outgoing in the apartments of my sister Sorais, the “Lady of the Night”, and a Queen of the Zu–Vendi. Let none come in and none go out, or thy life shall pay the cost.’

The man looked startled, but he merely said, ‘The Queen’s word be done,’ and departed. Then Nyleptha sent a messenger to Sir Henry, and presently he arrived looking uncommonly uncomfortable. I thought that another outburst was about to follow, but wonderful are the ways of woman; she said not a word about Sorais and his supposed inconstancy, greeting him with a friendly nod, and stating simply that she required his advice upon high matters. All the same there was a look in her eye, and a sort of suppressed energy in her manner towards him, that makes me think that she had not forgotten the affair, but was keeping it for a private occasion.

Just after Curtis arrived the officer returned, and reported that Sorais was gone. The bird had flown to the Temple, stating that she was going, as was sometimes the custom among Zu–Vendi ladies of rank, to spend the night in meditation before the altar. We looked at each other significantly. The blow had fallen very soon.

Then we set to work.

Generals who could be trusted were summoned from their quarters, and as much of the State affairs as was thought desirable was told to each, strict injunctions being given to them to get all their available force together. The same was done with such of the more powerful lords as Nyleptha knew she could rely on, several of whom left that very day for distant parts of the country to gather up their tribesmen and retainers. Sealed orders were dispatched to the rulers of far-off cities, and some twenty messengers were sent off before nightfall with instructions to ride early and late till they reached the distant chiefs to whom their letters were addressed: also many spies were set to work. All the afternoon and evening we laboured, assisted by some confidential scribes, Nyleptha showing an energy and resource of mind that astonished me, and it was eight o’clock before we got back to our quarters. Here we heard from Alphonse, who was deeply aggrieved because our non-return had spoilt his dinner (for he had turned cook again now), that Good had come back from his hawking and gone on duty. As instructions had already been given to the officer of the outer guard to double the sentries at the gate, and as we had no reason to fear any immediate danger, we did not think it worth while to hunt him up and tell him anything of what had passed, which at best was, under the peculiar circumstances of the case, one of those tasks that one prefers to postpone, so after swallowing our food we turned in to get some much-needed rest. Before we did so, however, it occurred to Curtis to tell old Umslopogaas to keep a look-out in the neighbourhood of Nyleptha’s private apartments. Umslopogaas was now well known about the place, and by the Queen’s order allowed to pass whither he would by the guards, a permission of which he often availed himself by roaming about the palace during the still hours in a nocturnal fashion that he favoured, and which is by no means uncommon amongst black men generally. His presence in the corridors would not, therefore, be likely to excite remark. Without any comment the Zulu took up his axe and departed, and we also departed to bed.

I seemed to have been asleep but a few minutes when I was awakened by a peculiar sensation of uneasiness. I felt that somebody was in the room and looking at me, and instantly sat up, to see to my surprise that it was already dawn, and that there, standing at the foot of my couch and looking peculiarly grim and gaunt in the grey light, was Umslopogaas himself.

‘How long hast thou been there?’ I asked testily, for it is not pleasant to be aroused in such a fashion.

‘Mayhap the half of an hour, Macumazahn. I have a word for thee.’

‘Speak on,’ I said, now wide enough awake.

‘As I was bid I went last night to the place of the White Queen and hid myself behind a pillar in the second anteroom, beyond which is the sleeping-place of the Queen. Bougwan (Good) was in the first anteroom alone, and outside the curtain of that room was a sentry, but I had a mind to see if I could pass in unseen, and I did, gliding behind them both. There I waited for many hours, when suddenly I perceived a dark figure coming secretly towards me. It was the figure of a woman, and in her hand she held a dagger. Behind that figure crept another unseen by the woman. It was Bougwan following in her tracks. His shoes were off, and for so fat a man he followed very well. The woman passed me, and the starlight shone upon her face.’

‘Who was it?’ I asked impatiently.

‘The face was the face of the “Lady of the Night”, and of a truth she is well named.

‘I waited, and Bougwan passed me also. Then I followed. So we went slowly and without a sound up the long chamber. First the woman, then Bougwan, and then I; and the woman saw not Bougwan, and Bougwan saw not me. At last the “Lady of the Night” came to the curtains that shut off the sleeping place of the White Queen, and put out her left hand to part them. She passed through, and so did Bougwan, and so did I. At the far end of the room is the bed of the Queen, and on it she lay very fast asleep. I could hear her breathe, and see one white arm lying on the coverlid like a streak of snow on the dry grass. The “Lady of the Night” doubled herself thus, and with the long knife lifted crept towards the bed. So straight did she gaze thereat that she never thought to look behind her. When she was quite close Bougwan touched her on the arm, and she caught her breath and turned, and I saw the knife flash, and heard it strike. Well was it for Bougwan that he had the skin of iron on him, or he had been pierced. Then for the first time he saw who the woman was, and without a word he fell back astonished, and unable to speak. She, too, was astonished, and spoke not, but suddenly she laid her finger on her lip, thus, and walked towards and through the curtain, and with her went Bougwan. So close did she pass to me that her dress touched me, and I was nigh to slaying her as she went. In the first outer room she spoke to Bougwan in a whisper and, clasping her hands thus, she pleaded with him, but what she said I know not. And so they passed on to the second outer room, she pleading and he shaking his head, and saying, “Nay, nay, nay”. And it seemed to me that he was about to call the guard, when she stopped talking and looked at him with great eyes, and I saw that he was bewitched by her beauty. Then she stretched out her hand and he kissed it, whereon I gathered myself together to advance and take her, seeing that now had Bougwan become a woman, and no longer knew the good from the evil, when behold! she was gone.’

‘Gone!’ I ejaculated.

‘Ay, gone, and there stood Bougwan staring at the wall like one asleep, and presently he went too, and I waited a while and came away also.’

‘Art thou sure, Umslopogaas,’ said I, ‘that thou hast not been a dreamer this night?’

In reply he opened his left hand, and produced about three inches of a blade of a dagger of the finest steel. ‘If I be, Macumazahn, behold what the dream left with me. The knife broke upon Bougwan’s bosom and as I passed I picked this up in the sleeping-place of the White Queen.’

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38