A week had passed since the funeral of my poor boy Harry, and one evening I was in my room walking up and down and thinking, when there was a ring at the outer door. Going down the steps I opened it myself, and in came my old friends Sir Henry Curtis and Captain John Good, RN. They entered the vestibule and sat themselves down before the wide hearth, where, I remember, a particularly good fire of logs was burning.
‘It is very kind of you to come round,’ I said by way of making a remark; ‘it must have been heavy walking in the snow.’
They said nothing, but Sir Henry slowly filled his pipe and lit it with a burning ember. As he leant forward to do so the fire got hold of a gassy bit of pine and flared up brightly, throwing the whole scene into strong relief, and I thought, What a splendid-looking man he is! Calm, powerful face, clear-cut features, large grey eyes, yellow beard and hair — altogether a magnificent specimen of the higher type of humanity. Nor did his form belie his face. I have never seen wider shoulders or a deeper chest. Indeed, Sir Henry’s girth is so great that, though he is six feet two high, he does not strike one as a tall man. As I looked at him I could not help thinking what a curious contrast my little dried-up self presented to his grand face and form. Imagine to yourself a small, withered, yellow-faced man of sixty-three, with thin hands, large brown eyes, a head of grizzled hair cut short and standing up like a half-worn scrubbing-brush — total weight in my clothes, nine stone six — and you will get a very fair idea of Allan Quatermain, commonly called Hunter Quatermain, or by the natives ‘Macumazahn’ — Anglice, he who keeps a bright look-out at night, or, in vulgar English, a sharp fellow who is not to be taken in.
Then there was Good, who is not like either of us, being short, dark, stout — very stout — with twinkling black eyes, in one of which an eyeglass is everlastingly fixed. I say stout, but it is a mild term; I regret to state that of late years Good has been running to fat in a most disgraceful way. Sir Henry tells him that it comes from idleness and over-feeding, and Good does not like it at all, though he cannot deny it.
We sat for a while, and then I got a match and lit the lamp that stood ready on the table, for the half-light began to grow dreary, as it is apt to do when one has a short week ago buried the hope of one’s life. Next, I opened a cupboard in the wainscoting and got a bottle of whisky and some tumblers and water. I always like to do these things for myself: it is irritating to me to have somebody continually at my elbow, as though I were an eighteen-month-old baby. All this while Curtis and Good had been silent, feeling, I suppose, that they had nothing to say that could do me any good, and content to give me the comfort of their presence and unspoken sympathy; for it was only their second visit since the funeral. And it is, by the way, from the presence of others that we really derive support in our dark hours of grief, and not from their talk, which often only serves to irritate us. Before a bad storm the game always herd together, but they cease their calling.
They sat and smoked and drank whisky and water, and I stood by the fire also smoking and looking at them.
At last I spoke. ‘Old friends,’ I said, ‘how long is it since we got back from Kukuanaland?’
‘Three years,’ said Good. ‘Why do you ask?’
‘I ask because I think that I have had a long enough spell of civilization. I am going back to the veldt.’
Sir Henry laid his head back in his arm-chair and laughed one of his deep laughs. ‘How very odd,’ he said, ‘eh, Good?’
Good beamed at me mysteriously through his eyeglass and murmured, ‘Yes, odd — very odd.’
‘I don’t quite understand,’ said I, looking from one to the other, for I dislike mysteries.
‘Don’t you, old fellow?’ said Sir Henry; ‘then I will explain. As Good and I were walking up here we had a talk.’
‘If Good was there you probably did,’ I put in sarcastically, for Good is a great hand at talking. ‘And what may it have been about?’
‘What do you think?’ asked Sir Henry.
I shook my head. It was not likely that I should know what Good might be talking about. He talks about so many things.
‘Well, it was about a little plan that I have formed — namely, that if you were willing we should pack up our traps and go off to Africa on another expedition.’
I fairly jumped at his words. ‘You don’t say so!’ I said.
‘Yes I do, though, and so does Good; don’t you, Good?’
‘Rather,’ said that gentleman.
‘Listen, old fellow,’ went on Sir Henry, with considerable animation of manner. ‘I’m tired of it too, dead-tired of doing nothing more except play the squire in a country that is sick of squires. For a year or more I have been getting as restless as an old elephant who scents danger. I am always dreaming of Kukuanaland and Gagool and King Solomon’s Mines. I can assure you I have become the victim of an almost unaccountable craving. I am sick of shooting pheasants and partridges, and want to have a go at some large game again. There, you know the feeling — when one has once tasted brandy and water, milk becomes insipid to the palate. That year we spent together up in Kukuanaland seems to me worth all the other years of my life put together. I dare say that I am a fool for my pains, but I can’t help it; I long to go, and, what is more, I mean to go.’ He paused, and then went on again. ‘And, after all, why should I not go? I have no wife or parent, no chick or child to keep me. If anything happens to me the baronetcy will go to my brother George and his boy, as it would ultimately do in any case. I am of no importance to any one.’
‘Ah!’ I said, ‘I thought you would come to that sooner or later. And now, Good, what is your reason for wanting to trek; have you got one?’
‘I have,’ said Good, solemnly. ‘I never do anything without a reason; and it isn’t a lady — at least, if it is, it’s several.’
I looked at him again. Good is so overpoweringly frivolous. ‘What is it?’ I said.
‘Well, if you really want to know, though I’d rather not speak of a delicate and strictly personal matter, I’ll tell you: I’m getting too fat.’
‘Shut up, Good!’ said Sir Henry. ‘And now, Quatermain, tell us, where do you propose going to?’
I lit my pipe, which had gone out, before answering.
‘Have you people ever heard of Mt Kenia?’ I asked.
‘Don’t know the place,’ said Good.
‘Did you ever hear of the Island of Lamu?’ I asked again.
‘No. Stop, though — isn’t it a place about 300 miles north of Zanzibar?’
‘Yes. Now listen. What I have to propose is this. That we go to Lamu and thence make our way about 250 miles inland to Mt Kenia; from Mt Kenia on inland to Mt Lekakisera, another 200 miles, or thereabouts, beyond which no white man has to the best of my belief ever been; and then, if we get so far, right on into the unknown interior. What do you say to that, my hearties?’
‘It’s a big order,’ said Sir Henry, reflectively.
‘You are right,’ I answered, ‘it is; but I take it that we are all three of us in search of a big order. We want a change of scene, and we are likely to get one — a thorough change. All my life I have longed to visit those parts, and I mean to do it before I die. My poor boy’s death has broken the last link between me and civilization, and I’m off to my native wilds. And now I’ll tell you another thing, and that is, that for years and years I have heard rumours of a great white race which is supposed to have its home somewhere up in this direction, and I have a mind to see if there is any truth in them. If you fellows like to come, well and good; if not, I’ll go alone.’
‘I’m your man, though I don’t believe in your white race,’ said Sir Henry Curtis, rising and placing his arm upon my shoulder.
‘Ditto,’ remarked Good. ‘I’ll go into training at once. By all means let’s go to Mt Kenia and the other place with an unpronounceable name, and look for a white race that does not exist. It’s all one to me.’
‘When do you propose to start?’ asked Sir Henry.
‘This day month,’ I answered, ‘by the British India steamboat; and don’t you be so certain that things have no existence because you do not happen to have heard of them. Remember King Solomon’s mines!’
Some fourteen weeks or so had passed since the date of this conversation, and this history goes on its way in very different surroundings.
After much deliberation and inquiry we came to the conclusion that our best starting-point for Mt Kenia would be from the neighbourhood of the mouth of the Tana River, and not from Mombassa, a place over 100 miles nearer Zanzibar. This conclusion we arrived at from information given to us by a German trader whom we met upon the steamer at Aden. I think that he was the dirtiest German I ever knew; but he was a good fellow, and gave us a great deal of valuable information. ‘Lamu,’ said he, ‘you goes to Lamu — oh ze beautiful place!’ and he turned up his fat face and beamed with mild rapture. ‘One year and a half I live there and never change my shirt — never at all.’
And so it came to pass that on arriving at the island we disembarked with all our goods and chattels, and, not knowing where to go, marched boldly up to the house of Her Majesty’s Consul, where we were most hospitably received.
Lamu is a very curious place, but the things which stand out most clearly in my memory in connection with it are its exceeding dirtiness and its smells. These last are simply awful. Just below the Consulate is the beach, or rather a mud bank that is called a beach. It is left quite bare at low tide, and serves as a repository for all the filth, offal, and refuse of the town. Here it is, too, that the women come to bury coconuts in the mud, leaving them there till the outer husk is quite rotten, when they dig them up again and use the fibres to make mats with, and for various other purposes. As this process has been going on for generations, the condition of the shore can be better imagined than described. I have smelt many evil odours in the course of my life, but the concentrated essence of stench which arose from that beach at Lamu as we sat in the moonlit night — not under, but on our friend the Consul’s hospitable roof — and sniffed it, makes the remembrance of them very poor and faint. No wonder people get fever at Lamu. And yet the place was not without a certain quaintness and charm of its own, though possibly — indeed probably — it was one which would quickly pall.
‘Well, where are you gentlemen steering for?’ asked our friend the hospitable Consul, as we smoked our pipes after dinner.
‘We propose to go to Mt Kenia and then on to Mt Lekakisera,’ answered Sir Henry. ‘Quatermain has got hold of some yarn about there being a white race up in the unknown territories beyond.’
The Consul looked interested, and answered that he had heard something of that, too.
‘What have you heard?’ I asked.
‘Oh, not much. All I know about it is that a year or so ago I got a letter from Mackenzie, the Scotch missionary, whose station, “The Highlands”, is placed at the highest navigable point of the Tana River, in which he said something about it.’
‘Have you the letter?’ I asked.
‘No, I destroyed it; but I remember that he said that a man had arrived at his station who declared that two months’ journey beyond Mt Lekakisera, which no white man has yet visited — at least, so far as I know — he found a lake called Laga, and that then he went off to the north-east, a month’s journey, over desert and thorn veldt and great mountains, till he came to a country where the people are white and live in stone houses. Here he was hospitably entertained for a while, till at last the priests of the country set it about that he was a devil, and the people drove him away, and he journeyed for eight months and reached Mackenzie’s place, as I heard, dying. That’s all I know; and if you ask me, I believe that it is a lie; but if you want to find out more about it, you had better go up the Tana to Mackenzie’s place and ask him for information.’
Sir Henry and I looked at each other. Here was something tangible.
‘I think that we will go to Mr Mackenzie’s,’ I said.
‘Well,’ answered the Consul, ‘that is your best way, but I warn you that you are likely to have a rough journey, for I hear that the Masai are about, and, as you know, they are not pleasant customers. Your best plan will be to choose a few picked men for personal servants and hunters, and to hire bearers from village to village. It will give you an infinity of trouble, but perhaps on the whole it will prove a cheaper and more advantageous course than engaging a caravan, and you will be less liable to desertion.’
Fortunately there were at Lamu at this time a party of Wakwafi Askari (soldiers). The Wakwafi, who are a cross between the Masai and the Wataveta, are a fine manly race, possessing many of the good qualities of the Zulu, and a great capacity for civilization. They are also great hunters. As it happened, these particular men had recently been on a long trip with an Englishman named Jutson, who had started from Mombasa, a port about 150 miles below Lamu, and journeyed right round Kilimanjaro, one of the highest known mountains in Africa. Poor fellow, he had died of fever when on his return journey, and within a day’s march of Mombasa. It does seem hard that he should have gone off thus when within a few hours of safety, and after having survived so many perils, but so it was. His hunters buried him, and then came on to Lamu in a dhow. Our friend the Consul suggested to us that we had better try and hire these men, and accordingly on the following morning we started to interview the party, accompanied by an interpreter.
In due course we found them in a mud hut on the outskirts of the town. Three of the men were sitting outside the hut, and fine frank-looking fellows they were, having a more or less civilized appearance. To them we cautiously opened the object of our visit, at first with very scant success. They declared that they could not entertain any such idea, that they were worn and weary with long travelling, and that their hearts were sore at the loss of their master. They meant to go back to their homes and rest awhile. This did not sound very promising, so by way of effecting a diversion I asked where the remainder of them were. I was told there were six, and I saw but three. One of the men said they slept in the hut, and were yet resting after their labours — ‘sleep weighed down their eyelids, and sorrow made their hearts as lead: it was best to sleep, for with sleep came forgetfulness. But the men should be awakened.’
Presently they came out of the hut, yawning — the first two men being evidently of the same race and style as those already before us; but the appearance of the third and last nearly made me jump out of my skin. He was a very tall, broad man, quite six foot three, I should say, but gaunt, with lean, wiry-looking limbs. My first glance at him told me that he was no Wakwafi: he was a pure bred Zulu. He came out with his thin aristocratic-looking hand placed before his face to hide a yawn, so I could only see that he was a ‘Keshla’ or ringed man 1, and that he had a great three-cornered hole in his forehead. In another second he removed his hand, revealing a powerful-looking Zulu face, with a humorous mouth, a short woolly beard, tinged with grey, and a pair of brown eyes keen as a hawk’s. I knew my man at once, although I had not seen him for twelve years. ‘How do you do, Umslopogaas?’ I said quietly in Zulu.
The tall man (who among his own people was commonly known as the ‘Woodpecker’, and also as the ‘Slaughterer’) started, and almost let the long-handled battleaxe he held in his hand fall in his astonishment. Next second he had recognized me, and was saluting me in an outburst of sonorous language which made his companions the Wakwafi stare.
‘Koos’ (chief), he began, ‘Koos-y-Pagete! Koos-y-umcool! (Chief from of old — mighty chief) Koos! Baba! (father) Macumazahn, old hunter, slayer of elephants, eater up of lions, clever one! watchful one! brave one! quick one! whose shot never misses, who strikes straight home, who grasps a hand and holds it to the death (i.e. is a true friend) Koos! Baba! Wise is the voice of our people that says, “Mountain never meets with mountain, but at daybreak or at even man shall meet again with man.” Behold! a messenger came up from Natal, “Macumazahn is dead!” cried he. “The land knows Macumazahn no more.” That is years ago. And now, behold, now in this strange place of stinks I find Macumazahn, my friend. There is no room for doubt. The brush of the old jackal has gone a little grey; but is not his eye as keen, and are not his teeth as sharp? Ha! ha! Macumazahn, mindest thou how thou didst plant the ball in the eye of the charging buffalo — mindest thou —’
I had let him run on thus because I saw that his enthusiasm was producing a marked effect upon the minds of the five Wakwafi, who appeared to understand something of his talk; but now I thought it time to put a stop to it, for there is nothing that I hate so much as this Zulu system of extravagant praising — ‘bongering’ as they call it. ‘Silence!’ I said. ‘Has all thy noisy talk been stopped up since last I saw thee that it breaks out thus, and sweeps us away? What doest thou here with these men — thou whom I left a chief in Zululand? How is it that thou art far from thine own place, and gathered together with strangers?’
Umslopogaas leant himself upon the head of his long battleaxe (which was nothing else but a pole-axe, with a beautiful handle of rhinoceros horn), and his grim face grew sad.
‘My Father,’ he answered, ‘I have a word to tell thee, but I cannot speak it before these low people (umfagozana),’ and he glanced at the Wakwafi Askari; ‘it is for thine own ear. My Father, this will I say,’ and here his face grew stern again, ‘a woman betrayed me to the death, and covered my name with shame — ay, my own wife, a round-faced girl, betrayed me; but I escaped from death; ay, I broke from the very hands of those who came to slay me. I struck but three blows with this mine axe Inkosikaas — surely my Father will remember it — one to the right, one to the left, and one in front, and yet I left three men dead. And then I fled, and, as my Father knows, even now that I am old my feet are as the feet of the Sassaby 2, and there breathes not the man who, by running, can touch me again when once I have bounded from his side. On I sped, and after me came the messengers of death, and their voice was as the voice of dogs that hunt. From my own kraal I flew, and, as I passed, she who had betrayed me was drawing water from the spring. I fleeted by her like the shadow of Death, and as I went I smote with mine axe, and lo! her head fell: it fell into the water pan. Then I fled north. Day after day I journeyed on; for three moons I journeyed, resting not, stopping not, but running on towards forgetfulness, till I met the party of the white hunter who is now dead, and am come hither with his servants. And nought have I brought with me. I who was high-born, ay, of the blood of Chaka, the great king — a chief, and a captain of the regiment of the Nkomabakosi — am a wanderer in strange places, a man without a kraal. Nought have I brought save this mine axe; of all my belongings this remains alone. They have divided my cattle; they have taken my wives; and my children know my face no more. Yet with this axe’ — and he swung the formidable weapon round his head, making the air hiss as he clove it — ‘will I cut another path to fortune. I have spoken.’
I shook my head at him. ‘Umslopogaas,’ I said, ‘I know thee from of old. Ever ambitious, ever plotting to be great, I fear me that thou hast overreached thyself at last. Years ago, when thou wouldst have plotted against Cetywayo, son of Panda, I warned thee, and thou didst listen. But now, when I was not by thee to stay thy hand, thou hast dug a pit for thine own feet to fall in. Is it not so? But what is done is done. Who can make the dead tree green, or gaze again upon last year’s light? Who can recall the spoken word, or bring back the spirit of the fallen? That which Time swallows comes not up again. Let it be forgotten!
‘And now, behold, Umslopogaas, I know thee for a great warrior and a brave man, faithful to the death. Even in Zululand, where all the men are brave, they called thee the “Slaughterer”, and at night told stories round the fire of thy strength and deeds. Hear me now. Thou seest this great man, my friend’ — and I pointed to Sir Henry; ‘he also is a warrior as great as thou, and, strong as thou art, he could throw thee over his shoulder. Incubu is his name. And thou seest this one also; him with the round stomach, the shining eye, and the pleasant face. Bougwan (glass eye) is his name, and a good man is he and a true, being of a curious tribe who pass their life upon the water, and live in floating kraals.
‘Now, we three whom thou seest would travel inland, past Dongo Egere, the great white mountain (Mt Kenia), and far into the unknown beyond. We know not what we shall find there; we go to hunt and seek adventures, and new places, being tired of sitting still, with the same old things around us. Wilt thou come with us? To thee shall be given command of all our servants; but what shall befall thee, that I know not. Once before we three journeyed thus, in search of adventure, and we took with us a man such as thou — one Umbopa; and, behold, we left him the king of a great country, with twenty Impis (regiments), each of 3,000 plumed warriors, waiting on his word. How it shall go with thee, I know not; mayhap death awaits thee and us. Wilt thou throw thyself to Fortune and come, or fearest thou, Umslopogaas?’
The great man smiled. ‘Thou art not altogether right, Macumazahn,’ he said; ‘I have plotted in my time, but it was not ambition that led me to my fall; but, shame on me that I should have to say it, a fair woman’s face. Let it pass. So we are going to see something like the old times again, Macumazahn, when we fought and hunted in Zululand? Ay, I will come. Come life, come death, what care I, so that the blows fall fast and the blood runs red? I grow old, I grow old, and I have not fought enough! And yet am I a warrior among warriors; see my scars’ — and he pointed to countless cicatrices, stabs and cuts, that marked the skin of his chest and legs and arms. ‘See the hole in my head; the brains gushed out therefrom, yet did I slay him who smote, and live. Knowest thou how many men I have slain, in fair hand-to-hand combat, Macumazahn? See, here is the tale of them’ — and he pointed to long rows of notches cut in the rhinoceros-horn handle of his axe. ‘Number them, Macumazahn — one hundred and three — and I have never counted but those whom I have ripped open 3, nor have I reckoned those whom another man had struck.’
‘Be silent,’ I said, for I saw that he was getting the blood-fever on him; ‘be silent; well art thou called the “Slaughterer”. We would not hear of thy deeds of blood. Remember, if thou comest with us, we fight not save in self-defence. Listen, we need servants. These men,’ and I pointed to the Wakwafi, who had retired a little way during our ‘indaba’ (talk), ‘say they will not come.’
‘Will not come!’ shouted Umslopogaas; ‘where is the dog who says he will not come when my Father orders? Here, thou’ — and with a single bound he sprang upon the Wakwafi with whom I had first spoken, and, seizing him by the arm, dragged him towards us. ‘Thou dog!’ he said, giving the terrified man a shake, ‘didst thou say that thou wouldst not go with my Father? Say it once more and I will choke thee’ — and his long fingers closed round his throat as he said it — ‘thee, and those with thee. Hast thou forgotten how I served thy brother?’
‘Nay, we will come with the white man,’ gasped the man.
‘White man!’ went on Umslopogaas, in simulated fury, which a very little provocation would have made real enough; ‘of whom speakest thou, insolent dog?’
‘Nay, we will go with the great chief.’
‘So!’ said Umslopogaas, in a quiet voice, as he suddenly released his hold, so that the man fell backward. ‘I thought you would.’
‘That man Umslopogaas seems to have a curious moral ascendency over his companions,’ Good afterwards remarked thoughtfully.
1 Among the Zulus a man assumes the ring, which is made of a species of black gum twisted in with the hair, and polished a brilliant black, when he has reached a certain dignity and age, or is the husband of a sufficient number of wives. Till he is in a position to wear a ring he is looked on as a boy, though he may be thirty-five years of age, or even more. — A. Q.
2 One of the fleetest of the African antelopes. — A. Q.
3 Alluding to the Zulu custom of opening the stomach of a dead foe. They have a superstition that, if this is not done, as the body of their enemy swells up so will the bodies of those who killed him swell up. — A. Q.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55