Long Odds

Long Odds

LONG ODDS H. RIDER HAGGARD The story which is narrated in the following pages came to me from the lips of my old friend Allan Quatermain or Hunter Quatermain as we used to call him in South Africa. He told it to me one evening when I was stopping with him at the place he bought in Yorkshire. Shortly after that the death of his only son so unsettled him that he immediately left England accompanied by two companions his old fellow-voyagers Sir Henry Curtis and Captain Good and has now utterly vanished into the dark heart of Africa. He is persuaded that a white people of which he has heard rumours all his life exists somewhere on the highlands in the vast still unexplored interior and his great ambition is to find them before he dies. This is the wild quest upon which he and his companions have departed and from which I shrewdly suspect they never will return. One letter only have I received from the old gentleman dated from a mission station high up the Tana a river on the east coast about three hundred miles north of Zanzibar. In it he says they have gone through many hardships and adventures but are alive and well and have found traces which go far towards making him hope that the results of their wild quest may be a "magnificent and unexampled discovery." I greatly fear however that all he has discovered is death; for this letter came a long while ago and nobody has heard a single word of the party since. They have totally vanished. It was on the last evening of my stay at his house that he told the ensuing story to me and Captain Good who was dining with him. He had eaten his dinner and drunk two or three glasses of old port just to help Good and myself to the end of the second bottle. It was an unusual thing for him to do for he was a most abstemious man having conceived as he used to say a great horror of drink from observing its effects upon the class of men--hunters transport riders and others--amongst whom he had passed so many years of his life. Consequently the good wine took more effect on him that it would have done on most men sending a little flush into his wrinkled cheeks and making him talk more freely than usual. Dear old man! I can see him now as he went limping up and down the vestibule with his grey hair sticking up in scrubbing-brush fashion his shrivelled yellow face and his large dark eyes that were as keen as any hawk's and yet soft as a buck's. The whole room was hung with trophies of his numerous hunting expeditions and he had some story about every one of them if only he could be got to tell them. Generally he would not for he was not very fond of narrating his own adventures but to-night the port wine made him more communicative. "Ah you brute!" he said stopping beneath an unusually large skull of a lion which was fixed just over the mantelpiece beneath a long row of guns its jaws distended to their utmost width. "Ah you brute! you have given me a lot of trouble for the last dozen years and will I suppose to my dying day." "Tell us the yarn Quatermain" said Good. "You have often promised to tell me and you never have." "You had better not ask me to" he answered "for it is a longish one." "All right" I said "the evening is young and there is some more port." Thus adjured he filled his pipe from a jar of coarse-cut Boer tobacco that was always standing on the mantelpiece and still walking up and down the room began-- "It was I think in the March of '69 that I was up in Sikukuni's country. It was just after old Sequati's time and Sikukuni had got into power--I forget how. Anyway I was there. I had heard that the Bapedi people had brought down an enormous quantity of ivory from the interior and so I started with a waggon-load of goods and came straight away from Middelburg to try and trade some of it. It was a risky thing to go into the country so early on account of the fever; but I knew that there were one or two others after that lot of ivory so I determined to have a try for it and take my chance of fever. I had become so tough from continual knocking about that I did not set it down at much. "Well I got on all right for a while. It is a wonderfully beautiful piece of bush veldt with great ranges of mountains running through it and round granite koppies starting up here and there looking out like sentinels over the rolling waste of bush. But it is very hot--hot as a stew-pan--and when I was there that March which of course is autumn in this part of Africa the whole place reeked of fever. Every morning as I trekked along down by the Oliphant River I used to creep from the waggon at dawn and look out. But there was no river to be seen--only a long line of billows of what looked like the finest cotton wool tossed up lightly with a pitchfork. It was the fever mist. Out from among the scrub too came little spirals of vapour as though there were hundreds of tiny fires alight in it--reek rising from thousands of tons of rotting vegetation. It was a beautiful place but the beauty was the beauty of death; and all those lines and blots of vapour wrote one great word across the surface of the country and that word was 'fever.' "It was a dreadful year of illness that. I came I remember to one little kraal of Knobnoses and went up to it to see if I could get some /maas/ or curdled butter-milk and a few mealies. As I drew near I was struck with the silence of the place. No children began to chatter and no dogs barked. Nor could I see any native sheep or cattle. The place though it had evidently been recently inhabited was as still as the bush round it and some guinea fowl got up out of the prickly pear bushes right at the kraal gate. I remember that I hesitated a little before going in there was such an air of desolation about the spot. Nature never looks desolate when man has not yet laid his hand upon her breast; she is only lonely. But when man has been and has passed away then she looks desolate. "Well I passed into the kraal and went up to the principal hut. In front of the hut was something with an old sheep-skin /kaross/ thrown over it. I stooped down and drew off the rug and then shrank back amazed for under it was the body of a young woman recently dead. For a moment I thought of turning back but my curiosity overcame me; so going past the dead woman I went down on my hands and knees and crept into the hut. It was so dark that I could not see anything though I could smell a great deal so I lit a match. It was a 'tandstickor' match and burnt slowly and dimly and as the light gradually increased I made out what I took to be a family of people men women and children fast asleep. Presently it burnt up brightly and I saw that they too five of them altogether were quite dead. One was a baby. I dropped the match in a hurry and was making my way from the hut as quick as I could go when I caught sight of two bright eyes staring out of a corner. Thinking it was a wild cat or some such animal I redoubled my haste when suddenly a voice near the eyes began first to mutter and then to send up a succession of awful yells. "Hastily I lit another match and perceived that the eyes belonged to an old woman wrapped up in a greasy leather garment. Taking her by the arm I dragged her out for she could not or would not come by herself and the stench was overpowering me. Such a sight as she was-- a bag of bones covered over with black shrivelled parchment. The only white thing about her was her wool and she seemed to be pretty well dead except for her eyes and her voice. She thought that I was a devil come to take her and that is why she yelled so. Well I got her down to the waggon and gave her a 'tot' of Cape smoke and then as soon as it was ready poured about a pint of beef-tea down her throat made from the flesh of a blue vilderbeeste I had killed the day before and after that she brightened up wonderfully. She could talk Zulu--indeed it turned out that she had run away from Zululand in T'Chaka's time--and she told me that all the people whom I had seen had died of fever. When they had died the other inhabitants of the kraal had taken the cattle and gone away leaving the poor old woman who was helpless from age and infirmity to perish of starvation or disease as the case might be. She had been sitting there for three days among the bodies when I found her. I took her on to the next kraal and gave the headman a blanket to look after her promising him another if I found her well when I came back. I remember that he was much astonished at my parting with two blankets for the sake of such a worthless old creature. 'Why did I not leave her in the bush?' he asked. Those people carry the doctrine of the survival of the fittest to its extreme you see. "It was the night after I had got rid of the old woman that I made my first acquaintance with my friend yonder" and he nodded towards the skull that seemed to be grinning down at us in the shadow of the wide mantel-shelf. "I had trekked from dawn till eleven o'clock--a long trek--but I wanted to get on and had turned the oxen out to graze sending the voorlooper to look after them my intention being to inspan again about six o'clock and trek with the moon till ten. Then I got into the waggon and had a good sleep till half-past two or so in the afternoon when I rose and cooked some meat and had my dinner washing it down with a pannikin of black coffee--for it was difficult to get preserved milk in those days. Just as I had finished and the driver a man called Tom was washing up the things in comes the young scoundrel of a voorlooper driving one ox before him. "'Where are the other oxen?' I asked. "'Koos!' he said 'Koos! the other oxen have gone away. I turned my back for a minute and when I looked round again they were all gone except Kaptein here who was rubbing his back against a tree.' "'You mean that you have been asleep and let them stray you villain. I will rub your back against a stick' I answered feeling very angry for it was not a pleasant prospect to be stuck up in that fever trap for a week or so while we were hunting for the oxen. 'Off you go and you too Tom and mind you don't come back till you have found them. They have trekked back along the Middelburg Road and are a dozen miles off by now I'll be bound. Now no words; go both of you.' "Tom the driver swore and caught the lad a hearty kick which he richly deserved and then having tied old Kaptein up to the disselboom with a reim they took their assegais and sticks and started. I would have gone too only I knew that somebody must look after the waggon and I did not like to leave either of the boys with it at night. I was in a very bad temper indeed although I was pretty well used to these sort of occurrences and soothed myself by taking a ...