Alan Quatermain, by H. Rider Haggard

Chapter 5

Umslopogaas Makes A Promise

Next morning at breakfast I missed Flossie and asked where she was.

‘Well,’ said her mother, ‘when I got up this morning I found a note put outside my door in which — But here it is, you can read it for yourself,’ and she gave me the slip of paper on which the following was written:—

‘Dearest M — — It is just dawn, and I am off to the hills to get Mr Q— a bloom of the lily he wants, so don’t expect me till you see me. I have taken the white donkey; and nurse and a couple of boys are coming with me — also something to eat, as I may be away all day, for I am determined to get the lily if I have to go twenty miles for it. — Flossie.’

‘I hope she will be all right,’ I said, a little anxiously; ‘I never meant her to trouble after the flower.’

‘Ah, Flossie can look after herself,’ said her mother; ‘she often goes off in this way like a true child of the wilderness.’ But Mr Mackenzie, who came in just then and saw the note for the first time, looked rather grave, though he said nothing.

After breakfast was over I took him aside and asked him whether it would not be possible to send after the girl and get her back, having in view the possibility of there still being some Masai hanging about, at whose hands she might come to harm.

‘I fear it would be of no use,’ he answered. ‘She may be fifteen miles off by now, and it is impossible to say what path she has taken. There are the hills;’ and he pointed to a long range of rising ground stretching almost parallel with the course followed by the river Tana, but gradually sloping down to a dense bush-clad plain about five miles short of the house.

Here I suggested that we might get up the great tree over the house and search the country round with a spyglass; and this, after Mr Mackenzie had given some orders to his people to try and follow Flossie’s spoor, we did.

The ascent of the mighty tree was rather an alarming performance, even with a sound rope-ladder fixed at both ends to climb up, at least to a landsman; but Good came up like a lamplighter.

On reaching the height at which the first fern-shaped boughs sprang from the bole, we stepped without any difficulty upon a platform made of boards, nailed from one bough to another, and large enough to accommodate a dozen people. As for the view, it was simply glorious. In every direction the bush rolled away in great billows for miles and miles, as far as the glass would show, only here and there broken by the brighter green of patches of cultivation, or by the glittering surface of lakes. To the northwest, Kenia reared his mighty head, and we could trace the Tana river curling like a silver snake almost from his feet, and far away beyond us towards the ocean. It is a glorious country, and only wants the hand of civilized man to make it a most productive one.

But look as we would, we could see no signs of Flossie and her donkey, so at last we had to come down disappointed. On reaching the veranda I found Umslopogaas sitting there, slowly and lightly sharpening his axe with a small whetstone he always carried with him.

‘What doest thou, Umslopogaas?’ I asked.

‘I smell blood,’ was the answer; and I could get no more out of him.

After dinner we again went up the tree and searched the surrounding country with a spyglass, but without result. When we came down Umslopogaas was still sharpening Inkosi-kaas, although she already had an edge like a razor. Standing in front of him, and regarding him with a mixture of fear and fascination, was Alphonse. And certainly he did seem an alarming object — sitting there, Zulu fashion, on his haunches, a wild look upon his intensely savage and yet intellectual face, sharpening, sharpening, sharpening at the murderous-looking axe.

‘Oh, the monster, the horrible man!’ said the little French cook, lifting his hands in amazement. ‘See but the hole in his head; the skin beats on it up and down like a baby’s! Who would nurse such a baby?’ and he burst out laughing at the idea.

For a moment Umslopogaas looked up from his sharpening, and a sort of evil light played in his dark eyes.

‘What does the little “buffalo-heifer” [so named by Umslopogaas, on account of his mustachios and feminine characteristics] say? Let him be careful, or I will cut his horns. Beware, little man monkey, beware!’

Unfortunately Alphonse, who was getting over his fear of him, went on laughing at ‘ce drole d’un monsieur noir’. I was about to warn him to desist, when suddenly the huge Zulu bounded off the veranda on to the open space where Alphonse was standing, his features alive with a sort of malicious enthusiasm, and began swinging the axe round and round over the Frenchman’s head.

‘Stand still,’ I shouted; ‘do not move as you value your life — he will not hurt you;’ but I doubt if Alphonse heard me, being, fortunately for himself, almost petrified with horror.

Then followed the most extraordinary display of sword, or rather of axemanship, that I ever saw. First of all the axe went flying round and round over the top of Alphonse’s head, with an angry whirl and such extraordinary swiftness that it looked like a continuous band of steel, ever getting nearer and yet nearer to that unhappy individual’s skull, till at last it grazed it as it flew. Then suddenly the motion was changed, and it seemed to literally flow up and down his body and limbs, never more than an eighth of an inch from them, and yet never striking them. It was a wonderful sight to see the little man fixed there, having apparently realized that to move would be to run the risk of sudden death, while his black tormentor towered over him, and wrapped him round with the quick flashes of the axe. For a minute or more this went on, till suddenly I saw the moving brightness travel down the side of Alphonse’s face, and then outwards and stop. As it did so a tuft of something black fell to the ground; it was the tip of one of the little Frenchman’s curling mustachios.

Umslopogaas leant upon the handle of Inkosi-kaas, and broke into a long, low laugh; and Alphonse, overcome with fear, sank into a sitting posture on the ground, while we stood astonished at this exhibition of almost superhuman skill and mastery of a weapon. ‘Inkosi-kaas is sharp enough,’ he shouted; ‘the blow that clipped the “buffalo-heifer’s” horn would have split a man from the crown to the chin. Few could have struck it but I; none could have struck it and not taken off the shoulder too. Look, thou little heifer! Am I a good man to laugh at, thinkest thou? For a space hast thou stood within a hair’s-breadth of death. Laugh not again, lest the hair’s-breadth be wanting. I have spoken.’

‘What meanest thou by such mad tricks?’ I asked of Umslopogaas, indignantly. ‘Surely thou art mad. Twenty times didst thou go near to slaying the man.’

‘And yet, Macumazahn, I slew not. Thrice as Inkosi-kaas flew the spirit entered into me to end him, and send her crashing through his skull; but I did not. Nay, it was but a jest; but tell the “heifer” that it is not well to mock at such as I. Now I go to make a shield, for I smell blood, Macumazahn — of a truth I smell blood. Before the battle hast thou not seen the vulture grow of a sudden in the sky? They smell the blood, Macumazahn, and my scent is more keen than theirs. There is a dry ox-hide down yonder; I go to make a shield.’

‘That is an uncomfortable retainer of yours,’ said Mr Mackenzie, who had witnessed this extraordinary scene. ‘He has frightened Alphonse out of his wits; look!’ and he pointed to the Frenchman, who, with a scared white face and trembling limbs, was making his way into the house. ‘I don’t think that he will ever laugh at “le monsieur noir” again.’

‘Yes,’ answered I, ‘it is ill jesting with such as he. When he is roused he is like a fiend, and yet he has a kind heart in his own fierce way. I remember years ago seeing him nurse a sick child for a week. He is a strange character, but true as steel, and a strong stick to rest on in danger.’

‘He says he smells blood,’ said Mr Mackenzie. ‘I only trust he is not right. I am getting very fearful about my little girl. She must have gone far, or she would be home by now. It is half-past three o’clock.’

I pointed out that she had taken food with her, and very likely would not in the ordinary course of events return till nightfall; but I myself felt very anxious, and fear that my anxiety betrayed itself.

Shortly after this, the people whom Mr Mackenzie had sent out to search for Flossie returned, stating that they had followed the spoor of the donkey for a couple of miles and had then lost it on some stony ground, nor could they discover it again. They had, however, scoured the country far and wide, but without success.

After this the afternoon wore drearily on, and towards evening, there still being no signs of Flossie, our anxiety grew very keen. As for the poor mother, she was quite prostrated by her fears, and no wonder, but the father kept his head wonderfully well. Everything that could be done was done: people were sent out in all directions, shots were fired, and a continuous outlook kept from the great tree, but without avail.

And then it grew dark, and still no sign of fair-haired little Flossie.

At eight o’clock we had supper. It was but a sorrowful meal, and Mrs Mackenzie did not appear at it. We three also were very silent, for in addition to our natural anxiety as to the fate of the child, we were weighed down by the sense that we had brought this trouble on the head of our kind host. When supper was nearly at an end I made an excuse to leave the table. I wanted to get outside and think the situation over. I went on to the veranda and, having lit my pipe, sat down on a seat about a dozen feet from the right-hand end of the structure, which was, as the reader may remember, exactly opposite one of the narrow doors of the protecting wall that enclosed the house and flower garden. I had been sitting there perhaps six or seven minutes when I thought I heard the door move. I looked in that direction and I listened, but, being unable to make out anything, concluded that I must have been mistaken. It was a darkish night, the moon not having yet risen.

Another minute passed, when suddenly something round fell with a soft but heavy thud upon the stone flooring of the veranda, and came bounding and rolling along past me. For a moment I did not rise, but sat wondering what it could be. Finally, I concluded it must have been an animal. Just then, however, another idea struck me, and I got up quick enough. The thing lay quite still a few feet beyond me. I put down my hand towards it and it did not move: clearly it was not an animal. My hand touched it. It was soft and warm and heavy. Hurriedly I lifted it and held it up against the faint starlight.

It was a newly severed human head!

I am an old hand and not easily upset, but I own that that ghastly sight made me feel sick. How had the thing come there? Whose was it? I put it down and ran to the little doorway. I could see nothing, hear nobody. I was about to go out into the darkness beyond, but remembering that to do so was to expose myself to the risk of being stabbed, I drew back, shut the door, and bolted it. Then I returned to the veranda, and in as careless a voice as I could command called Curtis. I fear, however, that my tones must have betrayed me, for not only Sir Henry but also Good and Mackenzie rose from the table and came hurrying out.

‘What is it?’ said the clergyman, anxiously.

Then I had to tell them.

Mr Mackenzie turned pale as death under his red skin. We were standing opposite the hall door, and there was a light in it so that I could see. He snatched the head up by the hair and held it against the light.

‘It is the head of one of the men who accompanied Flossie,’ he said with a gasp. ‘Thank God it is not hers!’

We all stood and stared at each other aghast. What was to be done?

Just then there was a knocking at the door that I had bolted, and a voice cried, ‘Open, my father, open!’

The door was unlocked, and in sped a terrified man. He was one of the spies who had been sent out.

‘My father,’ he cried, ‘the Masai are on us! A great body of them have passed round the hill and are moving towards the old stone kraal down by the little stream. My father, make strong thy heart! In the midst of them I saw the white ass, and on it sat the Water-lily [Flossie]. An Elmoran [young warrior] led the ass, and by its side walked the nurse weeping. The men who went with her in the morning I saw not.’

‘Was the child alive?’ asked Mr Mackenzie, hoarsely.

‘She was white as the snow, but well, my father. They passed quite close to me, and looking up from where I lay hid I saw her face against the sky.’

‘God help her and us!’ groaned the clergyman.

‘How many are there of them?’ I asked.

‘More than two hundred — two hundred and half a hundred.’

Once more we looked one on the other. What was to be done? Just then there rose a loud insistent cry outside the wall.

‘Open the door, white man; open the door! A herald — a herald to speak with thee.’ Thus cried the voice.

Umslopogaas ran to the wall, and, reaching with his long arms to the coping, lifted his head above it and gazed over.

‘I see but one man,’ he said. ‘He is armed, and carries a basket in his hand.’

‘Open the door,’ I said. ‘Umslopogaas, take thine axe and stand thereby. Let one man pass. If another follows, slay.’

The door was unbarred. In the shadow of the wall stood Umslopogaas, his axe raised above his head to strike. Just then the moon came out. There was a moment’s pause, and then in stalked a Masai Elmoran, clad in the full war panoply that I have already described, but bearing a large basket in his hand. The moonlight shone bright upon his great spear as he walked. He was physically a splendid man, apparently about thirty-five years of age. Indeed, none of the Masai that I saw were under six feet high, though mostly quite young. When he got opposite to us he halted, put down the basket, and stuck the spike of his spear into the ground, so that it stood upright.

‘Let us talk,’ he said. ‘The first messenger we sent to you could not talk;’ and he pointed to the head which lay upon the paving of the stoep — a ghastly sight in the moonlight; ‘but I have words to speak if ye have ears to hear. Also I bring presents;’ and he pointed to the basket and laughed with an air of swaggering insolence that is perfectly indescribable, and yet which one could not but admire, seeing that he was surrounded by enemies.

‘Say on,’ said Mr Mackenzie.

‘I am the “Lygonani” [war captain] of a party of the Masai of the Guasa Amboni. I and my men followed these three white men,’ and he pointed to Sir Henry, Good, and myself, ‘but they were too clever for us, and escaped hither. We have a quarrel with them, and are going to kill them.’

‘Are you, my friend?’ said I to myself.

‘In following these men we this morning caught two black men, one black woman, a white donkey, and a white girl. One of the black men we killed — there is his head upon the pavement; the other ran away. The black woman, the little white girl, and the white ass we took and brought with us. In proof thereof have I brought this basket that she carried. Is it not thy daughter’s basket?’

Mr Mackenzie nodded, and the warrior went on.

‘Good! With thee and thy daughter we have no quarrel, nor do we wish to harm thee, save as to thy cattle, which we have already gathered, two hundred and forty head — a beast for every man’s father.’ 6

Here Mr Mackenzie gave a groan, as he greatly valued this herd of cattle, which he bred with much care and trouble.

‘So, save for the cattle, thou mayst go free; more especially,’ he added frankly, glancing at the wall, ‘as this place would be a difficult one to take. But as to these men it is otherwise; we have followed them for nights and days, and must kill them. Were we to return to our kraal without having done so, all the girls would make a mock of us. So, however troublesome it may be, they must die.

‘Now I have a proposition for thee. We would not harm the little girl; she is too fair to harm, and has besides a brave spirit. Give us one of these three men — a life for a life — and we will let her go, and throw in the black woman with her also. This is a fair offer, white man. We ask but for one, not for the three; we must take another opportunity to kill the other two. I do not even pick my man, though I should prefer the big one,’ pointing to Sir Henry; ‘he looks strong, and would die more slowly.’

‘And if I say I will not yield the man?’ said Mr Mackenzie.

‘Nay, say not so, white man,’ answered the Masai, ‘for then thy daughter dies at dawn, and the woman with her says thou hast no other child. Were she older I would take her for a servant; but as she is so young I will slay her with my own hand — ay, with this very spear. Thou canst come and see, an’ thou wilt. I give thee a safe conduct;’ and the fiend laughed aloud as his brutal jest.

Meanwhile I had been thinking rapidly, as one does in emergencies, and had come to the conclusion that I would exchange myself against Flossie. I scarcely like to mention the matter for fear it should be misunderstood. Pray do not let any one be misled into thinking that there was anything heroic about this, or any such nonsense. It was merely a matter of common sense and common justice. My life was an old and worthless one, hers was young and valuable. Her death would pretty well kill her father and mother also, whilst nobody would be much the worse for mine; indeed, several charitable institutions would have cause to rejoice thereat. It was indirectly through me that the dear little girl was in her present position. Lastly, a man was better fitted to meet death in such a peculiarly awful form than a sweet young girl. Not, however, that I meant to let these gentry torture me to death — I am far too much of a coward to allow that, being naturally a timid man; my plan was to see the girl safely exchanged and then to shoot myself, trusting that the Almighty would take the peculiar circumstances of the case into consideration and pardon the act. All this and more went through my mind in very few seconds.

‘All right, Mackenzie,’ I said, ‘you can tell the man that I will exchange myself against Flossie, only I stipulate that she shall be safely in this house before they kill me.’

‘Eh?’ said Sir Henry and Good simultaneously. ‘That you don’t.’

‘No, no,’ said Mr Mackenzie. ‘I will have no man’s blood upon my hands. If it please God that my daughter should die this awful death, His will be done. You are a brave man (which I am not by any means) and a noble man, Quatermain, but you shall not go.’

‘If nothing else turns up I shall go,’ I said decidedly.

‘This is an important matter,’ said Mackenzie, addressing the Lygonani, ‘and we must think it over. You shall have our answer at dawn.’

‘Very well, white man,’ answered the savage indifferently; ‘only remember if thy answer is late thy little white bud will never grow into a flower, that is all, for I shall cut it with this,’ and he touched the spear. ‘I should have thought that thou wouldst play a trick and attack us at night, but I know from the woman with the girl that your men are down at the coast, and that thou hast but twenty men here. It is not wise, white man,’ he added with a laugh, ‘to keep so small a garrison for your “boma” [kraal]. Well, good night, and good night to you also, other white men, whose eyelids I shall soon close once and for all. At dawn thou wilt bring me word. If not, remember it shall be as I have said.’ Then turning to Umslopogaas, who had all the while been standing behind him and shepherding him as it were, ‘Open the door for me, fellow, quick now.’

This was too much for the old chief’s patience. For the last ten minutes his lips had been, figuratively speaking, positively watering over the Masai Lygonani, and this he could not stand. Placing his long hand on the Elmoran’s shoulder he gripped it and gave him such a twist as brought him face to face with himself. Then, thrusting his fierce countenance to within a few inches of the Masai’s evil feather-framed features, he said in a low growling voice:—

‘Seest thou me?’

‘Ay, fellow, I see thee.’

‘And seest thou this?’ and he held Inkosi-kaas before his eyes.

‘Ay, fellow, I see the toy; what of it?’

‘Thou Masai dog, thou boasting windbag, thou capturer of little girls, with this “toy” will I hew thee limb from limb. Well for thee that thou art a herald, or even now would I strew thy members about the grass.’

The Masai shook his great spear and laughed loud and long as he answered, ‘I would that thou stoodst against me man to man, and we would see,’ and again he turned to go still laughing.

‘Thou shalt stand against me man to man, be not afraid,’ replied Umslopogaas, still in the same ominous voice. ‘Thou shalt stand face to face with Umslopogaas, of the blood of Chaka, of the people of the Amazulu, a captain in the regiment of the Nkomabakosi, as many have done before, and bow thyself to Inkosi-kaas, as many have done before. Ay, laugh on, laugh on! tomorrow night shall the jackals laugh as they crunch thy ribs.’

When the Lygonani had gone, one of us thought of opening the basket he had brought as a proof that Flossie was really their prisoner. On lifting the lid it was found to contain a most lovely specimen of both bulb and flower of the Goya lily, which I have already described, in full bloom and quite uninjured, and what was more a note in Flossie’s childish hand written in pencil upon a greasy piece of paper that had been used to wrap up some food in:—

‘Dearest Father and Mother,’ ran the note, ‘The Masai caught us when we were coming home with the lily. I tried to escape but could not. They killed Tom: the other man ran away. They have not hurt nurse and me, but say that they mean to exchange us against one of Mr Quatermain’s party. I will have nothing of the sort. Do not let anybody give his life for me. Try and attack them at night; they are going to feast on three bullocks they have stolen and killed. I have my pistol, and if no help comes by dawn I will shoot myself. They shall not kill me. If so, remember me always, dearest father and mother. I am very frightened, but I trust in God. I dare not write any more as they are beginning to notice. Goodbye. — Flossie.’

Scrawled across the outside of this was ‘Love to Mr Quatermain. They are going to take the basket, so he will get the lily.’

When I read those words, written by that brave little girl in an hour of danger sufficiently near and horrible to have turned the brain of a strong man, I own I wept, and once more in my heart I vowed that she should not die while my life could be given to save her.

Then eagerly, quickly, almost fiercely, we fell to discussing the situation. Again I said that I would go, and again Mackenzie negatived it, and Curtis and Good, like the true men that they are, vowed that, if I did, they would go with me, and die back to back with me.

‘It is,’ I said at last, ‘absolutely necessary that an effort of some sort should be made before the morning.’

‘Then let us attack them with what force we can muster, and take our chance,’ said Sir Henry.

‘Ay, ay,’ growled Umslopogaas, in Zulu; ‘spoken like a man, Incubu. What is there to be afraid of? Two hundred and fifty Masai, forsooth! How many are we? The chief there [Mr Mackenzie] has twenty men, and thou, Macumazahn, hast five men, and there are also five white men — that is, thirty men in all — enough, enough. Listen now, Macumazahn, thou who art very clever and old in war. What says the maid? These men eat and make merry; let it be their funeral feast. What said the dog whom I hope to hew down at daybreak? That he feared no attack because we were so few. Knowest thou the old kraal where the men have camped? I saw it this morning; it is thus:’ and he drew an oval on the floor; ‘here is the big entrance, filled up with thorn bushes, and opening on to a steep rise. Why, Incubu, thou and I with axes will hold it against an hundred men striving to break out! Look, now; thus shall the battle go. Just as the light begins to glint upon the oxen’s horns — not before, or it will be too dark, and not later, or they will be awakening and perceive us — let Bougwan creep round with ten men to the top end of the kraal, where the narrow entrance is. Let them silently slay the sentry there so that he makes no sound, and stand ready. Then, Incubu, let thee and me and one of the Askari — the one with the broad chest — he is a brave man — creep to the wide entrance that is filled with thorn bushes, and there also slay the sentry, and armed with battleaxes take our stand also one on each side of the pathway, and one a few paces beyond to deal with such as pass the twain at the gate. It is there that the rush will come. That will leave sixteen men. Let these men be divided into two parties, with one of which shalt thou go, Macumazahn, and with one the “praying man” [Mr Mackenzie], and, all armed with rifles, let them make their way one to the right side of the kraal and one to the left; and when thou, Macumazahn, lowest like an ox, all shall open fire with the guns upon the sleeping men, being very careful not to hit the little maid. Then shall Bougwan at the far end and his ten men raise the war-cry, and, springing over the wall, put the Masai there to the sword. And it shall happen that, being yet heavy with food and sleep, and bewildered by the firing of the guns, the falling of men, and the spears of Bougwan, the soldiers shall rise and rush like wild game towards the thorn-stopped entrance, and there the bullets from either side shall plough through them, and there shall Incubu and the Askari and I wait for those who break across. Such is my plan, Macumazahn; if thou hast a better, name it.’

When he had done, I explained to the others such portions of his scheme as they had failed to understand, and they all joined with me in expressing the greatest admiration of the acute and skilful programme devised by the old Zulu, who was indeed, in his own savage fashion, the finest general I ever knew. After some discussion we determined to accept the scheme, as it stood, it being the only one possible under the circumstances, and giving the best chance of success that such a forlorn hope would admit of — which, however, considering the enormous odds and the character of our foe, was not very great.

‘Ah, old lion!’ I said to Umslopogaas, ‘thou knowest how to lie in wait as well as how to bite, where to seize as well as where to hang on.’

‘Ay, ay, Macumazahn,’ he answered. ‘For thirty years have I been a warrior, and have seen many things. It will be a good fight. I smell blood — I tell thee, I smell blood.’

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/haggard/h_rider/allan/chapter5.html

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