H. Rider (Henry Rider) Haggard.

She : a history of adventure online

. (page 14 of 26)
Online LibraryH. Rider (Henry Rider) HaggardShe : a history of adventure → online text (page 14 of 26)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

movement that somehow gave an impression of despairmg
energy, the woman rose to her feet and cast the dark cloak
from her.

It was She herself !

She was clothed, as I had seen her when she unveiled,
in the kirtle of clinging white, cut low upon her bosom,
and bound in at the waist with the barbaric double-headed
snake, and, as before, her rippling black hair fell in heavy


masses down her back. But her face was what caught my
eye, and held me as in a vice, not this time by the force of
its beauty, but by the power of fascinated terror. The
beauty was still there, indeed, but the agony, the blind
passion, and the awful vindictiveness displayed upon those
quivering features, and in the tortured look of the upturned
eyes, were such as surpass my powers of description.

For a moment she stood still, ];ier hands raised high
above her head, and as she did so the white robe slipped
from her down to her golden girdle, baring tie blinding
loveliness of her form. She stood there, her fingers
clenched, and the awful look of malevolence gathered and
deepened on her face.

Suddenly, I thought of what would happen if she dis-
covered me, and the reflection made me turn sick and
faint. But even if I had known that I must die if I
stopped, I do not believe that I could have moved, for I
was absolutely fascinated. But still I knew my danger.
Supposing she should hear me, or see me through the
curtain, supposing I even sneezed, or that her magic told
her that she was being watched— swift indeed would be
my doom.

Down came the clenched hands to her sides, then up
again above her head, and, as I am a living and honour-
able man, the white flame of the fire leapt up after them,
almost to the roof, throwing a fierce and ghastly glare upon
She herself, upon the white figure beneath the covering,
and every scroll and detail of the rockwork.

Down came the ivory arms again, and as they did so
she spoke, or rather hissed, in Arabic, in a note that
curdled my blood, and for a second stopped my heart.

' Curse her, may she be everlastingly accursed.'

The arms fell and the flame sank. Up they went
again, and the broad tongue of fire shot up after them ;
then again they fell.

' Curse her memory — accursed be the memory of the

Up again, and -again down.

M 2

i64 SHE

' Curse her, the fair daughter of the Nile, because of
her beauty.'

' Curseher, because her magic hath prevailed against mCi'

' Curse her, because she kept my beloved from me.' . ,

And again the flame dwindled and shrank.

She put her hands before her eyes, and, abandoning the
hissing tone, cried aloud : —

' What is the use of cursing ?— she prevailed, and she
is gone.'

Then she recommenced with an even more frightful
energy :—

' Curse her where she is. Let my curses reach her
where she is and disturb her rest.

' Curse her through the starry spaces. Lot her shadow
be accursed.

' Let my power find her even there.

' Let her hear me even there. Let her hide herself in
the blackness.

' Let her go down into the pit of despair, because I shall
one day find her.'

Again the flame fell, and again she covered her eyes
with her hajnds.

' It is no use — no use,' she wailed ; ' who can reach
those who sleep ? Not even I can reach them.'

Then once more she began her unholy rites.

' Curse her when she shall be born again. Let her be
born accursed.

' Let her be utterly accursed from the hour of her birth
until sleep finds her,

' Yea, then, let her be accm-sed : for then shall I over-
take her with my vengeance, and utterly destroy her.'

And so on. The flame rose and fell, reflecting itself in
her agonised eyes ; the hissing sound of her terrible male-
dictions, and no words of mine, especially on paper, can
convey how terrible they were, ran round the walls and
died away in little echoes, and the fierce light and deep
gloom alternated themselves on the white and dreadful
form stretched upon that bier of stone.

But at length she seemed to wear herself out, and


ceased. She sat herself down upon the rocky floor, and
shook the dense cloud of her beautiful hair over her face
and breast, and began to sob terribly in the torture of a
heartrending despair.

' Two thousand years,' she moansd — ' two thousand
years have I waited and endured; but though century
doth still creep on to century, and time give place to time,
the sting of memory hath not lessened, the light of hope
doth not shine more bright. Oh ! to have lived two thou-
sand years, with my passion eating at my heart, and with
my sin ever before me. Oh, that for me life cannot bring
forgetfulness ! Oh, for the weary years that have been and
are yet to come, and evermore to come, endless and without
end !

' My love I my love ! my love ! Why did that stra,nger
bring thee back to me after this sort ? For five hundred
years I have not suffered thus. Oh, if I sinned against
thee, have I not wiped away the sin ? When wilt thou
come back to me who have all, and yet without thee have
naught? What is there that I can do ? What? What?
What? And perchance she — perchance that Egyptian
doth abide with thee where thou art, and mock my
memory. Oh, why could I not die with thee, I who slew
thee ? Alas, that I cannot die 1 Alas ! Alas ! ' and she
flung herseK prone upon the ground, and sobbed and wept
till I thought her heart must burst.

Suddenly she ceased, raised herself to her feet, re-
arranged her robe, and, tossing back her long locks impati-
ently, swept across to where the figure lay upon the stone.

' Oh Kallikrates,' she cried, and I trembled at the name,
' I must look upon thy face again, though it be agony. It
is a generation since I looked upon thee whom I slew —
slew with mine own hand,' and with trembhng fingers she
seized the corner of the sheet-like wrapping that covered
the form upon the stone bier, and then paused. When she
spoke again, it was in a kind of awed whisper, as though
her idea were terrible even to herself.

' Shall I raise thee,' she said, apparently addressing the
corpse, ' so that thou standest there before me, as of old ?

i65 SHE

I can do it,' and she held out her hands over the sheeted
dead, while her whole frame hecame rigid and terrible to
see, and her eyes grew fixed and dull. I shrank in horror
behind the curtain, my hair stood up upon my head, and
whether it was my imagination or a fact I am unable to
say, but I thought that the quiet form beneath the cover-
ing began to quiver, and the winding sheet to lift as though
it lay on the breast of one who slept. Suddenly she with-
drew her hands, and the motion of the corpse seemed to me
to cease.

' What is the use? ' she said gloomily. * Of what use
is it to recall the semblance of life when I cannot recall
the spirit ? Even if thou stoodest before me thou wouldst
not know me, and couldst but do what I bid thee. The
life in thee would be mj/ life, and not ihy life, Kallikrates.'

For a moment she stood there brooding, and then cast
herself down on her knees beside the form, and began to
press her lips against the sheet, and weep. There was some-
thmg so horrible about the sight of this awe-inspiring
woman letting loose her passion on the dead — so much
more horrible even than anything that had gone before,
that I could no longer bear to look at it, and, turning,
began to creep, shaking as I was in every limb, slowly
along the pitch-dark passage, feeUng in my trembling heart
that I had a vision of a Soul in Hell,

On I stumbled, I scarcely know how. Twice I fell,
once I turned up the bisecting passage, but fortunately
found out my mistake in time. For twenty minutes or more
I crept along, till at last it occurred to me that I must have
passed the little stair by which I descended. So, utterly
exhausted, and nearly frightened to death, I sank do^vn at
length there on the stone flooring, and sank into oblivion.

When I came to I noticed a faint ray of light in the
passage just behind me. I crept to it, and found it was
the httle stair down which the weak dawn was stealing.
Passing up it I gained my chamber in safety, and, flinging
myself on the couch, was soon lost in slumber or rather




The next thing that I remember was opening my eyes and
perceiving the form of Job, who had now practically re-
covered from his attack of fever. He was standing in the
ray of light that pierced into the cave from the outer air,
shaking out my clothes as a makeshift for brushing them,
which he could not do because there was no brush, and
then folding them up neatly and laying them on the foot
of the stone couch. This done, he got my travelling
dressing-case out of the Gladstone bag, and opened it
ready for my use. First, he stood it on the foot of the
couch also, then, bemg afraid, I suppose, that I should
kick it off, he placed it on a leopard skin on the floor, and
stood back a step or two to observe the effect. It was not
satisfactory, so he shut up the bag, turned it on end, and,
having rested it against the foot of the couch, placed the
dressing-case on it. Next, he looked at the pots full of
water, which constituted our washiag apparatus. ' Ah ! '
I heard him murmur, ' no hot water in this beastly place.
I suppose these poor creatures only use it to boil each
other in,' and he sighed deeply.

' What is the matter. Job ? ' I said.

' Beg pardon, sir,' he said, touching his hair. ' I
thought you were asleep, sir ; and I am sure you look as
though you want it. One might think from the look of
you that you had been having a night of it.'

I only groaned by way of answer, I liad, indeed, boon
having a night of it, such as I hope never to have again.

' How is Mr. Leo, Job ? '

' Much the same, sir. If he don't soon mend, he'll
end, sir ; and that's all about it ; though I must say that

i68 SHE

that there savage, Ustane, do do her best for him, almost
like a baptised Christian. She is always hanging romid
and looking after him, and if I ventures to interfere, it's
awful to see her ; her hair seems to stand on end, and she
curses and swears away in her heathen talk — at least I
fancy she must be cursing from the look of her.'

' And what do you do then ? '

' I make her a perlite bow, and I say, " Young woman,
your position is one that I don't quite understand, and can't
recognise. Let me tell you that I has a duty to perform to
my master as is incapacitated by illness, and that I am going
to perform it until I am incapacitated too," but she don't
take no heed, not she — only curses and swears away worse
than ever. Last night she put her hand under that sort of ■
nightshirt she wears and whips out a knife with a kind
of a curl in the blade, so I whips out my revolver, and we
Avalks round and round each other till at last she bursts
out laughing. It isn't nice treatment for a Christian man
to have to put up with from a savage, however handsome
she may be, but it is what people must expect as is fools
enough ' (Job laid great emphasis on the ' fools ') ' to
come to such a place to look for things no man is meant
to find. It's a judgment on us, sir — that's my opinion ;
and I, for one, is of opinion, that the judgment isn't half
done yet, and when it is done, we shall be done too, and
just stop in these beastly caves with the ghosts and the
corpseses for once and all. And now, sir, I must be seeing
about Mr. Leo's broth, if that wild cat will let me ; and,
perhaps, you would like to get up, sir, because it's past
nine o'clock.'

Job's remarks were not of an exactly cheering order to
a man who had passed such a night as I had ; and, what
is more, they had the weight of truth. Taking one thing
with another, it appeared to me to be an utter impossibility
i that we should escape from the place where we were.
Supposing that Leo recovered, and supposing that She
; would let us go, which was exceedingly doubtful, and that
she did not ' blast ' us in some moment of vexation, and


that we were not hot-potted by the Amahagger, it would
be quite impossible for us to find our way across the net-
worlc of marshes which, stretching for scores and scores of
mUes, formed a stronger and more impassable fortification
round the various Amahagger households than any that
could be built or designed by man. No, there was but
one thing to do — face it out ; and, speaking for my own
part, I was so intensely interested in the whole weird story
that, so far as I was concerned, notwithstanding the
shattered state of my nerves, I asked nothing better, even
if my life paid forfeit to my curiosity. What man for
whom physiology has charms could forbear to study such a
character as that of this Ayesha when the opportunity of
doing so presented itself ? The very terror of the pursuit
added to its fascination, and besides, as I was forced to
own to myself even now in the sober light of day, she her-
self had attractions that I could not forget. Not even the
dreadful sight which I had witnessed during the night
could drive that folly from my mind ; and alas ! that I
should have to admit it, it has not been driven thence to
this hour.

After I had dressed myself I passed into the eating, or
rather embalming chamber, and had some food, which was
as before brought to me by the girl mutes. When I had
finished I went and saw poor Leo, who was quite off his
head, and did not even know me. I asked Ustane how she
thought he was ; but she only shook her head and began
to cry a little. E^ddently her hopes were sniaU ; and I
then and there made up my mind that, if it were in any
way possible, I would get She to come and see him.
Surely she would cure him if she chose — at any rate she
said she could. While I was in the room, BUlali entered,
and also shook his head.

' He will die at night,' he said.

' God forbid, my father,' I answered, and turned av^ay
with a heavy heart.

' She-tvho-must-be-obeyed commands thy presence, my
Baboon,' said the old man as soon as we got to the

1/0 SHE

curtain ; ' but, oh my dear son, be more careful. Yester-
day I made sure in my heart that She would blast thee
when thou didst not crawl upon thy stomach before her.
She is sitting in the great hall even now to do justice upon
those who would have smitten thee and the Lion. Come
on, my son ; come swiftly.'

I turned, and followed him down the passage, and when
we reached the great central cave saw that many Ama-
hagger, some robed, and some merely clad in the sweet
simplicity of a leopard skin, were hurrying up it. We
muigled with the throng, and walked up the enormous
and, indeed, almost interminable cave. All the way its
walls were elaborately sculptured, and every twenty paces
or so passages opened out of it at right angles, leading,
Billali told me, to tombs, hoUowed in the rock by ' the
people who were before.' Nobody visited those tombs
now, he said ; and I must say that my heart rejoiced when I
thought of the opportunities of antiquarian research which
opened out before me.

At last we came to the head of the cave, where there
was a rock dais almost exactly similar to the one on which
we had been so furiously attacked, a fact that proved to
me that these dais must have been used as altars, prob-
ably for the celebration of religious ceremonies, and more
especially of rites connected with the mterment of the
dead. On either side of this dais were passages leading,
Billali informed me, to other caves full of dead bodies.
' Lideed,' he added, ' the whole mountain is full of dead,
and nearly all of them are perfect.'

In front of the dais were gathered a great number of
people of both sexes, who stood staring about in their
peculiar gloomy fashion, which would have reduced Mark
Tapley himself to misery in about five minutes, On the
dais was a rude chair of black Avood inlaid with ivory, hav-
ing a scat made of grass fibre, and a footstool formed of
a wooden slab attached to the framework of the chair.

Suddenly there was a cry of ' Hiya ! Hiya ! ' (' Sha !
She 1 '), and thereupon the entire crowd of spectators in-


stantly precipitated itself upon the ground, and lay still as
though it were individually and collectively stricken dead,
leaving me standing there Hke some solitary survivor of a
massacre. As it did so a long string of guards began to
defile from a passage to the left, and ranged themselves on
either side of the dais. Then followed about a score of male
mutes, then as many women mutes bearing lamps, and then
a tall white figure, swathed from head to foot, in whom I
recognised She. herself. She mounted the dais and sat
down upon the chair, and spoke to me in Greek, I suppose
because she did not wish those present to understand what
she said.

' Come hither, oh Holly,' she said, ' and sit thou at my
feet, and see me do justice on those who would have slain
thee. Forgive me if my Greek doth halt like a lame man ;
it is so long since I have heard the sound of it that my
tongue is stiif, and will not bend rightly to the words.'

I bowed, and, mounting the dais, sat down at her feet.

' How didst thou sleep, my Holly ? ' she asked.

' I slept not well, oh Ayesha ! ' I answered with perfect
truth, and with an inward fear that perhaps she Imew how
I had passed the heart of the night.

' So,' she said, with a little laugh, ' I, too, have not
slept well. Last night I had dreams, and methinks that
thou didst call them to me, oh Holly.'

' Of what didst thou dream, Ayesha ? ' I asked in-

' I dreamed,' she answered quickly, ' of one I hate and
one I love,' and then, as though, to turn the conversation,
she addressed the captain of her guard in Arabic : ' Let
the men be brought before me.'

The captain bowed low, for the guard and her attendants
did not prostrate themselves but had remained standing,
and departed with his underlings doAvn a passage to the

Then came a silence. Blic, leant her swathed head
upon her hand and appeared to be lost in thought, while
the multitude before her continued to grovel upon their


stomachs, only screwing tlieir heads round a little so as to
get a view of us with one eye. It seemed that their Queen
so rarely appeared in public that they were -willing to
undergo this inconvenience, and even graver risks, to have
the opportunity of looking on her, or rather on her gar-
ments, for no living man there except myself had ever
seen her face. At last we caught sight of the waving of
lights, and heard the tramp of men coining along the
passage, and in filed the guard, and with them the sur-
vivors of our would-be murderers to the number of twenty
or more, on whose countenances the natural expression
of suUenness struggled with the terror that evidently
filled their savage hearts. They were ranged in front
of the dais, and would have cast themselves down on
the floor of the cave Uke the spectators, but Sli& stopped

' Nay,' she said in her softest voice, ' stand ; I pray
you stand. Perchance the time will soon be when ye shall
grow weary of being stretched out,' and she laughed

I saw a cringe of terror run along the rank of the poor
doomed wretches, and, wicked villains as they were, I felt
sorry for them. Some minutes, perhaps two or three,
passed before anything fresh occurred, during which &7te
appeared from the movement of her head — for, of course,
we could not see her eyes — to be slowly and carefully ex-
amining each delinquent. At last she spoke, addressing
herself to me in a quiet and deliberate tore.

' Dost thou, oh my guest, who art known in thine own
country by the name of the Prickly Tree, recognise these
men ?'

' Ay, oh Queen, nearly all of them,' I said, and I saw
them glower at me as I said it.

' Then tell to me, and this great company, the tale
whereof I have heard.'

Thus adjured, I, in as few words as I could, related the
history of the cannibal feast, and of the attempted torture
of our poor servant. The narrative was received in perfect


silence, both by tlie aceusad and by the audience, and also
by She, herself. "When I had done, Ayesha called upon
Billali by name, and, lifting his head from the ground,
but without rising, the old man confirmed my story. No
further evidence was taken.

' Ye have heard,' said S}ui at length, in a cold, clear
voice, very different from her usual tones — indeed, it was
one of the most remarkable things about this extraordinary
creature that her voice had the power of suiting itself in
a wonderful manner to the mood of the moment. ' What
have ye to say, ye rebellious children, why vengeance
should not be done upon you ? '

For some time there was no answer, but at last one
of the men, a fine, broad-chested fellow, well on in
middle-life, with deep-graven features and an eye like a
hawk's, spoke, and said that the orders that they had
received were not to harm the white men ; nothing was
said of their black servant, so, egged on thereto by a
woman who was now dead, they proceeded to try to hot-
pot him after the ancient and honourable custom of their
country, with a view of eating him in due course. As for
their attack upon ourselves, it was made in an access of
sudden fury, and they deeply regretted it. He ended by
humbly praying that mercy might be extended to them ;
or, at least, that they might be banished into the swamps,
to live or die as it might chance ; but I saw it written
on his face that he had but little hope of mercy.

Then came a pause, and the most intense silence
reigned over the whole scene, which, illuminated as it was
by the flicker of the lamps striking out broad patterns of
light and shadow upon the rocky walls, was as strange as
any I ever saw, even in that unholy land. Upon the ground
before the dais were stretched scores of the corpselike forms
of the spectators, till at last the long lines of them were lost
in the gloomy background. Before this outstretched audi-
ence v.ere the knots of evil-doers, trying to cover up their
natural terrors with a brave appearance of unconcern. On
the right and left stood the silent guards, robod in white

174 SHE

and armed with great spears and daggers, and men and
•women mutes watching with hard curious eyes. Then,
seated in her barbaric chair above them all, with myself
at her feet, was the veiled white woman, whose loveliness
and awesome power seemed to visibly shine about her like
a halo, or rather Uke the glow from some unseen light.
Never have I seen her veiled shape look more terrible than
it did in that space, while she gathered herself up for

At last it came.

' Dogs and serpents,' Sha began in a low voice that
gradually gathered power as she went on, till the place
rang with it. ' Eaters of human flesh, two things have
ye done. First, ye have attacked these strangers, being
white men, and would have slain their servant, and for
that alone death is your reward. But that is not all. Ye
have dared to disobey me. Did I not send my word unto
you by Billali, my servant, and the father of your house-
hold ? Did I not bid you to hospitably entertain those
strangers, whom now ye have striven to slay, and whom,
had not they been brave and strong beyond the strength of
men, ye would cruelly have murdered ? Hath it not been
taught to you from childhood that the law of She is an ever
fixed law, and that he who breaketh it by so much as one
jot or tittle shall perish ? And is not my lightest word a
law ? Have not your fathers taught you this, I say, whilst
as yet ye were but children ? Do ye not know that as
well might ye bid these great caves to fall upon you, or the
sun to cease its journeying, as to hope to turn me from
my courses, or make my word light or heavy, according to
your minds ? Well do ye know it, ye Wicked Ones. But
ye are all evil — evil to the core — the wickedness bubbles
up in you Hke a fountain in the spring-time. Were it not
for me, generations since had ye ceased to be, for of your
own evil way had ye destroyed each other. And now,
because ye have done this thing, because ye have striven
to put these men, my guests, to death, and yet more because
ye have dared to disobey my word, this is the doom that I


doom you to. That ye be taken to the cave of torture,' and
given over to the tormentors, and that on the going down
of to-morrow's sun those of you who yet remain aUve be
slain, even as ye would have slain the servant of this my

She ceased, and a faint murmur of horror ran round

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 14 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26

Online LibraryH. Rider (Henry Rider) HaggardShe : a history of adventure → online text (page 14 of 26)