The Days of My Life, by H. Rider Haggard

Chapter 7


Death of Prince Imperial — Justin Sheil, early friend of H. R. H. — Thinks of becoming Trappist monk — H. R. H. tries to dissuade him — Sheil takes simple vows — H. R. H. visits him — Takes final vows as Brother Basil — Death of Father Basil, who had become Sub–Prior — H. R. H. returns home to Bradenham — Engaged to be married — Married August 11, 1880 — Jack Osborn, son of Sir Melmoth — H. R. H. becomes his guardian — Goes to school in England — Returns to South Africa and dies — Sir Melmoth Osborn’s gratitude to H. R. H. and his father — He becomes British Resident in Zululand — Origin of character of Alston in “The Witch’s Head” — Letters from Judge Kotze.

One of the last things that happened before I left South Africa was the slaying of the Prince Imperial by a Zulu outpost. Well can I remember the thrill of horror, and, I may add, of shame, that this news sent through all the land. Yet it has always seemed to me that the most of the blame should have fallen, not upon the unfortunate officer and his companions who were with the Prince, but on whoever allowed him to go out upon picket duty of so peculiarly dangerous a nature. The incident itself is easily explained. Nothing is more terrible than a sudden rush of savages on a little party that does not suspect their presence, especially when the attacking force may perhaps be numbered by hundreds. The Englishmen concerned lost their heads, that was all. It was a case of sauve qui peut. Doubtless until it was too late they thought the Prince was with them. Well, he died as anyone might be proud to die, and, as it seems probable, by his death changed the history of Europe, or at any rate the destiny of France, for doubtless, had he lived, his chance of succeeding to the imperial throne was excellent. Again, one wonders whether such things happen by hazard, or if it were the hand of Fate that threw those assegais.

After an absence of four eventful years I arrived in England when I was a little over twenty-three, an age at which many young fellows nowadays seem to be, and indeed often are, but boys. In one thing I was fortunate: I found all belonging to me alive and for the most part well. With my two greatest friends of the Scoones’ period of my life, however, Arthur L. and Justin Sheil, it was otherwise. The former was dead; he was a good fellow, and I hope that some day and somewhere we may meet again. Meanwhile God rest him!

My recollection is that Arthur L.‘s illness began in a form of religious mania. If so, my other great friend, Justin Sheil, also passed into the shadow, or the glory, of religion. Before proceeding further with my story, here I will tell his, although the end of it may cause me to anticipate. This I do not only because he was, or rather is, dear to me, although he has long been dead — for I may truly say that the change of death has in no instance altered my affections, unless it be in the manner of increasing them — but for two added reasons.

Of these the first is that his case is the most perfect instance of what I may call the monastic mind that I have encountered. The second is that I presume that the iron rules of the Trappist monks, save in questions strictly connected with the advantage of their Order, allow of the preservation of no human memorials of those who have passed on. In their graveyard at Mount St. Bernard’s Abbey I saw certain low mounds and, at the head of these, little nameless wooden crosses, all that remained of the brethren who had been called away. Therefore I, a sinner, would make my humble offering to the Manes of a good man and say a few words that I trust may help to preserve his memory among those who come after us.

As it chances, certain letters that Sheil, or Brother Basil, as he came to be called in religion, wrote to me have survived, although I dare say that others are lost. The first of these evidently was written in answer to one of mine sent to him after my return to England in 1879. It is dated Mount St. Bernard’s Abbey, Leicester, October 21st.

After congratulating me on my safe return to England, it says:

I suppose that you have not seen Walsh or the unfortunate Norris since you came, or they would probably have told you of my strange experiment here; I am thinking of becoming a monk of the Cistercian Order commonly called Trappists. If you have not heard it before I suppose you, who knew me better than most people, will be most surprised. When I first came here I intended writing to you, but I had quite forgotten your address, and when I got it from my brother in New Zealand I thought I might as well wait till I had made up my mind whether to stop here or not. I may say that I am still uncertain as to that; the life is hardish, and I am softish, but I am afraid of dropping back into my old ways if I leave, so I am hovering . . . .

The next letter, dated October 26th, is evidently written in answer to one from myself, of the contents of which I have no recollection. It is clear, however, from the context, that I attempted to dissuade Sheil from the career which he had chosen in language that must have seemed to him almost impertinent. In fact to a strict Roman Catholic doubtless it was impertinent. In youth most of us are intolerant, and I was no exception to the rule. As we get on in life all such things vanish. Personally today I am not prepared to quarrel with any religion worthy of the name, unless it be that of Mahomet in certain of its aspects. I have learned that they all spring from the same light, though the world being, as it were, cut crystal, that light flows from its facets in different-coloured rays. Here is the letter:

When I got, yesterday, your mysterious-looking letter labelled “Private” and with an awful black seal, I wondered what dark secrets it was going to unfold. When I had read it I think that I should have been inclined to laugh if I had not been sorry that you should be the victim of such dull and stale delusions with regard to monks and the motives that induce a man to become one. You have used hard words, and you will let me add that I think it unworthy of a man of your mental quality to live year after year confronted by the Catholic Church (pulchritudo tam antiqua et tam nova) and be content to derive all your knowledge of it from some vulgar Protestant pamphlet, and all your ideas of its institutions and ways from what I suppose you were told in the nursery. You go to the originals to discover what Hegel or Comte really teach, and you are eager enough to find out all about Darwinism, etc., but as for Catholics, you not only don’t inquire from them what they really teach but you assume to lecture them. Having relieved my mind so far, I can assure you your letter was far from giving me offence; on the contrary; I know very well you are not singular in your views, and that many who call themselves my friends think the same, but you are the only one who has taken sufficient interest in the matter to tell me so, and therefore I thank you. I don’t intend to defend the monastic state. It has existed since the beginning of the fourth century, has been continually attacked, and yet it has flourished; all Catholics look and have looked on it as a higher and more perfect state, and therefore I will assume it; it has been often and eloquently defended, and moreover it could not be done in a letter. However, the fact that it is good in itself is not at all a conclusive reason why I should embrace it; and if you had tried to dissuade me from it on the score that I had made myself unfit and unworthy for it I should have had very little to answer. I did not come here in consequence of any trouble of the kind you allude to, nor any other, nor in a fit of disgust. When I said I was afraid if I left of dropping into my old ways, I meant the idle, aimless, useless life I led when you knew me and some time after: my only object was pleasure and happiness, and I was unscrupulous in trying to get them. However, about six months previous to coming here I had made a great change and lived more or less as a Catholic should: I had got out of Chancery and paid my debts and begun reading for the Bar in a Conveyancer’s rooms, and it was under these circumstances that I came here, and it is what I shall resume if I leave. I prefer London and Paris to Africa how fair soever be its skies, and the Park to the Sahara. You see my prospects in the world are not so darkened as you think; nevertheless they do not wear a very fascinating smile to my eyes. For, take everything at its best and assume that I should succeed in everything: after many years’ drudging I should be a successful barrister, and perhaps end by becoming a judge if I was very lucky. What good should I have done my fellow-men by that? Don’t you know that when a man in practice dies, a hundred rejoice, thinking that they will get some of his work, for one who is sorry? Do you feel grateful to a lawyer worn out with briefs, as if he were a public benefactor in consenting to work in the world instead of retiring to some rural or suburban retreat? Judging by the ordinary run of man, in fifty years I should be a crabbed bachelor, or still worse a tormented and disappointed married man — not much better than your “soured monk.” Besides, I believe in the immortality of the soul, and in fact it was the great “hereafter” which weighed on my mind and prevented my being content with prospects which sound well enough to most people. And if I made myself my own and only centre in this life, why should I at the hour of death suddenly change and love my Creator; and if I did not what chance should I have of enjoying Him? You will say that it is possible to love God in the world; and so it is: the thing I am trying to decide is where it will be easiest for me to do so. It may be more heroic to remain and fight your battles bravely, but permit me, where the consequences of defeat are so hideous, who really am in such matters nothing but a coward, who have been so often overcome, at least to think of flight.

I repeat I have decided nothing; the Church insists upon people being tried for two years at least before taking simple vows (i.e. that can be dissolved by the superiors if they find you unfit), and five years before taking solemn vows, which can only be dissolved by the Pope. Compare this caution with the approved facility with which a man may bind himself for long periods as a soldier or for life in marriage! I may eventually regret it; but what may not be regretted, and how many things have most men done which they do regret! Surely you should not omit to do a good thing because you may regret it. I might say a good deal more, but have no time. I once more thank you for writing as you did, with your old warmth and not without your old eloquence. Finally, if you like to come here, if you have the time, the inclination, and the opportunity, I am sure the Abbot would be very glad to accommodate you for any time under three months (that is the rule) in the guest-house. I warn you however that the fare is very frugal, and twenty-four hours might exhaust your patience.

Very sincerely yours,
J. Sheil.

It seems to me that, in the above letter, dear Sheil goes far towards justifying the attack that I had evidently made upon his position. “Permit me . . . at least to think of flight.” He admits that he had run away from the world and its temptations because of “the hideous consequences of defeat,” i.e. the loss of his soul. His idea was that by shutting himself up in an iron box he would avoid sin and its “hideous consequences.” But I wonder now, as I wondered then, whether, supposing the capitulation to the natural impulses of the body to be cardinal sin, such sin is really avoided by the method of the iron box? True, they cannot be gratified, for, if you wish to drink, there is no whisky; if you wish to make love, there is no woman, and so forth. Yet in that case does not the wish assume the proportions of the accomplished deed? A noted passage in the New Testament seems to suggest that this may be so; also incidents in the lives of the saints occur to me, though we are told only of those in which they triumphed. Of course if, by the aid of terrible abstinence or of prayer, every human desire and frailty can be banished and the mind can become, so to speak, sterilised of all harmful thoughts, then a condition of absolute though negative virtue will be attained. Whether the virtue thus gained — if it be possible to gain it while even sleep and its dreams remain — is of a truer and higher quality than that proportion of goodness which can be won, that more soiled garment which must be worn by him who remains in the world and bears the heat and burden of its day; often falling, but struggling to his feet again; sinning, and lamenting his sins; striving to do better, yet frequently in vain; living the full life, bringing others into that life and, to the best of his ability, bearing their burdens; doing here a good and there, perhaps, a harm; and at length, filled with experience, departing penitent and mercy-seeking to whatever future career may await him — is not for me to say. Probably the question must be answered in accordance with the temperament and gifts of the questioner. For me it is too hard. However, it is more or less dealt with on one side of some of Sheil’s remaining epistles.

The next of these is dated nearly a year later than that which I have quoted:

Mount St. Bernard’s Abbey; August 3, 1880.

I thank you for thinking of writing to tell me of your marrying; you were right in thinking it would interest me. If joy and prosperity came by my wishing you would certainly have your fill in all your life to come. I am glad you are marrying, as I think it much better for a man than knocking about by himself. I suppose you had some photos struck on this auspicious occasion; if so, may I suggest that the one I have of you was youthful when you gave it, I think six years ago, and that I should very much like to have another, and, if it is not asking too much, one of Miss Margitson (I hope that is rightly spelt, but your writing is more shocking than ever)? I am not surprised at your anxiety to get back to South Africa and your weariness of England; I suppose our brightest sky is only a fog to you.

As for myself, I took the simple vows a short time since; of course I cannot consider myself absolutely fixed till the solemn vows, but I hope I am. I don’t see how anyone can avoid having an intellectual if not a practical contempt for this life if he believes in eternity. I was reading the other day that if a man had been born at the beginning of the world and shed one tear every thousand years, he would now have shed six tears; yet the time will most infallibly come when any and every one will be able to say that at that rate he would have filled the ocean with tears. This seems to me striking and true. The thing is that the happiness or misery of all this future (there is only one alternative) depends on what you love in this life; you must love the Invisible. The beauty of the life we lead here is that it makes this comparatively easy.

I should have liked to give you a small token of my feeling for you, but, as I suppose you know, a man who takes the vows ceases to be the owner of any moneys or of anything else; (of course if I was not admitted to solemn vows I should recover what I have given). I hope you will accept my good will. Have you seen Walsh and Fuller and de Roebeck? Remember me to them, and also particularly to Mr. Norris. Good-bye. I hope you will not forget Auld lang syne (nor the photograph). I should like to have been at your wedding and seen your bride.

Very affectionately yours,
Brother Basil.

In due course I married, but before alluding to that matter I will continue and finish the story of Brother Basil. At the end of our honeymoon my wife and I made a pilgrimage to Mount St. Bernard’s Abbey. This I did both because I wished to see him and because in my vanity I thought that if we could come face to face I might be able by my personal influence to induce him to return to the world. I confess that I felt afraid, needlessly afraid as it proved, of facing these stern and silent monks on an errand which they would know well was inimical to them. Still I determined on the attempt.

There were some difficulties about the journey — I forget their exact nature — but at length we arrived without being expected. I stated my object and, somewhat to my surprise, was admitted with my wife. I was almost sure that a young woman would not be allowed to pass those portals. On the contrary we were most courteously received by an extremely charming sub-prior, a thorough man of the world and a gentleman who was able to talk to us of many lands and events. He said that Brother Basil should be sent for, and after a while I heard heavy wooden shoes — I think they were wooden — clumping down a passage; the door opened and there appeared the Sheil from whom I had parted some six years before. He was clad in a coarse robe; his head was tonsured, or such is my recollection; his face was pale, and it seemed to me as though the work in that scorching weather in the hot harvest field from which he had been summoned had exhausted him. At first he could hardly speak, which was not wonderful seeing the unexpected nature of the occasion and the rule of silence in which he lived. His delight at our visit seemed very great. After some talk, greatly daring, I asked if I might see him alone. To my astonishment the request was granted at once. We went out, I think into a graveyard — or it may have been the garden, though certainly I saw a graveyard with its nameless little wooden crosses — leaving my wife with the sub-prior.

Then came the struggle. I argued high and low, I implored, and was utterly worsted. I could not move him one inch; my arguments he answered, my beseeching he put aside with the most sweet and tender gratitude.

“Many have scolded and lectured me,” he said; “you are the first who ever came here to try to snatch me from what you believe to be an intolerable fate.”

That was the substance of his words, mingled with thanks and blessings.

We returned, and my wife and I were shown something of their farm and of the school where the monks taught children; also all their terrible mode of life was exposed to us: the dormitories, the bare board on which they took their scanty vegetable fare, the stern rules of their Order — nothing was kept back. I remember that I was filled with admiration, although I remained in moral rebellion against this terrific system which turned men into dumb creatures and fed their bodies with the bread and water of affliction for the benefit of their souls. I was shown a prize bull they had which was in the charge of a monk who had been a Yorkshire yeoman. A sign was made to him: he was allowed to speak to me, about the bull but nothing else. How the words poured from those silent lips, jumbled, incoherent at first, then growing clearer as the habit of speech returned to him. The broad Yorkshire accent and the familiar terms of farm life sounded bizarre in those surroundings as he sang the praises of his bull.

Another sign and he was silent. We returned and were served with a bountiful meal and most hospitably attended. Then came the farewell. I shook Sheil’s hand and looked into his patient eyes. The door clanged to behind us. It was our last meeting in the world.

A letter written by him a few days later shows something of the state of mind excited in him by our visit. It is dated September 8, 1880, over thirty-one years ago.

I had intended asking you about the photographs you promised, but duly forgot them; I hope you will not do so. There were other things too which I had intended saying, but I suppose the flurry of first meeting obfuscated my memory. It takes time to get into one’s old swing, and I generally feel awkward at first meeting with people I have known well after a long absence; there are so many things to say, so many memories, that one does not know where to begin, and flies from one thing to another in a most unsatisfactory way. What made it worse in our case was that we were both in new circumstances, and that you had not become reconciled to mine. I feel ashamed at all the trouble and expense you have been at to come and see me; I wish I could show my gratitude better than by words, but it is hard to see in what I could be of use to you; if however there is ever anything I could do, and you let me know, I will. Perhaps when you come back again, if you have not had enough of it, if you will come and see me we will arrange things much better.

I wish you and your wife all happiness; I think I said it was a poor affection which only wished for its object happiness for fifty years or so of this life; and what I wish is that we may all go home together and be together always. Remember me to Walsh and to poor Norris.

I remain, affectionately yours,
Brother Basil.

Where would a letter find you in Africa?

Something less than two years have gone by and I find another letter in answer to one of mine written on my second return from South Africa owing to events which I hope to describe in due course. It is dated Mount St. Bernard’s Abbey, June 4, 1882.

I was glad to get a letter from you of the old length if in a new vein. I am sorry you have been obliged to leave Africa, though I confess I think your new profession [that of the Bar. — H. R. H.] more in your line than developing ostrich plumes. I suppose at the Cape there is only a step between law and politics. I wish you all success and prosperity. Many thanks for your interest in me; I still continue content in my position, and I look forward to making my final vows about this time next year. I am satisfied that this is a high vocation and that I personally am called to it. I should like to know how you account for the fact that I, being what I am, not given to virtue nor enthusiasm, should have conceived the idea of coming to such a place, that I should have executed it, not without sacrifice, that I should have persevered in it, and that now after four years’ trial I should have no greater hope than to pass the rest of my life here. It is a marvel even to myself; there is but one explanation — the incomprehensible mercy of God. You may prefer the vocation of St. Paul to that of St. John Baptist, but it is safer to recommend both. Anyhow it is more modest not to condemn a way of life which has been followed by so many, so great, so holy men now these fourteen centuries. There is no country that owes more to St. Benedict and his rule than England. No one that I am aware of says that it is necessary for everyone to become a monk in order to be saved; but some are called, and if they are faithful they will have an easier and better salvation. Everyone who believes the truth faith and keeps the commandments is safe. All this is the penny Catechism (I wish you would buy one), for as yet my theological science extends little further.

One reason why people have a difficulty in understanding such a life as ours is that they forget original sin. They say, God created the good things of life in order to be used, etc. But we are fallen and corrupt, and things no longer have the effect upon us that God intended in creating them; they were to have raised by their use our minds and hearts to God, and of course it would have been absurd for the unfallen Adam to practise asceticism. But now unfortunately our natures drag us down, and usually the more a man enjoys good things in life the less he thinks of God; and I suppose this is why the rich and riches are so much denounced in the Gospel. Anyhow no one ever applied himself seriously to the love of his Creator without feeling the necessity of separating himself more and more from comfort. Even in a monastery it requires a constant effort to set our affections on the things that are above and not to mind things that are on earth, to attend to the invisible which does not pass away. In fact it cannot be done perfectly till we can say that the world is crucified to us and we to the world, and that with Christ we are nailed to the Cross. (Of course only the Saints ever really do this. “Nullus amor sine dolore.”) You are wrong in saying that it is hard to come face to face with God’s will in this world, because God is not far from every one of us. If any man wants wisdom let him ask of Him Who giveth to all abundantly, and he shall receive it. The day after receiving your letter I was looking over the life of my patron St. Justin, it being the eve of his feast; he was a heathen, but possessed by a passion for truth. He spent his youth wandering from one school of philosophy to another, dissatisfied with them all, till one day he met on the seashore an old man who began telling him of the wisdom of the prophets and of Christ, and after such speaking concluded by saying, “As for thyself, above all things, pray that the gates of life may be open to you; for these are not things to be discerned, unless God and Christ grant to a man knowledge of them.” I believe that anyone who really desires to know the Truth, and who is resolved to embrace it at all costs, and who prays for light, will come to it and will then first understand what it is to “rejoice in hope.”

I am sorry you gave me no news of Norris or Walsh; I never hear of them except from you. One effect of leading an uneventful life is that the past stands out clearly, unobscured by subsequent impressions. My compliments to your wife and Mr. Haggard.

Very sincerely yours,
Brother Basil.

When your book comes out [Brother B. here alludes to “Cetewayo and his White Neighbours”] I will make one of my sisters send it if it is not too long; I have not much time for reading, especially in summer.

It will be observed from the tenor of this letter that the writer is already almost lost in the monastic atmosphere. He still retains his personal friendship for myself and is interested in one or two of his old associates, but all his earnest thought is given to his soul and its salvation. The world is slipping away from him. He even fears to read my forthcoming history lest it should be “too long” and take his time from his devotions and self-imposed physical labours, which could have been so much better done by any working man.

Eight years go by and there comes another note, also apparently in answer to one from myself. It is dated September 3, 1890.

Your good memory is very kind, and now that you have become so famous, highly flattering. I suppose in your judgment our regime ought to have improved me off the face of the globe; however here I am, by no means dead, and not even, I am sorry to say, in the sense of Colossians iii. 3 [“For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.” — H. R. H.]. I should be delighted to see you again if you are able to come here; I have often wished to hear of our mutual friends. Of you, of course, I have heard, and perused somewhat. It seems quite a short time since you were here; it is startling to find that we are ten years older. . . . I hope Mrs. R. H. not only lives but is well and happy. Please give her my kind regards.

Always your sincere friend,
Brother Basil.

Both this letter and the one which remains are written in a somewhat different handwriting to those already quoted. It is more careful and less natural.

The last letter, dated September 10, 1891, deals with the death of my son, of which I had written to Brother Basil. I think, too, that I had sent him a copy of “Allan Quatermain,” which was dedicated to the boy and, after his death, contained his portrait. Here is the portion of the letter that is essential.

You wrote to me when you came back from Africa, so I have had your son in mind when I have thought of you. The idea of you as paterfamilias seemed very amusing. So now there is an end of hopes. Of course your loss is irreparable; even if you had another son he would not be the same. Judging from his picture he must have been a very nice fellow. I am afraid that in the reality of sorrow you have felt the “great breast of Nature” rather too hard to give rest. What a curious irony that that introduction should have followed that dedication. [The quotation here and the subsequent remark referred to the Introduction to “Allan Quatermain,” in which he laments the death of his only son. — H. R. H.]

Looking at matters from their point of view I don’t regret much the death of children. They have been rightly baptised, and they are not old enough to stand in crying need of other sacraments. I wish my prospects were as bright as your son’s. Vae nobis quia peccavimus . . . .

Brother Basil.

I pass on to the end of the story, which the following letter tells.

Mt. St. Bernard’s Abbey: August 6, 1893.

Dear Sir, — The notice in the papers was unfortunately too true in the case of good Fr. Basil. He died in Rome on May 11th.

For some years he had been suffering from abscesses in different parts of the body, which the doctors considered showed a tendency to consumption, and they strongly recommended a change of climate. Last autumn it was arranged that he should go to Rome for a year or so. Unhappily instead of improving he became worse, though not seriously so, until the first week in May, when the spine seems to have become affected, and on the 8th he was seized with paralysis, and died, as I have said, on the 11th, the feast of the Ascension of Our Lord.

From accounts received, his death was most peaceful and happy, he being fully conscious and perfectly resigned to the Will of God.

When he left us he was Sub–Prior; and after being in Rome for a short time he was appointed Procurator–General for the whole Order. His death has been a great loss to us here and to all the Members of the Reformed Cistercian body.

I am happy thus to testify to the high esteem in which he was held; and very numerous have been the letters received, expressing deep regret at his death, and the highest regard for him.

With every good wish,
I remain, dear sir,
Yours very truly in Christ,
C. W. Hipwood,
Abb. O.C.R.

Thus ends the earthly story of my friend Justin Sheil, known in religion as Brother Basil, between whom and me, different as were our characters and our walks in life, there existed some curious affinity. As he himself remarks, it is strange that a man of his pleasure-loving nature and somewhat sardonic vein of humour should have become a Trappist monk and been well pleased with his choice. To use his own words, this is indeed a mystery, one of those mysteries which appear to suggest that the human heart is much wider than it seems. We see the point of an iceberg floating on the ocean and are apt to forget that hidden in its depths is a vast, unsuspected bulk. So it may be with the nature of man. We perceive its visible portion; we think we know it; we sum it up and declare that its character is this or that. Nay, more, we declare it of our own natures wherewith we should be well acquainted. And yet deep in the ocean of being floats the real nature, unmeasured, unsuspected, till perhaps, in some cataclysm of the soul, not all but a new portion of it is revealed, and that which was familiar is submerged. Is every individuality in truth multiple? Are reincarnationists right when they assert that only a part of it becomes active in this world at one time — a part that we think the whole? Who can tell?

It was a hard and dreadful life that he led, if measured by our standards, how hard only those who are familiar with the rules of the Trappists will rightly know. Yet even in these iron bonds his native ability asserted itself, for just as he died he rose to high office in the Order while still a young man, though now, after eighteen years of silence more complete even than that in which he dwelt, probably he is forgotten. Others pray where he prayed, think what he thought and fast as he fasted, till, worn out by privation and by the burning fire of spiritual ardour, they join him in his unrecorded grave. So it has ever been with spirits like his own. In Egypt I have seen the cells occupied by anchorites a thousand years before Christ was born. On Tabir, Mount of the Transfiguration, I have stood in the living tombs of the hermits who dreamed away their long years, generation after generation of them, and hollowed the rock of the holy mountain with their nightly tossings. In Tibet the lean and wasted claw of the immured, thrust through some hole to grasp the offering of food, advises the traveller that here, dead and yet breathing, dwells a holy man who thus seeks to propitiate the unanswering gods. That which was, still is and shall be while the world endures; not in one religion but in many.

I make no excuse for the telling of this true tale, because it seems to me to constitute a human document of great interest. It is not often that we have the opportunity of coming face to face with this kind of heart as it reveals itself in the foregoing letters. Besides, any whom it does not interest can leave it unread.

May my dear friend’s prayer be fulfilled: may we meet again in some other phase of life and there learn the true reason of these matters; if a common, erring man may hope to associate with a spirit so purified and — yes, so holy. Peace be with him; but since I for one cannot believe that he and all mankind are the victims of a ghastly delusion, or are led forward by mocking marsh-fires of self-evolved aspirations to be lost in some bottomless gulf of death, I will not add — farewell.

To return to my own history. When I reached home everyone was very glad to see me, especially my mother, but my father did not welcome my reappearance with whole-hearted enthusiasm. He remarked with great candour that I should probably become “a waif and a stray,” or possibly — my taste for writing being already known — “a miserable penny-a-liner.” I am sure I do not wonder at his irritation, which, were I in his place today, I should certainly share. He saw that I had thrown up my billet and he had no faith in the possibilities of African farming.

All of these things, and others, he told me in the course of a row which arose over the loss of a gigantic turtle which I had brought home from the Island of Ascension, where I had visited my brother John, who at that time was first-lieutenant of H.M.S. Flora. The Island of Ascension, by the way, where they catch these turtles on the beach and store them in tanks, is a very interesting spot, for there one sees a part of the world in the making. On the top of a peak is a green area of soil that I presume owes its origin to the droppings of sea-birds. Below is bare rock. This area must have been formed within recent times, say during the last 500,000 years, and in another million or so of years doubtless it will have spread all over the island. The processes of nature are distinctly slow.

In some mysterious way my turtle got lost in the London Docks. Personally I thought the occurrence fortunate, for what would have been done with the creature if I had succeeded in conveying it safely to Bradenham Hall still alive and flapping, I cannot conceive. Imagine the local butcher confronted with a turtle; imagine the domestic cook and the quantities of soup that would have resulted, if it ever got so far as soup! I pointed all this out to my father, but he took another view. He wanted his turtle and said so, often, and alas! it had vanished in the London Docks. Probably a steward sold it to a City Company on the sly. A sportive passenger on the ship made a rhyme on the matter. It began:

’Tis true, O my Father, from distant lands I’ve come, a bad penny, back on your hands; But when once you have tasted this nice green fat, You won’t care, O my parent, one kipper for that.

The trouble was that he never did “taste that nice green fat.”

However, things righted themselves by degrees, as somehow they generally do when one is young and not afraid to take chances. To begin with, not long after my arrival in England I did the wisest and best deed of my life and engaged myself to be married.

The young lady whom I met thirty-two years ago, and who is today, God be thanked, living, and strong enough to have won prizes in a croquet tournament last week, was named Louisa Margitson, the only surviving child of Major Margitson of the 19th Regiment and of Ditchingham House in this county, where we now live. The Margitsons were originally yeomen in the neighbourhood of North Walsham, crossed with Huguenot blood — we still hold their property, or some of it. They intermarried with the respected Norwich family of the name of Beckwith, and also with a descendant of Dr. Robert Hamilton of Lynn, a distinguished man in his day, who was a friend of Sir Joshua Reynolds. There still hangs in this house a portrait of Countess Margaret Georgiana Spencer and child, by Reynolds, which is said to have been given by him to Dr. Robert Hamilton, my wife’s great-great-grandfather. On her mother’s side she is also directly descended from the great Scottish family of Hamilton, thus having a double cross of that blood in her veins. Her parents died in her youth, leaving her the heiress to certain landed property which would have been valuable had real estate in Norfolk retained the worth which it had at the time of their death. As things are we do not get much out of it; indeed I believe that directly and indirectly I must have expended nearly as much upon the properties as, up to the present, we have received during our tenure of them. For instance, fifty years ago the estate produced sufficient to support a family in something more than comfort. Now its net rentals, although it is totally unencumbered, about pay for the upkeep of the house and gardens. I mention these facts because I see it recorded in works of reference that I married an “heiress,” which is an elastic term.

My dear wife was a schoolfellow of my sister Mary, and was staying with her at Bradenham when we met. After a short acquaintance we became engaged, and at first all went well enough; subsequently, however, her guardians — for she was not yet of age — after consenting to her engagement, reconsidered the matter and wished her to break it off. I do not altogether blame them, since at the moment my prospects were not particularly brilliant. As it chanced, however, my wife, perhaps the most upright and straightforward woman whom I ever knew, was not one of a nature to play fast and loose in such matters. She declined, whereupon one of her guardians, who was a lawyer, made her a ward in Chancery. Well do I remember appearing before Vice–Chancellor Malins, a kindly old gentleman and man of the world, upon whose gouty toe I inadvertently trod when shaking hands with him. He soon sifted the matter out and approved of the engagement, making certain directions as to settlements, etc. The net result of the whole business was that, including the cost of the settlements, a very moderate estate was mulcted in law expenses of a sum of nearly 3000 pounds!

In after days I and my wife’s relations, with most of whom, by the way, I never had any difference at all, as they were no parties to these proceedings, became and remained the best of friends. So I wish to say no more of the matter except that I regret those moneys which went in quite useless law costs. The end of the business was that after about a year of these excursions and alarums we were duly married on August 11, 1880, I being twenty-four and my wife within a few months of twenty-one, and departed from this house to Norwich in a carriage drawn by four grey horses with postilions. This is interesting, as I believe it must have been one of the last occasions upon which postilions were used for such a purpose in England, except of course in the case of royal personages. At any rate I have never seen or heard of them since in this connection, and how we came to have them I do not quite know. I can see them now in their gay dress and velvet caps touching up the grey steeds with their short whips. We made quite a sensation on our thirteen-mile journey to and through Norwich; but oh! were we not glad when it was all over.

In a letter recently found at Bradenham, headed Ditchingham House, Bungay, December 21, 1879, and addressed to my brother William, who was then attached to the British Embassy at Teheran, I find the following estimate of my future wife’s character, and expression of my feelings towards her.

Next, my dear Will — je vais me marier — to such a brick of a girl, Louie Margitson. They are certain to have told you all about her in their letters from home, so I will only say that I love her sincerely, as I think she does me, and that, unless something untoward occurs to dash the cup from my lips, I think we have as good a prospect of happiness as most people. She is good and sensible and true-hearted, and every day I see her I love and respect her more. She is a woman who can be a man’s friend as well as his lover, and whom I would trust as I would very few. She is willing to come to Africa, so we propose returning there shortly, i.e. as soon as we can get satisfactorily married. There is property concerned, and trustees, who, as I dare say you know, are gentry difficult to deal with. They want us to postpone the marriage till she comes of age next October, but we don’t see the force of it in any way. I want to get married next April — whether I shall manage or not is another matter . . . .

Good-bye, old fellow. God bless you.
Your loving brother,
H. Rider Haggard.

In fact, as I have said, we did not succeed in marrying until August 11, 1880.

The circumstance of my marriage gave me pause as to my plan of leading a farmer’s life in South Africa, and as my father and family were very anxious that I should re-enter the Colonial Service, I made some attempt to do so. It is, however, one thing to give up a billet and quite another to get it back again. Had Sir Theophilus Shepstone or even Sir Owen Lanyon still been in power in the Transvaal, doubtless there would have been little difficulty. But a new Pharaoh had arisen in the shape of Sir Garnet Wolseley who knew not Joseph, and probably wished to keep any available patronage in his own hands. At any rate, on the matter being referred to him, he replied “that arrangements are in contemplation which prevent your reinstatement in the office of Master of the High Court in the Transvaal.”

Those “arrangements” were indeed a blessing in disguise, since, had I been reinstated, we should have had the pleasure, as I have shown, of going through the siege of Pretoria, and on the Retrocession I should have been dismissed from my office without compensation, as I believe happened to the gentleman who succeeded me. It was one of the peculiar cruelties of that act that Englishmen who had taken service under the British Government in the Transvaal were treated thus, since, of course, even if the opportunity had been given, they could scarcely transfer their allegiance from the Queen to a Boer Republic. But, after all, they suffered no worse things than scores of British subjects whose farms were looted, and who in practice were left to send in their bill to their new Dutch masters — with results that may be imagined.

When I went home in 1879 Mr. (or, as he afterwards became, Sir Melmoth) Obsorn entrusted me with the guardianship of his son Jack, a boy of about sixteen, whom he asked me to send to whatever school I might select in England. So it comes about that he wrote me a good many letters, a few of which survive and contain items of interest as to public affairs in Africa at this period.

Poor Jack Osborn after a course of education in England returned to South Africa and was appointed to some office in Zululand. There, a few years later, he died of abscess of the liver.

In a letter dated Pretoria, October 10, 1879, Osborn says:

I have your letter 23rd August in which you give account of your stewardship regarding Jack. Accept my sincere thanks for all you have done and the care you took of the boy, who I fear must have been a great bother to you. Your father’s kind note to me I need not tell you how greatly I appreciate, and I will write to him by this mail. Jack wrote me several letters since his arrival in England. He is loud about all the kindness shown him by you and your people, your father especially, whom he seems to swear by. . . . Sir Garnet Wolseley is here. He would not take up his abode in Government House, but had a house hired for his occupation, and is now in Koch’s new residence near Melville’s, together with his staff. I have a very hard time of it just now, having to serve two masters who, between us, do not seem to pull together very well. Sir Garnet seems to disapprove entirely of Sir Bartle Frere’s policy with Kaffirs and Boers . . . .

With regard to your returning to the Colonial Service your father is quite right, and I think you should return. The business between you and Cochrane could be easily arranged, although I dare say to you there seems a difficulty about it. If you start again fairly in any other colony but this you are sure to succeed, and I strongly advise you to do so — it would simply be following a pursuit for which you are eminently suited and abandoning one for which you are not. I think I told you that I did the same thing some years ago: resigned my appointment in the Service and invested in a sugar estate, but soon found that trying to do that which I did not understand involved nothing but loss, and by advice of a friend I re-entered the Service, tho’ in a low grade. Well, by steady perseverance and without one-half the advantages you have, here I am today. Perhaps you will say it is not much after all; but if you had to encounter all the uphill work that fell to my lot of which you have no conception, and when you are a little older, you will be able to appreciate matters as I do.

I have but little news to send you this time. Two regiments are expected here in a few days I believe, so that we will have a lot of troops at hand to cope with the Amabull [a slang name for the Boers. — H. R. H.] or any other obstreperous bulls who might trouble us. Last evening I heard from Middelburg that the Boers there are very violent and the Landdrost Scoble was anticipating serious results. All these things happening so continually worry me a good deal, and I am heartily sick of it all . . . .

Ever your affectionate friend,
M. Osborn.

The next letter is headed Zululand, April 14, 1880.

My post runner brought me your very welcome letter of 3 February yesterday. I was very glad to get it and to hear that all was well with you. Before proceeding to business matters I must offer you my sincere and hearty congratulations on the prospect of happiness before you. Depend upon it you are doing the right thing. A man is nothing in this life who has no wife to love or be loved by, and I feel certain that you have not erred in your selection and that the young lady will prove not only worthy of your affection but a great stay and support through life.

I write this from the heart of Zululand, where I hold the office of British Resident. My duties are chiefly to supervise the action of the thirteen chiefs to whom the country has been given, their government and the way they fulfil the treaty obligations. I am entirely on my own responsibility and have to do just as appears right to me. And a proper responsibility I find it. Indeed it is no joke. I am not hard worked, but my brain is continually on the stretch to prevent the wily Zulu getting the better of me. Any mistake might cause endless complications. My pay is 1300 pounds, and a suitable Residency is to be built at once for me by the Government. I correspond only with the High Commissioner direct. I had not forgotten you when the appointment was made, but there was nothing at all beyond an ordinary clerkship which I could offer you, and this was certainly not in your line. There is however a good prospect of something worth having turning up in six months from this, and then you will hear from me again. Between us I have to report in extenso on the whole question connected with Zululand and the additional officers required to assist me in managing, for the Secretary of State’s consideration, but this I will do only after I have been three months in the country, and tomorrow the first month will expire. I think however you will not like it here — too lonely, and you should not come if you could get anything else. You can form no idea of my grandness here — in the eyes of the chiefs and people I am a great king. They are submissive and civil to a degree. Almost every day a fine fat ox is presented to me for my dinner that day by some Zulu swell that comes to pay his respects, and hundreds come up to my camp daily with “Bayete” salutes thundered forth so as to make the hills ring again. Most of the chiefs and headmen knew me personally when I was a border magistrate, and others by repute, so that I am not quite a stranger to them.

I did not at first feel inclined to take the office when Sir Garnet offered it to me, but after four weeks’ consideration of the pros and cons I concluded to take it. . . . Please convey to your father my hearty thanks for his kindness to Jack. I appreciate it most sincerely.

With love,
Ever your affectionate friend,
M. Osborn.

The last letter is headed British Residency, Zululand, May 15, 1880. After speaking of an opening in the Colonial Service, which he thinks I might secure, Osborn says:

I returned to my headquarters here only last night, having been on a strip to meet the Empress at Landmanns Drift, Buffalo River. She was very good and kind to me and I saw a great deal of her; indeed I was the only one not belonging to her suite who was spoken to at all by her. She sent for me twice daily and conversed freely on different topics. Brigadier–General Wood, who has charge of her, received me with open arms, which slightly surprised me after the paper war I carried on with him in Pretoria. He seems to be a very good fellow.

The Empress is still in Zululand visiting the various battlefields. She intends to visit the spot where the Prince fell on 1st June the day of his death, and will remain about five days there to mourn and weep. I feel very sorry for her. She will be in Durban in time to sail for England on 26th June. Sir Garnet has left us quite suddenly. He is certainly a very great soldier.

I am still getting on well with my Zulus, who will persist in according royal honours to me. About a fortnight ago one single deputation waited on me numbering over four thousand men! Their shout of “Bayete” (the royal salute) made the hills ring again. Every day hundreds come up to salute and to state their grievances tribe against tribe. Everywhere quiet and good order prevails, which is satisfactory. With kind regards,

Your affectionate friend,
M. Osborn.

After a stormy time in Zululand, Osborn retired from the public service on a pension. At first his idea was to settle in England, but ultimately our climate proved too much for him, and he drifted back to South Africa, where not long afterwards he died. I do not think that his departure from the world grieved him very much, for in addition to the loss of his son Jack, my ward, he was called upon to endure other heavy sorrows. I never quite fathomed his religious views, but I remember that one night, when I was talking to him on such matters, he stretched out his arm and clasped a handful from the swarm of white ants that were flying past us. “What is the difference between us and these?” he asked with a little laugh, and let them go again. By the way, I may mention he was the origin of my character Alston in “The Witch’s Head.” Dear old “Mali-mat” — that was his Kaffir name, which means, I believe, “so much money” — shrewd, kindly, honourable, the truest of friends, the bravest of men, surely you, if any do, belong to that class which Pope defined as the noblest work of God.

Osborn was a great believer in the virtue of the raw Kaffir. Thus, when he was magistrate of Newcastle, he did not hesitate to send down from Newcastle to Maritzburg, two hundred miles away, the total sum of the hut tax collected in his district — which, if I remember rightly, amounted to one or two thousand pounds — tied in gold-filled belts about the middle of some of his native policemen. The fact about the Kaffirs, and especially the Zulu Kaffirs, is, or was, that those whom they love and respect may trust them to the death, whereas those whom they despise or hate cannot lend them sixpence with safety or believe their word about the smallest matter. Their absolute fidelity to duty is well exemplified in the following story which Sir Theophilus Shepstone told me when we were travelling together over the Biggarsberg.

Once he had occasion in winter-time to send two Zulu messengers over these mountains with despatches for Maritzburg. They were caught in a snowstorm without coats, whereon the man who carried the despatch-bag, feeling the approach of death, handed it to his comrade and bade him proceed. He himself crept into an ant-bear hole to die. As it happened, however, the warmth of his body in the hole kept him alive, and when he woke up in the morning the sun was shining. He emerged and, following on the road, presently found his companion dead and stiff. Taking the despatch-bag from the body he proceeded on his journey, and in due course delivered it in Maritzburg.

Among my letters of this period are two from Judge Kotze. In one of these, which is dated June 17, 1880, the Judge complains bitterly of the placing of De Wet, the Recorder of Kimberley, over his head as Chief Justice, a very harsh step, the reason of which I never quite understood, as Kotze was undoubtedly an excellent lawyer and an upright Judge. After some political remarks he says:

By the by, you speak of seeking employment in the Civil Service out here. Abandon the idea and take the following suggestion into careful consideration. Why not read for the Bar? You have a splendid opening in the Cape Colony or at the Diamond Fields. It will take you not more than three years, and by working honestly from six to eight hours per day you will have no difficulty in turning out a first-rate man in three years. Give it your serious attention. You have a certain prospect of a judgeship, and will without much difficulty get into the Cape Parliament. Mrs. Haggard will be pleased with Grahamstown (which I would recommend in preference to Cape Town), and you will have a fine and thoroughly independent career before you. . . . Pretoria is no longer what it was. The place is unbearable. Everybody at loggerheads with Government and his neighbours, and the contractors in the meantime making fortunes.

Kotze’s advice was sound, and today I wish that I had taken it, or rather sometimes I think I do. What chiefly stood in my way, however, was my agreement with Cochrane, whom I did not like to desert, although he generously offered to release me. Also I wished to be up and doing, and did not like the idea of those three years of comparative inaction which would have prevented me from earning anything more till I was twenty-seven. Still I was destined to be called to the English Bar after all, as I hope to tell in due course.

Here I will end my story during the year and a half or so that I was absent from South Africa, and pass on to the sad tale of the Retrocession of the Transvaal.

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