Charles H. M. Kerr Henry Rider Haggard.

Allan Quatermain: being an account of his further adventures and discoveries ... online

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Online LibraryCharles H. M. Kerr Henry Rider HaggardAllan Quatermain: being an account of his further adventures and discoveries ... → online text (page 16 of 28)
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Nyleptha leant forward, and with an involuntary movement
covered her eyes with her hand. Sorais turned and whispered
to the officer of the royal bodyguard, and then with a rending
sound the whole of the brazen flooring slid from before our
feet, and there in its place was suddenly revealed a smooth
marble shaft terminating in a most awful raging furnace
beneath the altar, big enough and hot enough to heat the iron
stern-post of a man-of-war.

With a cry of terror we sprang backwards, all except the
wretched Alphonse, who was paralysed with fear, and would


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have fallen into the fiery furnace which had been prepared for
us, had not Sir Henry caught him in his strong hand as he
was vanishing and dragged him back.

Instantly there arose the most fearful hubbub, and we four
got back to back, Alphonse dodging frantically round our
little circle in his attempts to take shelter under our legs. We
all had our revolvers on — for though we had been politely dis-
armed of our guns on leaving the palace, of course these
people did not know what a revolver was. Umslopogaas, too,
had his axe, of which no effort had been made to deprive him,
and now he whirled it round his head and sent his piercing
Zulu war- shout echoing up the marble walls in fine defiant
fashion. Next second, the priests, baffled of their prey, had
drawn swords from beneath their white robes and were leaping
on us like hounds upon a stag at bay. I saw that, dangerous
as action might be, we must act or be lost, so as the first man
came bounding along— and a great tall fellow he was — I sent
a heavy revolver ball through him, and down he fell at the
mouth of the shaft, and slid, shrieking frantically, into the
fiery gulf that had been prepared for us.

Whether it was his cries, or the, to them, awful sound and
effect of the pistol shot, or what, I know not, but the other
priests halted, paralysed and dismayed, and before they could
come on again Sorais had called out something, and, to-
gether with the two Queens and most of the courtiers, we were
being surrounded with a wall of armed men. In a moment
it was done, and still the priests hesitated, and the people
hung in the balance like a herd of startled buck as it were,
making no sign one way or the other.

The last yell of the burning priest had died away, the fire
had finished him, and a great silence fell upon the place.

Then the High Priest Agon turned, and his face was as
the face of a devil. ' Let the sacrifice be sacrificed,' he cried
to the Queens. 'Has not sacrilege enough been done by
these strangers, and would ye, as Queens, throw the cloak of
your majesty over evildoers ? Are not the creatures sacred to
the Sun dead ? and is not a priest of the Sun also dead, but
now slain by the magic of these strangers, who come as the


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winds out of heaven, whence we know not, and who are what
we know not? Beware, Queens, how ye tamper with the
great majesty of the God, even before His high altar ! There
is a Power that is more than your power ; there is a Justice
that is higher than your justice. Beware how ye lift an
impious hand against it ! Let the sacrifice be sacrificed,

Then Sorais made answer in her deep quiet tones, that
always seemed to me to have a suspicion of mockery about
them, however serious the theme : * Agon, thou hast
spoken according to thy desire, and thou hast spoken truth.
But it is thou who wouldst lift an impious hand against the
jiistice of thy God. Bethink thee the midday sacrifice is ac-
complished ; the Sun hath claimed his priest as a sacrifice.'

This was a novel idea, and the people applauded it.

' Bethink thee what are these men ? They are strangers
found floating on the bosom of a lake. Who brought them
there ? How came they there ? How know you that they also
are not servants of the Sun ? * Is this the hospitality that ye
would have our nation show to those whom chance brings to
them, to throw them to the flames ? Shame on you ! shame
on you ! What is hospitality ? To receive the stranger and
show him favour. To bind up his wounds, and find a pillow
for his head, and food for him to eat. But thy pillow is the
fiery furnace, and thy food the hot savour of the flame. Shame
on thee, I say ! *

She paused a little to watch the effect of her speech upon
the multitude, and seeing that it was favourable, changed her
tone from one of remonstrance to one of command.

' Ho ! place there,' she cried ; ' place, I say ; make way for
the Queens, and those whom the Queens cover with their
"kaf" (mantle).'

' And if I refuse, Queen ? ' said Agon between his

' Then will I cut a path with my guards,' was the proud
answer; 'ay, even in the presence of the sanctuary, and
through the bodies of thy priests.'

Agon turned livid with baffled fury. He glanced at the


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people as though meditating an appeal to them, but saw
clearly that their sympathies were all the other way. The
Zu-Vendi are a very curious and sociable people, and great
as was their sense of the enormity that we had committed in
shooting the sacred hippopotami, they did not like the idea
of the only real live strangers they had seen or heard of being
consigned to a fiery furnace, thereby putting an end for ever
to their chance of extracting knowledge and information from,
and gossiping about us. Agon saw this and hesitated, and
then for the first time Nyleptha spoke in her soft sweet voice.

' Bethink thee, Agon,' she said, * as my sister Queen hath
said, these men may also be servants of the Sun. For them-
selves they cannot speak, for their tongues are tied. Let the
matter be adjourned till such time as they have learnt our
language. Who can be condemned without a hearing ? When
these men can plead for themselves, then it will be time to
put them to the proof.'

Here was a clever loophole of escape, and the vindictive
old priest took it, little as he liked it.

' So be it, O Queens/ he said. ' Let the men go in
peace, and when they have learnt our tongue then let them
speak. And I, even I, will make humble supplication at
the altar lest pestilence fall on the land by cause of the

These words were received with a murmur of applause,
and in another minute we were marching out of the temple
surrounded by the royal guards.

But it was not till long afterwards that we learnt the
exact substance of what had passed, and how hardly our lives
had been wrung out of the cruel grip of the Zu-Vendi priest-
hood, in the face of which even the Queens were practically
powerless. Had it not been for their strenuous efforts to
protect us we should have been slain even before we set foot
in the Temple of the Sun. The attempt to drop us bodily
into the fiery pit as an offering was a last artifice to attain
this end when several others quite unsuspected by us had
already failed.


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After our escape from Agon and his pious crew we returned
to our quarters in the palace and had a very good time. The
two Queens, the nobles and the people vied with each other
in doing us honour and showering gifts upon us. As for that
painful little incident of the hippopotami it sank into oblivion,
where we were quite content to leave it. Every day depu-
tations and individuals waited on us to examine our guns and
clothing, our chain shirts, and our instruments, especially our
watches, with which they were much delighted. In short, we
became quite the rage, so much so that some of the fashion-
able young swells among the Zu-Vendi began to copy the
cut of some of our clothes, notably Sir Henry's shooting
jacket. One day, indeed, a deputation waited on us and, as
usual, Good donned his full-dress uniform for the occasion.
This deputation seemed somehow to be of a different class to
those who came to visit us generally. They were little in-
significant-looking men of an excessively polite, not to say
servile, demeanour ; and their attention appeared to be
chiefly taken up with observing the details of Good's full-dress
uniform, of which they took copious notes and measurements.
Good was much flattered at the time, not suspecting that he
had to deal with the six leading tailors of Milosis. A fort-
night afterwards, however, when on attending court as usual
he had the pleasure of seeing some seven or eight Zu-Vendi
' mashers ' arrayed in all the glory of a very fair imitation of
his full-dress uniform, he changed his mind. I shall never
forget his face of astonishment and disgust. It was after this,
chiefly in order to avoid remark, and also because our clothes
were wearing out and had to be saved up, that we resolved
to adopt the native dress; and a very comfortable one we
found it, though I am bound to say that I looked sufficiently
ludicrous in it, and as for Alphonse! Only Umslopogaas
would have none of these things ; when his moocha was worn



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out the fierce old Zulu made him a new one, and went about
unconcerned, as grim and naked as his own battle-axe.

Meanwhile we pursued our study of the language steadily
and made very good progress. On the morning following our
adventure in the temple three grave and reverend signiors
presented themselves armed with manuscript books, ink-horns,
and feather pens, and indicated that they had been sent to
teach us. So, with the exception of Umslopogaas, we all
buckled to with a will, doing four hours a day. As for Um-
slopogaas, he would have none of that either. He did not wish
to learn that 'woman's talk,' not he ; and when one of the
teachers advanced on him with a book and an ink-horn and
waved them before him in a mild persuasive way, much as a
churchwarden invitingly shakes the offertory bag under the
nose of a rich but niggardly parishioner, he sprang up with a
fierce oath and flashed Inkosi-kaas before the eyes of our
learned friend, and there was an end of the attempt to teach
Umslopogaas Zu-Vendi.

Thus we spent our mornings in useful occupation which
grew more and more interesting as we proceeded, and the
afternoons were given up to recreation. Sometimes we made
trips, notably one to the gold mines and another to the marble
quarries both of which I wish I had space and time to de-
scribe ; and sometimes we went out hunting buck with dogs
trained for that purpose, and a very exciting sport it is, as the
country is full of agricultural enclosures and our horses were
magnificent. This is not to be wondered at, seeing that the
royal stables were at our command, in addition to which we
had four splendid saddle horses given to us by Nyleptha.

Sometimes, again, we went hawking, a pastime that is in
great favour among the Zu-Vendi, who generally fly their
birds at a species of partridge which is remarkable for the
swiftness and strength of its flight. When attacked by the
hawk this bird appears to lose its head, and, instead of seeking
cover, flies high into the air, thus offering wonderful sport.
I have seen one of these partridges soar up almost out of
sight when followed by the hawk. Still better sport is offered
by a variety of solitary snipe as big as a small woodcock,


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which is plentiful in this country, and which is flown at with
a very small, agile, and highly-trained hawk with an almost
red tail. The zigzagging of the great snipe and the lightning
rapidity of the flight and movements of the red-tailed hawk
make the pastime a delightful one. Another variety of the
same amusement is the hunting of a very small species of
antelope with trained eagles ; and it certainly is a marvellous
sight to see the great bird soar and soar till he is nothing but
a black speck in the sunlight, and then suddenly come dashing
down like a cannon-ball upon some cowering buck that is
hidden in a patch of grass from everything except that piercing
eye. Still finer is the spectacle when the eagle takes the buck

On other days we would pay visits to the country seats
at some of the great lords' beautiful fortified places, and the
villages clustering beneath their walls. Here we saw vine-
yards and cornfields and well-kept park-like grounds, with
such timber in them as filled me with delight, for I do love a
good tree. There it stands so strong and sturdy, and yet so
beautiful, a very type of the best sort of man. How proudly
it lifts its bare head to the winter storms, and with what a full
heart it rejoices when the spring has come again ! How grand
its voice is, too, when it talks with the wind : a thousand
aeolian harps cannot equal the beauty of the sighing of a great
tree in leaf. All day it points to the sunshine and all night
to the stars, and thus passionless, and yet full of life, it
endures through the centuries, come storm, come shine,
drawing its sustenance from the deep bosom of its mother
earth, and as the slow years roll by, learning the great mys-
teries of growth and of decay. And so on and on through
generations, outliving individuals, customs, dynasties — all
save the landscape it adorns and human nature — till the
appointed day when the wind wins the long battle and rejoices
over a reclaimed space, or decay puts the last stroke to his
lingering work.

Ah, one should always think twice before one cuts down a
tree !

In the evenings it was customary for Sir Henry, Good, and


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myself to dine, or rather sup, with their Majesties — not every
night, indeed, but about three or four times a week, whenever
they had not much company, or the affairs of state would
allow of it. And I am bound to say that those little suppers
were quite the most charming things of their sort that I ever
had to do with. How true is the saying that the very highest
in rank are always the most simple and kindly. It is in your
half-and-half sort of people that you find pompousness and
vulgarity, the difference between the two being very much
what one sees every day in England between the old, out-at-
elbows, broken-down county family, and the overbearing,
purse-proud people who come and * take the place.' I really
think that Nyleptha's greatest charm is her sweet simplicity,
and her kindly genuine interest even in little things. She is
the simplest woman I ever knew, and where her passions are
not involved, one of the sweetest ; but she can look queenly
enough when she likes, and be as fierce as any savage too.

For instance, never shall I forget that scene when for the
first time I was sure that she was really in love with Curtis.
It came about in this way — all through Good's weakness for
ladies' society. When we had been employed for some three
months in learning Zu-Vendi, it struck Captain Good that he
was growing rather tired of the old gentlemen who did us the
honour to lead us in the way that we should go, so without
saying a word to anybody else, he proceeded to inform them
that it was a peculiar fact, but that we could not make any
real progress in the deeper intricacies of a foreign lan-
guage unless we were taught by ladies — young ladies, he was
careful to explain. In his own country, he pointed out, it
was habitual to choose the very best-looking and most charm-
ing girls who could be found to instruct any strangers who
happened to come that way, &c.

All of this the old gentlemen swallowed open-mouthed.
There was, they admitted, reason in what he said, since the
contemplation of the beautiful, as their philosophy taught,
induced a certain porosity of mind similar to that produced
upon the physical body by the healthful influences of sun and
air. Consequently it was probable that we might absorb the


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Zu-Vendi tongue a little faster if suitable teachers could be
found. Another thing was that, as the female sex was
naturally loquacious, good practice would be gained in the
vivd voce department of our studies.

To all of this Good gravely assented, and the learned
gentlemen departed, assuring him that their orders were to
fall in with our wishes in every way, and that, if possible,
our views should be met.

Imagine, therefore, the surprise and disgust of myself, and
I trust and believe Sir Henry, when, on entering the room
where we were accustomed to carry on our studies the follow-
ing morning, we found, instead of our usual venerable tutors,
three of the best-looking young women that Milosis could
produce — and this is saying a good deal — who blushed and
smiled and curtseyed, and gave us to understand that they
were there to carry on our instruction. Then Good, as we
gazed at one another in bewilderment, thought fit to explain,
saying that it had slipped his memory before — but the old
gentlemen had told him, on the previous evening, that it was
absolutely necessary that our further education should be
carried on by the other sex. I was overwhelmed, and appealed
to Sir Henry for advice in such a crisis.

' Well,' he said, 'you see the ladies are here, ain't they?
If we sent them away, don't you think it might hurt their
feelings, eh ? One doesn't like to be rough, you see ; and
they look regular blues, don't they, eh ? '

By this time Good had already begun his lessons with the
handsomest of the three, and so with a sigh I yielded. That
day everything went very well : the young ladies were certainly
very clever, and they only smiled when we blundered. I
never saw Good so attentive to his books before, and even Sir
Henry appeared to tackle Zu-Vendi with a renewed zest.
' Ah,' thought I, ' will it always be thus ?*

Next day we were much more lively, our work was
pleasingly interspersed with questions about our native
country, what the ladies were like there, &c, all of which we
answered as best we could in Zu-Vendi, and I heard Good
assuring his teacher that her loveliness was to the beauties of


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Europe as the sun to tjie moon, to which she replied with a
little toss of *the head, that she was a plain teaching woman
and nothing fclse, and that it was not kind * to deceive a poor
girl so.' Then we had a little singing that was really charm-
ing, so natural and unaffected. The Zu-Vendi love-songs
are most touching. On the third day we were all quite inti-
mate. Good narrated some of his previous love affairs to his
fair teacher, and so moved was she that her sighs mingled
with his own. I discoursed with mine, a merry blue-eyed
girl, upon Zu-Vendian art, and never saw that she was wait-
ing for an opportunity to drop a specimen of the cockroach
tribe down my back, whilst in the corner Sir Henry and his
governess appeared, so far as I could judge, to be going
through a lesson framed on the great educational principles
laid down by Wackford Squeers, Esq., though in a very modi-
fied or rather spiritualised form. The lady softly repeated
the Zu-Vendi word for ' hand/ and he took hers ; ' eyes/ and
he gazed deep into her brown orbs ; ' lips,' and — but just at
that moment my young lady dropped the cockroach down my
back and ran away laughing. Now if there is one thing I
loathe more than another it is cockroaches, and moved quite
beyond myself, and yet laughing at her impudence, I took up
the cushion she had been sitting on and threw it after her.
Imagine then my shame — my horror, and my distress — when
the door opened, and, attended by two guards only, in walked
Nyleptha. The cushion could not be recalled (it missed the
girl and hit one of the guards on the head), but I instantly
and ineffectually tried to look as though I had not thrown
it. Good ceased his sighing, and began to murder Zu-Vendi
at the top of his voice, and Sir Henry whistled and looked
silly. As for the poor girls, they were utterly dumbfounded.

And Nyleptha ! she drew herself up till her frame seemed
to tower even above that of the tall guards, and her face went
first red, and then pale as death.

1 Guards,' she said in a quiet choked voice, and pointing
at the fair but unconscious disciple of Wackford Squeers,
* slay me that woman.'

The men hesitated, as well they might.


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'Will ye do my bidding,' she said again in the same voice,
1 or will ye not ? *

Then they advanced upon the girl with uplifted spears.
By this time Sir Henry had recovered himself, and saw that
the comedy was likely to turn into a tragedy.

' Stand back, 1 he said in an angry voice, at the same time
getting in front of the terrified girl. * Shame on thee, Queen
— shame ! Thou shalt not kill her.'

' Doubtless thou hast good reason to try to protect her.
Thou couldst hardly do less in honour,' answered the infuri-
ated Queen; 'but she shall die— she shall die,' and she
stamped her little foot.

1 It is well/ he answered ; ' then I will die with her. I
am thy servant, Queen ; do with me even as thou wilt.'
And he bowed towards her, and fixed his clear eyes contemp-
tuously on her face.

' I could wish to slay thee too/ she answered ; ' for thou
dost make a mock of me ; ' and then feeling that she was
mastered, and I suppose not knowing what else to do, she
burst into such a storm of tears, and looked so royally lovely
in her passionate distress, that, old as I am, I must say I
envied Curtis his task of supporting her. It was rather odd
to see him holding her in his arms considering what had just
passed — a thought that seemed to occur to herself, for pre-
sently she wrenched herself free and went, leaving us all
much disturbed.

Presently, however, one of the guards returned with a
message to the girls that on pain of death, they were to
leave the city and return to their homes in the country, and
that no farther harm would come to them. Accordingly
they went, one of them remarking philosophically that it
could not be helped, and that it was a satisfaction to know
that they had taught us a little serviceable Zu-Vendi. Mine
was an exceedingly nice girl, and, overlooking the cockroach,
I made her a present of my favourite lucky sixpence with
a hole in it when she went away. After that our former
masters resumed their course of instruction, needless to say
to my great relief.


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That night, when in fear and trembling we attended the
royal supper table, we found that Nyleptha was laid up with
a bad headache. This headache lasted for three whole days ;
but on the fourth she was present at supper as usual, and
with the most gracious and sweet smile gave Sir Henry her
hand to lead her to the table. No allusion was made to the
little affair described above beyond her saying, with a charm-
ing air of innocence, that when she came to see us at our
studies the other day she had been seized with a giddiness
from which she had only now recovered. She supposed, she
added with a touch of the humour that was common to her,
that it was the sight of people working so hard which had
affected her.

In reply Sir Henry said, dryly, that he had thought she
did not look quite herself on that day, whereat she flashed
one of those quick glances of hers at him, which if he had
the feelings of a man must have gone through him like a
knife, and the subject dropped entirely. Indeed, after supper
was over Nyleptha condescended to put us through an exami-
nation to see what we had learnt, and to express herself well
satisfied with the results. Indeed, she proceeded to give us,
especially Sir Henry, a lesson on her own account, and very
interesting we found it.

And all the while that we talked, or rather tried to talk,
and laughed, Sorais would sit there in her carven ivory chair,
and look at us and read us all like a book, only from time to
time saying a few words, and smiling that quick ominous
smile of hers which was more like a flash of summer light-
ning on a dark cloud than anything else. And as near to
her as he dared would sit Good, worshipping through his
eyeglass, for he was really growing seriously devoted to this
sombre beauty, of whom, speaking personally, I felt terribly
afraid. I watched her keenly, and soon I found out that for
all her apparent impassibility she was at heart bitterly jealous
of Nyleptha. Another thing I found out, and the discovery
• filled me with dismay, and it was, that she also was grow-
ing devoted to Sir Henry Curtis. Of course I could not be
sure ; it is not easy to read so cold and haughty a woman ;


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S0RA1S' SONG 181

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Online LibraryCharles H. M. Kerr Henry Rider HaggardAllan Quatermain: being an account of his further adventures and discoveries ... → online text (page 16 of 28)