Ghamba by William Charles Scully
The darksome cave they enter, where they find That cursed man, low sitting on the ground, Musing full sadly in his sullen mind. The Faerie Queene.
When Corporal Francis Dollond and Trooper James Franks, of the Natal Mounted Police, overstayed their ten days' leave of absence from the camp on the Upper Tugela, in the early part of 1883, everybody was much surprised; they being two of the best conducted and most methodical men in the force. But the weeks and then the months went by without anything whatever being heard of them, so they were officially recorded as deserters. Nevertheless none of their comrades really believed that these men had deserted; each one felt there was something mysterious about the circumstances of their disappearance. They had applied for leave for the alleged purpose of visiting Pietermaritzburg. They started on foot, stating their intention of walking to Estcourt, hiring horses from natives there, and proceeding on horseback. They had evidently never reached Estcourt, as nothing could be heard of them at that village. They were both young men-- colonists by birth. Dollond had an especially youthful appearance. Franks was older. He had joined the force later in life. He and Dollond, who had only very recently before his disappearance been promoted, were chums.
Some months later in the same year, when Troopers George Langley and Hiram Whitson also applied for ten days' leave of absence,--likewise to proceed to Pietermaritzburg,--the leave was granted; but the officer in charge of the detachment laughingly remarked that he hoped they were not going to follow Dollond and Franks.
Now, neither Langley nor Whitson had the remotest idea of visiting Pietermaritzburg. It is necessary, of course, for the reader to know where they did intend going to, and how the intention arose; but before doing this we must deal with some antecedent circumstances.
Langley was most certainly the most boyish-looking man in the force. He had a perfectly smooth face, ruddy complexion, and fair hair. He was of middle height, and was rather inclined to stoutness. He was so fond of talking that his comrades nicknamed him "Magpie." A colonist by birth, he could speak the Kaffir language like a native.
Whitson was a sallow-faced, spare-built man of short stature, with dark-brown beard and hair, and piercing black eyes. His age was about forty. He had a wiry and terrier-like appearance. A "down-East" Yankee, he had spent some years in Mexico, and then drifted to South Africa during the war period, which, it will be remembered, lasted from 1877 to 1882. He had served in the Zulu war as a non-commissioned officer in one of the irregular cavalry corps, with some credit. The fact of his being a man of extremely few words was enough to account for the friendship which existed between him and the garrulous Langley. Whitson was known to be a dead shot with the revolver.
This is how they came to apply for leave: One day Langley was strolling about just outside the lines, looking for somebody to talk to, when he noticed an apparently very old native man sitting on an ant-heap and regarding him somewhat intently. This old native had been several times seen in the vicinity of the camp, but he never seemed to speak to any one, and he looked so harmless that the police did not even trouble to ask him for the written pass which all natives are obliged by law to carry when they move about the country. The old man saluted Langley and asked in his own language for a pipeful of tobacco. Langley always carried some loose leaves broken up in his pocket, so he at once pulled some of these out and half filled the claw-like hand outstretched to receive them. The old native was voluble in his thanks. There was a large ant-heap close to the one on which he had been sitting, and on which he reseated himself while filling his pipe. Against this Langley leaned and took a good look at his companion. The man had a most extraordinary face. His lower jaw and cheek-bones were largely developed, but Langley hardly noticed this, so struck was he with the strange formation of the upper jaw. That portion of the superior maxillary bone which lies between the sockets of the eye-teeth protruded, with the sockets, to a remarkable degree, and instead of being curved appeared to be quite straight. The incisor teeth were very large and white, but it was the development of the eye-teeth that was most startling. These, besides being very massive, were produced below the level of the incisors to a depth of nearly a quarter of an inch. They distinctly suggested to Langley the tusks of a baboon.
As is not very unusual with natives, the man was perfectly bald. His back was bent, and his limbs were somewhat shrunken, but he did not appear in the least degree decrepit. His eyelids were very red, and his eyes, though dim, had a deep and intent look. Ugly as was the man --or perhaps by virtue of his ugliness--he exercised a strange fascination over Langley.
The old man, whose name turned out to be Ghamba, proved himself a talker after Langley's own heart. They discussed all sorts of things. Ghamba startled his hearer by his breadth of experience and his shrewdness. He said he was a "Hlubi" Kaffir from Qumbu, in the territory of Griqualand East, but that he had for some time past been living in Basutoland, which is situated just behind the frowning wall of the Drakensberg, to the southwest of where they were speaking, and not twenty miles distant.
They talked until it was time for Langley to return to camp. He was so pleased at the entertainment afforded by Ghamba that all the tobacco he had with him found its way into the claw-like hand of that strange- looking man of many experiences and quaint ideas. So Langley asked him to come to the ant-heap again on the following day, and have another talk at the same hour. This Ghamba, with a wide and prolonged exposure of his teeth, readily agreed to do.
Langley was extremely voluble to Whitson that night over his new acquaintance. Whitson listened with his usual impassiveness, and then asked Langley how it was that "an old loafing nigger," as he expressed it, had impressed him so remarkably. Langley replied that he did not quite know, but he thought the effect was largely due to the man's teeth. But all the same he was "a very entertaining old buffer."
Next afternoon Langley was so impatient to resume conversation with his new friend that he repaired to the ant-heap quite half an hour before the appointed time. He had not, however, long to wait, as Ghamba soon appeared, emerging from a donga a couple of hundred yards away.
Langley was more impressed than ever. Ghamba told him all about the Basutos, among whom he had lived; about the old days in Natal, before even the Dutch occupation, when Tshaka's impis wiped whole tribes out of existence; of the recent wars in Zululand and the Cape Colony, and as to the probability of future disturbances. Charmed as was Langley by the old man's conversation, he felt that on this occasion there was a little too much of it; that Ghamba was not nearly so good a listener as he had been on the previous day; so when the latter at length put a question to him, thus affording an opportunity for the exercise of his own pentup loquacity, Langley felt elated, more especially as several inquiries were grouped together in the one asking. Ghamba asked whether anything had been heard of Umhlonhlo; whether the capture of that fugitive rebel was considered likely, and whether it was true that a reward of five hundred pounds had been offered by the government for his capture, dead or alive.
Umhlonhlo, it will be remembered, was the Pondomise chief who rebelled in 1880, treacherously murdered Mr. Hope, the magistrate of Qumbu, and his two companions, and who has since been an outlaw with a price on his head.
Langley replied to the effect that it was quite true such a reward had been offered as to Umhlonhlo's whereabouts, but that the government believed him to be in Pondoland; that he was sure to be captured eventually; that he, Langley, only wished he knew where Umhlonhlo was, so as to have the chance of making five hundred pounds with which to buy a certain nice little farm he knew of; and that should he ever succeed in obtaining the reward, and consequently in taking his discharge and purchasing the farm, he would be jolly glad if old Ghamba would come and live with him. This is only some of what he said; when Langley's tongue got into motion, he seemed to have some difficulty in stopping it.
However, he paused at last, and then Ghamba, looking very intently at him, said:
"Look here, can you keep a secret?"
Here was a mystery.
"Rather!" said Langley.
"Will you swear by the name of God that you will not reveal what I have to tell you?"
Ghamba drew near until his teeth were within a few inches of Langley's cheek, and said in a whisper:
"I know where Umhlonhlo is."
Langley started, and said in an awed voice:
"Where is he?"
"Wait a bit," said Ghamba; "perhaps I will tell you, and perhaps I won't. I like you; you have given me tobacco, and you are not too proud to come and talk to a poor old man. Now, you say you would like to make five hundred pounds and buy a farm?"
"And that you would let me go and live on the farm with you and end my days in peace?"
"I would, gladly."
"Well then, if I take you to where Umhlonhlo is, and you will kill him and get the money, will you give me twenty-five pounds, and let me keep a few goats, and grow a few mealies on your land?"
"I should think I would. But how could one man take or kill Umhlonhlo? They say he is well armed and that he has a lot of followers with him."
"Umhlonhlo," said Ghamba, glancing anxiously round as if he feared the very ant-heaps were listening, "is hiding in a cave in the mountain, not three days' walk from here. He has not got a single man with him, because he fears being given up. He is really in hiding from his own followers now. My sister is one of his wives, and that is how I know all about it. I passed the cave where he lives four nights ago, and saw him sitting by the fire. He has only a few women with him."
"And how do you think I should take him?"
"Take him? you should kill him. I will guide you to the cave by night, and then you can shoot him as he sits by the fire."
Langley, although no coward, was not particularly brave. He did not much relish the idea of alone tackling the redoubtable Umhlonhlo, a savage of muscle, who was reported to be always armed to the teeth. Moreover, he had no gun, and was but an indifferent shot with a revolver. So he thought over the matter for a few moments and then said:
"Look here, Ghamba; I do not care to tackle this job alone, but if I can take another man with me, I am on."
"Then you will only get half of the five hundred pounds, and will not be able to buy the farm. You need not be afraid; you can shoot him without his seeing you."
"No," said Langley, after a pause; "I will not go alone, but if you will let me take another man with me it can be managed. It will make no difference to you; you will get your twenty-five pounds."
"And how about my going to live on the farm with you?"
"Well, I could not buy the farm for two hundred and fifty pounds. Come, we will give you fifty pounds instead of twenty-five."
Ghamba thought for a while and then said:
"Very well, I consent. But there need be only one other man, and you will write down on a piece of paper that you will give me fifty pounds. When can we start?"
"I must speak to the other man, and then we will apply for leave. We had better start soon, or else Umhlonhlo may have gone to some other place of hiding."
"Yes, we must lose no time."
"All right! Meet me here to-morrow and I will bring my friend. We will then settle all about it."
"You must not mention this matter to any one else, and you must make your friend promise to keep the secret."
"Oh, that's all right!" said Langley. "Meet me here to-morrow, just after dinner."
Langley went back to camp, Ghamba looking after his retreating figure with a smile that revealed his teeth in a very striking manner. Langley was intensely excited, and exacted (quite unnecessarily) the most solemn promises from Whitson not to divulge the great secret which he confided to him. Whitson agreed at once to join in the enterprise, which was one after his own heart.
Next day the three met at the big ant-heap, and Whitson was very much impressed by Ghamba's teeth. He told Langley afterward that they reminded him of a picture of the devil which he had seen in a copy of "Pilgrim's Progress." The old man's story appeared, however, consistent enough, in spite of his peculiar dentition.
So, after a short conversation, Langley and Whitson returned to camp, having made an appointment to meet Ghamba again on the following morning at sunrise, so as to finally arrange as to time of starting, etc. They went at once to the officer in charge of the detachment and applied for ten days' leave of absence for the purpose of proceeding to Pietermaritzburg, which was at once granted.
Next morning they met Ghamba again, and agreed to start on their expedition that evening. He explained that they must do all their traveling by night, and lie by during the day; because it would never do for him, Ghamba, to run the risk of being recognised by persons whom they might meet. For the sake of his Hlubi relations who were living among the Pondomise at Qumbu, it was absolutely necessary that he should not appear in the transaction at all. Were it ever to be even suspected that he had betrayed the chief, not alone would he be certainly killed, but all his relations would be shunned by the other natives. He was an old man, so for him, personally, nothing mattered very much, but a man is bound to consider the interests of his family. Travelling only by night, and lying still and hidden during the day, were therefore absolutely necessary stipulations, and Langley and Whitson agreed to them as intelligible and reasonable. All being settled, the latter started for the camp, Ghamba baring his teeth excessively as they walked away.
At dusk on the evening of the same day, Langley and Whitson met Ghamba once more at the large ant-heap, and the three at once proceeded on their course. The only arms taken were revolvers of the government regulation pattern (breech-loading central fire). They carried provisions calculated to last eight days, but took no blankets on account of having to travel at night. When Ghamba volunteered to relieve them of a considerable share of their respective loads, Langley and Whitson were filled with grateful surprise.
The plan was as follows: Whitson was to shoot Umhlonhlo, and then remain in the cave while Langley returned to the camp to report what had been done, and cause persons who could identify the body to be sent for. They seem to have had no scruples as to the deed they meant to do; certainly Umhlonhlo deserved no more mercy than a beast of prey. Nor does it seem to have struck them that possibly they might shoot the wrong man. But there was an air of conviction about the manner in which Ghamba showed his teeth when asked whether he was positive as to the identity of the man in the cave, that would have dissipated the doubts of most men. Besides this, he drew out the written undertaking which they had delivered to him, and said, with a profoundly businesslike look:
"Do I not want the money? Should I take all this trouble if I did not know what I were doing?"
They walked all night, only resting once or twice for a few minutes. It was found that Ghamba, in spite of his age, was an extremely good walker; and when they halted at daylight, Langley was so done up that he could not have held out for another half-hour. Whitson, the wiry, had not yet felt the least fatigue.
This march had taken them to the very foot of the Drakensberg range, and they rested in a valley between two of its main spurs. Here they remained all day, comfortably located in a sheltered nook where there was plenty of dry grass. Their resting-place was encircled by immense rocks. Although the surrounding country was desolate to a degree, and neither a human being nor an animal was to be seen, Ghamba would not hear of their lighting a fire nor leaving the spot where they rested. The weather was clear, and neither too warm nor too cold. They slept at intervals during the day, and at evening felt quite recovered from their fatigue.
At nightfall they again started, their course leading steeply up the gorge in which they had rested. Although the pathway became more and more indistinct, Ghamba appeared never to be at a loss. Langley several times shuddered, when they passed by the very edge of some immense precipice, or clambered along some steep mountain-side, where a false step would have meant destruction. He began to show signs of fatigue soon after midnight, so at Ghamba's suggestion a considerable portion of his load was transferred to the shoulders of Whitson, who seemed to be as tireless as Ghamba himself.
At daybreak they halted in the depths of another tremendous gorge with precipitous sides. The scenery in this particular area of the Drakensberg range, the neighbourhood of the Mont aux Sources, is indescribably grand and impressive, and is quite unlike anything else in South Africa. Enormous and fantastically shaped mountains are here huddled together indiscriminately, and between them wind and double deep gloomy gorges, along the bottoms of which mighty boulders are thickly strewn. On dizzy ledge and steep slope dense thickets of wild bamboo grow, and a few stunted trees fill some of the less deep clefts, wherever the sunshine can penetrate. Splendid as is the scenery, its gloom, its stillness, its naked crags and peaks, its dark depths that seem to cleave to the very vitals of the earth, become so oppressive that, after a few days spent among them, the traveller is filled with repulsion and almost horror. Few living things have their home there. You might meet an occasional "klipspringer" (an antelope, in habits and appearance somewhat like the chamois), a wandering troop of baboons, and now and then a herd of eland in the more grassy areas. There are said to be a few Bushmen still haunting the caves, but they are seldom or never seen.
In the afternoon the sun shone into the gorge in which the travellers were resting, and for a few hours the heat was very oppressive. Whitson examined his revolver, removing the cartridges and replacing them by others. He then lay down to sleep, asking Langley to remain awake and keep a lookout. He had a vague feeling of uneasiness which he could not overcome. Langley promised to keep awake, but he was too tired to do so. He sat with his back against a rock, and, after some futile efforts to keep his eyes open, fell fast asleep. By-and-by Ghamba woke him gently, and, pointing to Whitson, whose revolver lay in the leather case close to his hand, whispered:
"Did he not tell you to keep awake?"
Langley was grateful for this evidence of consideration, but he could not quite make out how Ghamba had been able to understand what Whitson had said. However, when the latter awoke, Langley said nothing to him about having disobeyed instructions.
Ghamba said that about two hours' walk would now bring them to Umhlonhlo's cave, so they started off briskly at dusk. Their course now led for some distance along a mountain ledge covered with wild bamboo, through which the pathway wound. Then they crossed a steep saddle between two enormous peaks, after which they plunged into another deep and winding gorge. This they followed until they reached a part where it was so narrow that the sides seemed almost to touch over their heads. Beyond the cliffs fell apart, and then apparently curved toward each other again, thus forming an immense amphitheatre. At the entrance to this Ghamba stopped, and said in a whisper that they were now close to the cave.
They now held a consultation, in terms of which it was decided that Ghamba should go forward and reconnoitre. So Whitson and Langley sat down close together and waited, conversing in low tones.
Whitson felt very uneasy, but Langley tried to argue him out of his fears. The more Whitson saw of Ghamba, the more he disliked and distrusted him and his teeth. The instinct which detects danger in the absence of any apparent evidence of its existence is a faculty developed in some men by an adventurous life. This faculty Whitson possessed in a high degree.
"Did you keep awake all the time I slept this afternoon?" he asked.
Langley feared Whitson and felt inclined to lie, but something impelled him, almost against his will, to speak the truth now.
"No," he replied; "I slept for a few minutes."
Whitson drew his revolver and opened the breech.
"By God!" he said, "the cartridges are gone!"
Langley took his weapon out of the leather case and opened it. He found the cartridges were there right enough.
"Have you any spare cartridges?" asked Whitson.
Whitson had already loaded his revolver with the five cartridges which he had removed in the afternoon, but he again took these out and replaced them in his waistcoat pocket, and then he reloaded with some which Langley passed over to him with a trembling hand.
"Look here," he said, in a hoarse whisper, "we are in a trap of some kind. When that old scoundrel comes back, do not let him know that we have found out anything. We will walk on with him for a short distance, at all events, and then be guided by circumstances. Stand by when you see me collar him, and slip a sack over his head."
"Can we not go back now?" said Langley.
"Certainly not; we would never find our way at night. I guess we must see this circus out. If you have to shoot, aim low."
In a few minutes Ghamba returned.
"Come on," he said. "He is sitting at the fire in front of the cave. I have just seen him."
"Where is the cave?" asked Whitson. "Is it far from here?"
"We will reach it very soon; you can see the light of the fire from a few paces ahead."
They walked on for about fifty yards, and there, sure enough, over a rocky slope to their left, and at the foot of a crag about three hundred yards away, could be seen the bright and fitful glow from a fire which was hidden from their view by a low ridge of piled-up rocks.
Whitson stood still and questioned Ghamba:
"Now tell me," he asked, through Langley as interpreter, "how we are to approach."
"The pathway leads up on the left side," replied Ghamba. "We will walk close up to the crag, where there is a narrow passage between it and that big black rock which you see against the light. You two can lead, and I will be close behind. I have just seen him. He is sitting at the fire, eating, and only the women are with him."
The last words were hardly out of the speaker's mouth before Whitson had seized him by the throat with a vice-like grasp.
"Seize his hands and hold them," he hissed to Langley.
Ghamba struggled desperately, but could not release himself. Whitson compressed his throat until he became unconscious, and then gagged him with a pocket-handkerchief. Ghamba's hands were then tied tightly behind his back with another pocket-handkerchief, and his feet were firmly secured with a belt. An empty sack (from which they had removed their provisions) was then drawn over his head and shoulders, and secured round the waist.
"Come on now, quickly," whispered Whitson, and he and Langley started off in the direction of the fire, after first taking off their boots.
They did not approach by the course which Ghamba had indicated, but made their way quietly up the slope, straight against the face of the crag. They reached the heap of rocks, and crept in among them by means of another narrow passage, close to the inner end of which the fire was; and this is what they saw through the twigs of a scrubby bush which effectually concealed them:
A large cave opened into the side of the mountain, and just before the mouth was an open space about twenty yards in diameter, surrounded on all sides, except that of the mountain itself, by a wall of loosely piled rocks, through which passages led out in different directions. Just in front of the cave burned a bright fire, around which crouched four most hideous and filthy-looking old hags, and against which were propped several large earthenware pots of native make, full of water. Standing behind rocks, one at each side of the inner entrance to the passage, which was evidently that communicating with the pathway indicated by Ghamba as the one they were to approach by, were two powerful-looking men, stark naked, and as black as ebony, their skins shining in the light of the fire. Each man held a coiled thong in his hands, after the manner of a sailor about to heave a line. While they were looking, a woman, somewhat younger in appearance than any of those who sat by the fire, came out of the cave carrying a strong club about three feet long. She crouched down close to the man standing on the left-side of the passage, who, as well as his companion, stood as still as a marble statue, and in an expectant attitude.
Whitson and Langley, with their revolvers drawn, suddenly stepped out of their concealment, and walked toward the fire. This evidently disconcerted the men with the thongs, who apparently did not expect their intended prey to approach by any course except the passage near which they were standing; but after a slight pause of hesitancy the thongs were whirling in the air, and descending, lasso-fashion, upon the shoulders of the intruders. The noose caught Langley over his arms, which were instantly drawn close against his body as the thong tightened, so he was thus rendered completely powerless; but Whitson sprang, quick as lightning, to one side, and escaped. Three shots from his revolver rang out in as many seconds, and the two men and the woman--who was in the act of lifting her club to brain Langley--lay rolling on the ground, each with a bullet through the head.
The four old hags at the fire began to mow and scream, and got up and hobbled into the cave. Whitson drew his knife and cut the thong with which Langley was vainly struggling, and then the two men, pale as death, looked silently at each other with staring eyes.
Whitson replaced his revolver, and then made a sort of torch out of dry reeds, a pile of which lay close at hand. He then, leaving Langley to guard the cave, carefully examined all the passages and spaces between the rocks, but he could find no trace of any one. The two men thereupon entered the cave, Whitson holding the torch high over his head. They found that it ran straight in for about fifteen paces, and then curved sharply to the left.
It was about four paces in width, and about eight feet high, the roof being roughly arched. The walls and roof were covered with thick black greasy soot; and an indescribably horrible stench, which increased the farther they advanced, made them almost vomit. They found that where the cave curved to the left it ended in a circular chamber about eight paces in diameter, and at one side of this crouched the four old hags, huddled together, and mowing and chattering horribly.
Across a cleft about two feet wide, in the right-hand wall of the cave, a stick was fixed transversely, and hanging to this were some lumps of half-dried and smoked flesh. Whitson went up close and examined these carefully. He drew back with a shudder, and his face changed from pale to ashen gray.
He and Langley then went outside and stood for a while in the fresh air. They could endure, just then, no more of the fetid atmosphere inside. After a short time they gathered up some dry twigs and reeds, and set several little heaps alight at different spots inside. This had the effect of making the atmosphere more bearable in the course of a few minutes. They then made a larger fire in the middle of the cave, and proceeded to examine it more closely.
They found several old iron picks, such as are used by natives in cultivating their fields, some very filthy skins, a number of earthenware pots, a few knives, and an axe; but nothing more.
The floor of the cave was of clay, and at one spot it appeared to have been recently disturbed. Here Langley began to dig with a pick, which, just below the surface, struck against some hard substance. This, when uncovered, proved to be a bone. He threw it to one side and dug deeper, uncovering more bones--some old, and others comparatively fresh, but emitting a horrible smell. He stooped and picked one up, but dropped it immediately, as if it burned him. It was the lower jawbone of a human being.
"Great God!" he gasped. "What is the meaning of this?"
"It means," said Whitson, "that we are in a nest of bloody cannibals!"
Langley dropped like a stone, in a dead faint; so Whitson dragged him outside, and, leaving him to recover in the open air, returned to the cave. He then seized the pick and began digging, unearthing some new horror at every stroke. A glittering object caught his eye; he picked this up and found it to be the steel buckle of a woman's belt. He glanced toward the cleft in the rock where the lumps of flesh were hanging, and caught his breath short. Going outside he made another torch, which he lit; and then he returned and carefully examined the loosened surface. Another glittering object caught his eye. This, when examined, proved to be an old silver watch, the appearance of which seemed familiar. He forced open the case, and saw, roughly scratched on the inside, the letter D. He now recognised it; he remembered having once fixed a glass in this very watch for Dollond, about a month before the latter's disappearance. Continuing his search Whitson found the iron heel-plate of a boot, and a small bunch of keys.
Whitson drew his revolver, and picking up the torch went into the terminal chamber. Four shots, fired in quick succession, reverberated immediately afterward through the cavern.
Whitson then went outside to Langley, whom he found sitting down near the fire, looking if possible, more ghastly than before. The presence of Whitson seemed, however, to act on him as a kind of tonic, and he soon pulled himself together sufficiently to assist in piling a quantity of fuel upon the already sinking fire, which soon blazed brightly, lighting up the mouth of the cavern and the space in front of it. One of the bodies of the men who had been shot was lying on its side, with the face toward the fire. Whitson examined the mouth, pushing back the upper lip with a piece of stick. He found that the shape of the mouth and the development of the teeth were the same as Ghamba's. The other bodies were lying on their faces, so he did not trouble to examine them.
Whitson then told Langley to follow him, and the two walked down the foot-path toward where they had left Ghamba. Him they found lying motionless in the position in which he had been left about an hour previously. They removed the sack and the gag and untied his feet, first taking the precaution to fasten the belt by one end to his bound hands, Whitson holding the other. They then signed to him to proceed toward the cave, and this he silently did, without making any resistance. He looked calmly at the three dead bodies, but said not a word. Langley held him, while Whitson again tied his feet together with the belt, and then they placed him with his back against a rock, facing the fire, which was still blazing brightly. His lips were drawn back in a ghastly, mirthless, grin, and the tusks were revealed from point to insertion.
Langley questioned Ghamba, but he would not speak. After several attempts to force him to answer had been vainly made, Whitson said:
"Now tell him that if he speaks and tells the whole truth he will only be shot, but if he does not speak he will be burned alive."
This was interpreted, but the threat had no apparent effect. So Whitson seized Ghamba and dragged him to the fire, where he flung him down on the very edge of the glowing embers.
"Now," said Whitson, holding him down with his foot, so that he got severely scorched, "for the last time, will you speak?"
"Take me away from the fire, and I will speak," said Ghamba, in English.
So they lifted him, and set him again with his back to the rock.
"Now," said Whitson, "go ahead, and no nonsense!"
"If I tell the whole truth," said Ghamba, still speaking English, and with a fair accent, "will you swear not to burn me, but to shoot me, so that I shall die at once?"
"I will," said Whitson.
"You too must swear," said Ghamba, looking at Langley.
"Yes, I swear."
"Very well," said Ghamba, "I will tell you everything, but you must both remember what you have sworn to."
"Yes, all right," said Whitson. Ghamba then looked at Langley, who repeated the words.
"I will tell you," said Ghamba, "all I can remember, and you can ask questions, which I shall answer truly. You have heard of Umdava, who used to eat men in Natal long ago, after the wars of Tshaka--well, he was my uncle. After Umdava had been killed and his people scattered, my father, with a few followers, came to live among these mountains. But we found that after having eaten human flesh we could enjoy no other food, so we caught people and ate them. These two men lying dead are my sons, and that woman is my daughter. My four wives were here to-night. They are very old women. Have you not seen them?" he asked, looking at Whitson.
"They are in there; I shot them," said Whitson, pointing to the cave.
"I had other children," continued Ghamba, quite unmoved, "but we ate them when food was scarce."
"Have you always lived, all these years, on human flesh?" asked Whitson.
"No, not always; but whenever we could obtain it we did so. There is other food in these mountains--honey, ants' eggs, roots, and fruit; besides game, which is, however, not very easy to catch. But we have often all had to go away and work when times have been bad. Besides, I have a herd of cattle at a Basuto kraal, and I have been in the habit of taking some of these now and then, and exchanging them for corn, which the women then went to fetch. But we have always tried to get people to eat, because we could enjoy no other kind of food. Sometimes we got them easily; and when we were very fortunate we used to dry part of the meat by hanging it up and lighting a fire underneath, with green wood, so as to make plenty of smoke."
"Have you killed many white people?" asked Whitson.
"Yes, a good number; but not, of course, as many as black. Lately we have always tried to catch whites, because when you have eaten white flesh for some time, the flesh of a native no longer satisfies you."
"The flavour is not so strong."
"Did you induce the other two policemen to come up by means of the story about Umhlonhlo?"
"Yes, they came up just as you did, and my sons caught them with the thongs. Umhlonhlo has brought us plenty of food."
"Were you able to take the cartridges out of their revolvers as you did out of mine?"
"No, I had no opportunity; but it was not necessary, because my sons were so expert at throwing the thongs that they could always catch people over the arms, and thus render them unable to shoot."
"How did they manage to become so expert?"
"By continued practice. I used to walk up the path over and over again, and let them throw the thong over me. Then the woman was always there with the club, so that, if one of the thongs missed, she was ready to strike. I, also, was usually ready to help, in case of necessity."
"Why did you think it necessary to take the cartridges out of my revolver?"
"Because I feared you from the first, and were it not that he"--baring his teeth and glancing at Langley, who shuddered--"looked so nice, and that we wanted fresh meat so badly, I would not have risked bringing you. But it would have been all right if I had only let your revolver alone."
"You say Umhlonhlo has brought you plenty of food; did you ever get any one besides ourselves and the other two policemen to come up here by telling them that story?"
"Yes, two others--one a man who was searching for gold on the Free State side of the mountains, and the other a trader whom I met at Maseru. But these each came alone."
"I see the buckle of a woman's belt in there. Whom did that belong to? You surely never got a white woman up here?"
"Yes, we did," said Ghamba, with a horrible half-smile which bared the gums high above the sockets of his tusks. "She was a young girl who had strayed from a waggon passing over the mountain by the Ladysmith road, only a day's walk from here. I pretended to show her the shortest way to her waggon, and thus brought her as far as she could walk in this direction. I then killed her, and came up here and fetched my sons. We carried her up in the night. She was very young and plump, and I have never eaten anything that I enjoyed so much." (Whitson turned cold with horror. He remembered the girl's mysterious disappearance, and the fruitless searches undertaken in consequence.) "His flesh"--glancing again at Langley--"looks something like hers did, and I am sure it would taste just as nice. There was still a little of her left when I went away last week. If you will go in there and look where the rock is split on the right-hand side, you will--" But he did not finish the sentence, for a bullet from Whitson's revolver crushed through his brain, and he tumbled forward on his face into the fire.
It was only after tremendous difficulty that Whitson and Langley succeeded in escaping from the mountains. However, on the evening of the third day after their adventure in the cave, they came in sight of the police camp. Whitson sat down on a stone, and motioned his companion to do the same.
"See here, sonny," he said, "I want to have a short talk with you. I am a bit cross with you as the cause of my having been sucked in by that d--d murdering old walrus. You ought to know the inhabitants of this country better than a simple stranger like me, and so I took your lead. Now, another thing: you nearly bust us both by your blasted foolishness in going to sleep that day; but let that pass, because perhaps it would have been worse if we had not been put on our guard; not but that it would take a d--d smart cannibal to eat Hiram Whitson. But this is what I am coming to: you, my boy, are a darned sight too fond of hearing your own tongue clack. Now, take a warning from me, and don't let a word of what has happened since we left camp for Pietermaritzburg pass your lips. I did all the shooting, and I'm not a bit ashamed of it; but, by the eternal God, if you open your lips to a soul, I'll shoot you like a dog or a cannibal! Remember that, sonny, and say it quietly over to yourself the first time you feel that you want to blab. Now, shake hands."
This was probably the longest speech that Whitson had ever made.
About two years after the events narrated, Whitson took his discharge and returned to America. He left behind him a sealed packet addressed to his commanding officer, and which was not to be delivered for twelve months after his departure.
Owing, however, to a strange combination of fortuitous circumstances, this packet never reached its proper destination; its wrapper, bearing the address, having been scorched off in a fire which took place in the house where it was left.
Many people have heard or read of the cannibals of Natal, who turned large tracts of country into a shambles in the early part of this century, after Tshaka's impis had swept off all the cattle, and then kept the miserable people continually on the move so that they were unable to cultivate. One Umdava originated the practice of eating human flesh. Gathering together the fragments of four scattered tribes, he trained them to hunt human beings as others hunted game. This gang was a greater scourge to the country surrounding the present site of Pietermaritzburg than even Tshaka's murdering hordes. It was broken up in or about the year 1824, when the Europeans first came to the country, and the remnants of many scattered tribes returned and settled under their protection.
All this is history with which most people in South Africa are familiar, but many do not know that some of the cannibals fled to Basutoland, where, among almost inaccessible mountains, they carried on their horrible practices for many years.
It is a well-known fact that when men once surrender themselves to any unnatural and brutal vice, the gratification of the abnormal instinct thus acquired becomes the most imperative need of their nature. The Falkland Islands case, as bearing specially upon the foregoing narrative, may be mentioned. Some convicts escaped from the Falkland Island convict station, and succeeded in reaching the coast of Patagonia. They then endeavored to make their way to Montevideo, but having to keep along the shore so as to avoid the natives, who would have killed them had they ventured inland, were easily intercepted by the government cutter, which was always despatched in cases of the kind to head off fugitives upon their only possible course. Of the party only one man was found alive. In their dreadful need the men had cast lots as to who should be killed and eaten by the others, and this went on until only the one man remained. His sufferings had been so horrible that he was let off any further punishment, and simply brought back to the island to complete the term of his sentence. Some months after, this man induced another to escape with him in a boat, and, when the boat was overtaken, it was found that he had killed his companion for the purpose of eating the latter's flesh. This was apparent from the fact that the supply of food which the fugitives had taken with them was not exhausted.