Jessie Monteath Currie.

The Hill of goodbye; the story of a solitary white woman's life in Central Africa online

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but perhaps the continuous malaria was telling
on me. The Msungu proposed that we should go
to the Linje where I would make a sketch. In
the ravine how cool it was compared with the open.
We sat on a rock in the middle of the gorge, the
Msungu trifling with a native spear while I
painted. The bed of the stream rose precipitously
in front of us, rocky and dry save for the pools
and white waterfalls gushing through the crevices.
We were walled in by a thick curtain of green
leaves ; graceful bamboos waved overhead.
For nearly a couple of hours we sat and I would


have stayed longer, but the Msungu hurried me
home as the sun had got low, and leopards would
be soon on the prowl.

In those days I did a good deal of sketching.
My husband urged me to it, saying that I would
be sorry some day if I did not take full advantage
of my opportunities. I put my whole soul into
these sketches, sometimes groaning unconsciously
over them, and I never painted a shade or colour
without seeing it in nature. Perhaps in the far
future the public will be educated to appreciate
a picture for its truth and merit, not as they do
at present for the name and reputation of the

Had I been well and strong I would have done
better. But I was dull and languid ; the present
seemed to hold me in a stifling grasp ; I could
not think of the future. Possibly the Msungu
saw this and wished to rouse me.

Everything I did then was an effort. I confess
it now, that sometimes in these latter days I lay
down in the little summer-house in the garden,
wishing I would die there and then. But I did
not allow myself to be idle often. Perhaps it
would have been better if I had. I did not know
then as I do now that the human temple is of
more importance than one's house, and that one
may do a great deal more for mankind by taking


rest, when it is required, than by wasting one's

Formerly I had taken great pleasure in my
cooking, but now even that was irksome. I was
wont to bake out the scones and bread on a table
in the verandah. Now that place seemed too hot,
and I got the table brought into the centre room
and placed near the door.

I had now a nice new kitchen, in the shape of
a native hut, quite near my oven in the back
courtyard. One half of it had a double wall,
between which our ducks lived, with a little reed
door to shut them in at night. Another improve-
ment was in progress, in fact nearly completed.
The back verandah was being wailed in to exclude
the draught from the dining room in the cold
season, also to give me a shady place to bake
and prepare my cooking.

Meanwhile I baked in the dining room. One
day, at this occupation, my hands seemed power-
less, my head heavy. Mlenga, the cook, had gone
to see his father. The lemons which I depended
on to effervesce the soda were done. The tins of
baking powder had lost their strength. I thought
longingly of Masamani's scones. I hinted gently
to the Msungu that no doubt Masamani would be
lounging in the Doctor's kitchen ; that the
Doctor could not possibly require him at present.


The result was, a whole pile of thick golden-crusted
scones, light as a feather.

The fact was, I was ill, and this time it was not
only the malaria. A change had come over me.
I would be happy and sad by turns. I would
gaze long and dreamily at pictures of little children
in the magazines. At last I consulted the Doctor.
He did not look the least concerned, nor did he
prescribe for me. One would have thought that
he had cast aside completely his medical profession.
When he tired of my complaints he gave me a
bottle of clear fluid. Crafty man ! I have a
strong suspicion that it was nothing but pure

And the girls went about their appointed tasks
as blythe as ever. How patiently they swept the
red dust off the verandah with a stiff bunch of
everlasting flowers, bright yellow ones they found
growing in the bush. But it was hot work even
for them. Sometimes I found Mele stretched on
a mat in my bedroom when she was supposed to
be cleaning the room. Even the coarse grass
withered and cracked in the burning heat. Only
the insects displayed any vigour. They swarmed.
One burrowing flea I picked out of my cheek.
And the whole creation moved to the music of the
frogs and grasshoppers.

Then I saw the Doctor and the Msungu hurry


out together. Men were set to cut down the
grass around the Station, others to cut branches
off the bushes. How they worked, as if for dear
life. Then an ominous smoke came between us
and the Plain, followed by a cruel, crackling noise.
The bush fires ! They were creeping up the moun-
tain, slowly but surely.

Men rush with the long branches in readiness
to beat down the flames. There is shouting and
excitement. The house is emptied. I, alone,
stand awestruck on the verandah. The sun has
dropped behind the peaked hills. A kindly cool-
ness has come like a soft hand on a fevered brow.
It is dark now save for the red glow in the distance.
The terrible crackling noise grows louder. There
is a smell of smoke, and burning grass. Then
flames shoot up like bloody swords. The tall
trees at the end of the garden stand calm, like
martyrs awaiting their doom. Then I suppress
a scream. An acacia tree has caught fire. It
blazes and lights up the whole courtyard and the
men beating down the flames.

The Msungu hurries towards me with the teacher
behind him. " Don't be alarmed," he cries.
" Mr. H will stay with you till we see every-
thing safe."

For some time we watched the lurid sight from
the verandah, but at length we went into the


little drawing room. It must have been a dull

time for Mr. H , who naturally would have

liked to share the excitement outside. We did
not speak much. I could not help thinking of all
the living creatures that must be in that sea of
fire ; but I could not long think seriously, for the
little likomba sprang down suddenly from the
roof, and capered over me till the Msungu came

Next morning all the jungle was charred and
blighted save for a tree here and there that had
escaped the fire. Now we could walk with freedom
without being afraid of the grass-ticks that so
provokingly stuck to one's clothes. Soon Nature
would make the trees and flowers bud again, and
the insect life be as prolific as ever. High up on
the mountain the wild animals that were young
and supple must have taken refuge. Not so the
poor lepers, who had been left deserted in their
little grass huts on the slopes, where for many
days they had dragged out a dreary existence,
separated from friends and home. But who can
tell the joy of their departing, and the glory of their
vision. Like Elisha of old they may have called
out : " My father, my father, the chariot of
Israel and the horsemen thereof " ; then ascended
to Heaven in the fiery chariot.



BEFORE another wet season we had hoped to
build a brick house to make us more secure
from the wind and rain. The bricks, works of
labour through want of skill, lay in piles near the
shed where we did our washing. The Msungu
had written home to the Committee asking
permission to build, as money would be required
for the purpose. Great was our disappointment
when word came that no expense was to be
incurred as so much building had been done at
Blantyre Mission. So we had to content ourselves
with our mud house, and be prepared as best we
could to combat the terrific storms on the

But trouble and disappointment were easier
to bear now that our little company had increased.
I looked forward to Miss W 's return, and


when I heard the cheery sounds of her machilla
men, I ran out to meet her.

" My dear, how are you ? " she said, pressing
my hand, and kissing me warmly ; and I felt that
my troubles had gone, and that I could bear
anything. I also knew from her kind manner
that she guessed what was the matter with me,
yet neither of us breathed a word on the subject.

A day or two after, another visitor, a gardener,
arrived to stay an indefinite time, as he had
resigned his post in a neighbouring Mission. He
was anxious to help us. So the Msungu deter-
mined to have a large garden filled with vegetables,
seeing that he could not get a brick house. It
was much needed. The gardener was delighted.
A piece of ground was chosen between the Linje
and Kuchilapa's hut. As it was on the slope of
the mountain the garden would be arranged in
several terraces. The work was begun at once.
Indeed everything was shaping for a happier time,
and the Doctor's prophecy that " one day some-
thing would happen " seemed but an idle remark.

Therefore it was unaccountable one morning
that, with a new cheerfulness in my heart, I should
become conscious of a strange odour or atmosphere
reminding me of death. I had felt the same many
years before when my mother lay dead in her
room. But as far as I knew there was nothing


to cause it now. Everything was just as it had
been. I was interesting myself again in my
cooking and teaching. I had good company,
and I never was considered morbid. Yet there
it was. A subtle something that brought the old
sad days back to me. I could only attribute it
to imagination, but go where I would that sickly
smell haunted me.

I was ashamed to mention it to any one as I
knew I would be laughed at. After I had set
a-going the dinner in the kitchen, leaving Kasas-

wichi gazing at the pots, I joined Miss W on

the verandah. She was crocheting a shawl of a
pretty fluffy pattern. I sat down beside her
determined to learn the stitch. She looked up,
her knitting fell to her lap.

" I have had such a curious feeling all day,"
she said seriously. " Do you know, I have
distinctly felt the smell of a coffin."

A shiver passed through me. " Strange ! I've
been feeling it too," I said in an awed voice, " but
it must be something about the place, that log
of cedar, perhaps, with the extreme heat."

" I don't think so," said Miss W . " We

can't explain it, but simply I don't like it."

That was all. I have no explanation to make.
I just tell the events as they happened. I daresay
we thought no more about it. We might have


had a foreboding at the time, but it was soon
forgotten. Other things took up our attention.
The Doctor was taken ill with fever, fortunately
not a bad case. The Msungu attended him as
best he could. I made little custards, and
delicacies for the invalid.

When he got better it was arranged that I should

travel with Miss W to the Limbe where I

should stay a few weeks with her sister. The
teacher would accompany us, and little Achilan-
dana would go as my servant. The Msungu sent
out for machilla men. As soon as they came we
were to be ready to start. Any morning we might
expect them. But days passed and no men were
forthcoming. I was inwardly glad, for never was
I more reluctant to leave home. A tin box, well
roped, stood in readiness in my bedroom. In it
I had put a few dresses, reserving my newest and
best for future visits. How often afterwards did
I regret that I had not packed more, but no inkling
of what was to happen entered my mind. How
could it ?

I noticed that the Doctor and the Msungu had
long talks together, which they always stopped
when I appeared. Had I known then what they
were discussing, Fmight have made more prepara-
tions. But I did not know that the wild Mkanda
had refused to pay the tax levied on each of the



chiefs by the British Government, nor that a
rumour had come that there might be a rising
among the natives. Indeed, had I known, the
Msungu would have assured me that the thing
was impossible.

How well I remember that morning I left.
While I was dressing the Msungu hurried into my
room to tell me that the machilla men had come.
My heart actually fell ; but Achilandana rushed
in excitedly for her few belongings. The other
girls were jabbering outside the door. The boys
had congregated in front of the verandah. The
cook was crying in at the window desiring to know
if he would " mblage nguko " (kill a fowl) for our
lunch. My fingers were all thumbs, but I managed
to dress somehow, and in less than an hour was
riding away in my machilla ; behind me the little
thatched house which would be but a memory
ever after. Down the hill, and it was out of sight,
but I was not thinking of it. I would return ere
long, I thought, but good-byes were always painful.

A whole procession was behind me, but it would
go back at the first turn on the path. In two
minutes we were there. " Goody-bye, Donna.
Goody-bye, Donna," Mele and Ajaula were holding
out their hands.

The machilla men paused. The moment is
engraved on my memory. There was Ndendemele


also, shy behind the others, her white nicked
teeth showing in the broad smile. " Gocdy-bye,
Donna." She, too, must shake my hand.

" Good-bye, Mele, Ajaula and Ndendemele."
I felt cold and unresponsive. The pathos was all
behind. Why all this show of feeling ? Let me
get away and be done with it. I would return ere
many days had passed. The Msungu and Doctor
must have been there also, but I do not remember
seeing them. The image of that little corner on
the path, a red scar on the soil, the rough boulder
with a cactus growing in its crevice, my little
girls with their dark shining eyes imprinted them-
selves so firmly on my heart that there was no
space for anything more. And the print was
indelible for it has remained.

My machilla jolted. Long grasses shot up at
each side. The dark kindly faces were gone
for ever.

* :;; :•: :£



WE arrived at the Limbe shortly before sunset.
Achilandana, full of importance, having
had for the first time in her life, a ride in a machilla,

Mr. H having given his for her benefit part of

the way. We found our hostess in bed with
malaria, but not released from her cares of house-
keeping. A long narrow table, the length of the
bed, stood close to her hand, on which lay nearly
every eatable of the pantry which could be appro-
priated — the box of bread, tea, sugar, salt and
lemons, etc. I thought it a good idea which I
might carry back to Mlanje.

Mr. H returned to our Station next day.

I occupied a neat little guest house, on a branch
of the verandah, consisting of a bedroom and
dressing room. Achilandana slept on the floor
in the latter. Every night I said the same thing






to her, as I could say nothing else appropriate in
Yao, i.e., " Make the door fast, I do not wish a
leopard to come in." And it was necessary. The
hyaenas howled weirdly outside, attracted by the
humped cattle in the byres close by ; but I did
not know the native word for hyaena. Through
the day one could not have guessed that any wild
beast was near, so civilised everything looked
compared with our Station. Once I saw a
chameleon walking along our little verandah.
Achilandana sprang after it, but in a moment it
was up a tree swearing down at us, to the girl's
great delight.

What a happy time that was. No evil presenti-
ment haunted me. There was a picture beside
my bed of a mother and a child sitting at a table.
I doted on that child. Everything in fact had a
joy to me.

One day, a week exactly after my arrival, Miss

W and I visited another coffee planter's wife.

While drinking tea in her pretty parlour how
little I dreamt what was happening that very
moment at my home on Mount Mlanje. Returning
to the Limbe I rested myself on a rocking-chair
in the verandah, talking to my friends till dinner
would be ready. My hostess was better now.
Her husband would be home ere long.

All that evening passed in peace. Next morning


Achilandana went out as usual to fetch my cup of
tea. I sat up in bed and took it from her. I did
not notice any difference in her expression,
guessing nothing of what had happened, though
the child must have been startled. While she had
waited outside my hostess's room till tea would be
ready, a man had run into the courtyard crying :
" Ngondo ! " {War /)

There was great excitement. The boys rushed
out of the cookhouse, and gathered in a group
round the man. Achilandana pressed forward
and listened with staring eyes and open mouth.
Disturbed by the commotion the mistress appeared
on the scene.

" Ngondo ! Ngondo ! " cried the man again.
" All the great white men have fled from Mlanje
Mission. They are hiding amongst the rocks of
the mountain, if they are not already destroyed.
The wild chief Mkanda with all his men attacked
them yesterday. They fled. They could not
stand before him. Their palace is looted. I, who
am only a child, have run all the way to tell you.
Presenty, Donna, Presenty." (Give me a present,

Achilandana was only too familiar with the
meaning of " Ngondo." Had not she, little over
two years before, fled with the women to the
mountains when the terrible chief Chikumbu made


war on her tribe. But this time " Ngondo "
meant something different to her. It was bad
enough certainly when her people were slain, but
they killed in return. Now the dread word
" Ngondo " had an awful significance. To her it
meant fighting with God, Mlungu, as she called
Him. The idea of God had recently dawned on
her. As yet she saw Him only through the white

Her first impulse was to run and tell her Donna,

but the planter's wife caught her by the shoulder
and commanded her not to do so. She also bade
all her black boys and girls to be silent on the

* * * * * * *

I came out of my room into the glorious sun-
shine. The air smelt delicately of eucalyptus from
the blue gum tree that touched the brown thatch
with its bluey-green foliage. Breakfast was set
in the verandah for the first time. My hostess
met me, looking lovely in a cream and pink dress,
made by herself of common art muslin which
people at home would have made into screens.
With what content I sat down to fried sardines
and eggs and delicious thin slices of bread. Folk
may talk of feasts. There are none so perfect as


a meal concocted in the wilds, or cooked on a wood
fire beside a river, accompanied by the music of
the rustling leaves, the croaking of frogs, or the
sharp splash of a crocodile in the water.

But my peace did not last long. In the after-
noon while I was sitting in the cool of the verandah
a young planter entered.

" I am sorry to hear of the trouble at Mlanje,"
he said abruptly as we shook hands.

" Trouble ! What trouble ? " I gasped.

" The Mission was attacked yesterday by
Mkanda, the chief, with a hundred or so men.
Your husband and the others fled — "

My hostess ran out of the house. She clasped
me in her arms. " Mr. S — , what are you
saying ? " she cried. " Not another word ! "
Then turning to me — " Don't be alarmed, dear.
I am sure it will be all right."

I did not faint. I felt stunned. Fortunately
at that moment, verifying the saying — " Man's
extremity is God's opportunity " — a native came
round the corner of the house, and handed me a
note stuck on the end of a stick. It was from my
husband, telling me that they were all safe, having
taken refuge in Mr. Moir's house, and that he would
join me in a few days.

In a few days ! How often I repeated those
words to myself during that time of anxiety and


suspense. We heard of natives, who had been
sent with messages, murdered by the way. Every
day I looked for his coming. Every night I walked
out along the narrow path, bordered by high grass,
and through the bush as far as it was safe, standing
every little while to listen for the song of machilla
men, or some noise which would tell me of their
approach. But listen as I might, not a sound,
not a stir, just a great, terrible silence all around

Night after night as the sun was setting, I turned

back with a dull, sinking heart. Miss W

always accompanied me, but for her I know not
how I could have stood it. When a fortnight had
gone we went as usual, going further into the bush,
and standing till the sun bathed in fiery colours
the accumulated clouds above the horizon. Re-
luctantly we turned back, I, feeling sick at heart
and unable to bear the strain any longer.

I entered the bungalow, separating myself from
my friend, who sat down in the verandah. I dared
not at that moment face my sympathetic hosts.
I crept into the little drawing room, which was
quite dark now as the large wooden shutters had
been put against the windows. I threw myself
on the sofa, burying my face in the cushion.

Suddenly there was an unusual sound outside.
I sat up, scarcely believing my ears. There was a


singing and clapping of hands. Surely I knew
what that meant — a machilla with a white man
must be coming. Yet I did not venture to go out.
I pressed my hands to my heart. It could not
be he. It must be some other. Then I heard my
name called by my hostess. I ran out and joined
her ; then sure enough round the house came a
machilla carrying a white man. It was the
Msungu, though not as I knew him, for he had
grown a beard. Mkanda had stolen his razors
along with the other spoil.

After he had rested and had dinner we heard
his story as we sat together in the drawing room.
" Last Monday," he said, " we heard that a party
of Administration soldiers had passed along the
foot of the mountain, and soon we saw smoke and
flames rising from what seemed to be Mkanda's
village. In the evening we heard a rumour that
if the soldiers moved off and went back to their
fort, the chief might attack us ; so we kept guard
all night. Next day we started work as usual,
but I sent out parties to watch and inform us of
any movement. In the afternoon I felt I was
taking fever so I crossed to the Doctor's house for
some medicine. Before I reached his door a
scout ran in breathless, crying " Ngondo ! '

" I ran back, picked up my revolver, and was
making to join the Doctor, when I saw him running


away from the back of his house. Immediately
the Station seemed black with natives. There
might be 150 to 200 men. Shots whizzed past
me. I fled in the direction of the Linje stream.
I saw the Doctor in front of me, the teacher behind.
The latter had a very narrow escape. One bullet
passed through his coat sleeve, grazing his knuckle,
another through the leg of his trousers. My hat
disappeared from my head.

" For some distance we were pursued ; then I
think they must have turned back to loot the
house ; though I did not know that then. Every
moment we expected to see them behind us. I
turned faint and crawled underneath a ba^k.
The Doctor wanted to wait with me, but I sent
him on, with what I thought was my last message
to my wife. I lay there till nightfall when I
started to make my way to Madza-ku-samba's,
the nearest planter's house. Then I thought I
heard someone in pursuit, and I plunged into the
bush. I lost my track, and torn by thorns and
bruised by tumbling over stones, I reached the
river Lekabula, which I crossed with difficulty.

" I drew a breath of relief. Surely now my
pursuers had turned back. But as deadly a foe
was behind me. I heard the sound of some wild
animal breaking through the long grass, evidently
making towards me, and snorting with rage. I


don't know how I did it, or how it was, but a tree,
like Jonah's gourd, appeared before me, and in
desperation I pulled myself up, and sat trembling
on a branch. A heavy body sprang at the tree.
I could hear it breathing at the foot, but it was
too dark to see anything. Then I turned dread-
fully sick and forgot the beast, remembering that
I had eaten some beans, growing by the path,
that might have been poisonous. But I recovered,
and sat shivering till the grey dawn.

" There were no signs of my enemy so I got
down and found my way to a native village. The
people took me in to a hut, spread a mat for me
on the floor, and kindled a fire. Then they killed
a hen and cooked it with sweet potatoes for my
breakfast. I could not eat, so they gave me some
tobacco for my pipe. Here I rested till the father
of the family carried a message to Mr. Moir asking
for a machilla. In an hour or two it arrived with
sufficient men to carry me to his house. There

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Online LibraryJessie Monteath CurrieThe Hill of goodbye; the story of a solitary white woman's life in Central Africa → online text (page 12 of 13)