The Ivory Child
Chapter XIV: The Chase
I suppose that I swooned for a minute or two. At any rate I remember a long and very curious dream, such a dream as is evolved by a patient under laughing gas, that is very clear and vivid at the time but immediately afterwards slips from the mind’s grasp as water does from the clenched hand. It was something to the effect that all those hundreds of skeleton elephants rose and marshalled themselves before me, making obeisance to me by bending their bony knees, because, as I quite understood, I was the only human being that had ever escaped from Jana. Moreover, on the foremost elephant’s skull Hans was perched like a mahout, giving words of command, to their serried ranks and explaining to them that it would be very convenient if they would carry their tusks, for which they had no further use, and pile them in a certain place--I forget where--that must be near a good road to facilitate their subsequent transport to a land where they would be made into billiard balls and the backs of ladies’ hair-brushes. Next, through the figments of that retreating dream, I heard the undoubted voice of Hans himself, which of course I knew to be absurd as Hans was lost and doubtless dead, saying:
“If you are alive, Baas, please wake up soon, as I have finished reloading Intombi, and it is time to be going. I think I hit Jana in the eye, but so big a beast will soon get over so little a thing as that and look for us, and the bullet from Intombi is too small to kill him, Baas, especially as it is not likely that either of us could hit him in the other eye.”
Now I sat up and stared. Yes, there was Hans himself looking just the same as usual, only perhaps rather dirtier, engaged in setting a cap on to the nipple of the little rifle Intombi.
“Hans,” I said in a hollow voice, “why the devil are you here?”
“To save you from the devil, of course, Baas,” he replied aptly. Then, resting the gun against the stone, the old fellow knelt down by my side and, throwing his arms around me, began to blubber over me, exclaiming:
“Just in time, Baas! Only just in time, for as usual Hans made a mess of things and judged badly--I’ll tell you afterwards. Still, just in time, thanks be to your reverend father, the Predikant. Oh! if he had delayed me for one more minute you would have been as flat as my nose, Baas. Now come quickly. I’ve got the camel tied up there, and he can carry two, being fat and strong after four days’ rest with plenty to eat. This place is haunted, Baas, and that king of the devils, Jana, will be back after us presently, as soon as he has wiped the blood out of his eye.”
I didn’t make any remark, having no taste for conversation just then, but only looked at poor Marût, who lay by me as though he was sleeping.
“Oh, Baas,” said Hans, “there is no need to trouble about him, for his neck is broken and he’s quite dead. Also it is as well,” he added cheerfully. “For, as your reverend father doubtless remembered, the camel could never carry three. Moreover, if he stops here, perhaps Jana will come back to play with him instead of following us.”
Poor Marût! This was his requiem as sung by Hans.
With a last glance at the unhappy man to whom I had grown attached in a way during our time of joint captivity and trial, I took the arm of the old Hottentot, or rather leant upon his shoulder, for at first I felt too weak to walk by myself, and picked my path with him through the stones and skeletons of elephants across the plateau eastwards, that is, away from the lake. About two hundred yards from the scene of our tragedy was a mound of rock similar to that on which Jana had appeared, but much smaller, behind which we found the camel, kneeling as a well-trained beast of the sort should do and tethered to a stone.
As we went, in brief but sufficient language Hans told me his story. It seemed that after he had shot the Kendah general it came into his cunning, foreseeing mind that he might be of more use to me free than as a companion in captivity, or that if I were killed he might in that case live to bring vengeance on my slayers. So he broke away, as has been described, and hid till nightfall on the hill-side. Then by the light of the moon he tracked us, avoiding the villages, and ultimately found a place of shelter in a kind of cave in the forest near to Simba Town, where no people lived. Here he fed the camel at night, concealing it at dawn in the cave. The days he spent up a tall tree, whence he could watch all that went on in the town beneath, living meanwhile on some food which he carried in a bag tied to the saddle, helped out by green mealies which he stole from a neighbouring field.
Thus he saw most of what passed in the town, including the desolation wrought by the fearful tempest of hail, which, being in their cave, both he and the camel escaped without harm. On the next evening from his post of outlook up the tree, where he had now some difficulty in hiding himself because the hail had stripped off all its leaves, he saw Marût and myself brought from the guest-house and taken away by the escort. Descending and running to the cave, he saddled the camel and started in pursuit, plunging into the forest and hiding there when he perceived that the escort were leaving us.
Here he waited until they had gone by on their return journey. So close did they pass to him that he could overhear their talk, which told him they expected, or rather were sure, that we should be destroyed by the elephant Jana, their devil god, to whom the camelmen had been already sacrificed. After they had departed he remounted and followed us. Here I asked him why he had not overtaken us before we came to the cemetery of elephants, as I presumed he might have done, since he stated that he was close in our rear. This indeed was the case, for it was the head of the camel I saw behind the thorn trees when I looked back, and not the trunk of an elephant as I had supposed.
At the time he would give me no direct answer, except that he grew muddled as he had already suggested, and thought it best to keep in the background and see what happened. Long afterwards, however, he admitted to me that he acted on a presentiment.
“It seemed to me, Baas,” he said, “that your reverend father was telling me that I should do best to let you two go on and not show myself, since if I did so we should all three be killed, as one of us must walk whom the other two could not desert. Whereas if I left you as you were, one of you would be killed and the other escape, and that the one to be killed would not be you, Baas. All of which came about as the Spirit spoke in my head, for Marût was killed, who did not matter, and--you know the rest, Baas.”
To return to Hans’ story. He saw us march down to the borders of the lake, and, keeping to our right, took cover behind the knoll of rock, whence he watched also all that followed. When Jana advanced to attack us Hans crept forward in the hope, a very wild one, of crippling him with the little Purdey rifle. Indeed, he was about to fire at the hind leg when Marût made his run for life and plunged into the lake. Then he crawled on to lead me away to the camel, but when he was within a few yards the chase returned our way and Marût was killed.
From that moment he waited for an opportunity to shoot Jana in the only spot where so soft a bullet would, as he knew, have the faintest chance of injuring him vitally--namely, in the eye--for he was sure that its penetration would not be sufficient to reach the vitals through that thick hide and the mass of flesh behind. With an infinite and wonderful patience he waited, knowing that my life or death hung in the balance. While Jana held his foot over me, while he felt me with his trunk, still Hans waited, balancing the arguments for and against firing upon the scales of experience in his clever old mind, and in the end coming to a right and wise conclusion.
At length his chance came, the brute exposed his eye, and by the light of the clear moon Hans, always a very good shot at a distance when it was not necessary to allow for trajectory and wind, let drive and hit. The bullet did not get to the brain as he had hoped; it had not strength for that, but it destroyed this left eye and gave Jana such pain that for a while he forgot all about me and everything else except escape.
Such was the Hottentot’s tale as I picked it up from his laconic, colourless, Dutch patois sentences, then and afterwards; a very wonderful tale I thought. But for him, his fidelity and his bushman’s cunning, where should I have found myself before that moon set?
We mounted the camel after I had paused a minute to take a pull from a flask of brandy which remained in the saddlebags. Although he loved strong drink so well Hans had saved it untouched on the mere chance that it might some time be of service to me, his master. The monkey-like Hottentot sat in front and directed the camel, while I accommodated myself as best I could on the sheepskins behind. Luckily they were thick and soft, for Jana’s pinch was not exactly that of a lover.
Off we went, picking our way carefully till we reached the elephant track beyond the mound where Jana had appeared, which, in the light of faith, we hoped would lead us to the River Tava. Here we made better progress, but still could not go very fast because of the holes made by the feet of Jana and his company. Soon we had left the cemetery behind us, and lost sight of the lake which I devoutly trusted I might never see again.
Now the track ran upwards from the hollow to a ridge two or three miles away. We reached the crest of this ridge without accident, except that on our road we met another aged elephant, a cow with very poor tusks, travelling to its last resting place, or so I suppose. I don’t know which was the more frightened, the sick cow or the camel, for camels hate elephants as horses hate camels until they get used to them. The cow bolted to the right as quickly as it could, which was not very fast, and the camel bolted to the left with such convulsive bounds that we were nearly thrown off its back. However, being an equable brute, it soon recovered its balance, and we got back to the track beyond the cow.
From the top of the rise we saw that before us lay a sandy plain lightly clothed in grass, and, to our joy, about ten miles away at the foot of a very gentle slope, the moonlight gleamed upon the waters of a broad river. It was not easy to make out, but it was there, we were both sure it was there; we could not mistake the wavering, silver flash. On we went for another quarter of a mile, when something caused me to turn round on the sheepskin and look back.
Oh Heavens! At the very top of the rise, clearly outlined against the sky, stood Jana himself with his trunk lifted. Next instant he trumpeted, a furious, rattling challenge of rage and defiance.
“Allemagte! Baas,” said Hans, “the old devil is coming to look for his lost eye, and has seen us with that which remains. He has been travelling on our spoor.”
“Forward!” I answered, bringing my heels into the camel’s ribs.
Then the race began. The camel was a very good camel, one of the real running breed; also, as Hans said, it was comparatively fresh, and may, moreover, have been aware that it was near to the plains where it had been bred. Lastly, the going was now excellent, soft to its spongy feet but not too deep in sand, nor were there any rocks over which it could fall. It went off like the wind, making nothing of our united weights which did not come to more than two hundred pounds, or a half of what it could carry with ease, being perhaps urged to its top speed by the knowledge that the elephant was behind. For mile after mile we rushed down the plain. But we did not go alone, for Jana came after us like a cruiser after a gunboat. Moreover, swiftly as we travelled, he travelled just a little swifter, gaining say a few yards in every hundred. For the last mile before we came to the river bank, half an hour later perhaps, though it seemed to be a week, he was not more than fifty paces to our rear. I glanced back at him, and in the light of the moon, which was growing low, he bore a strange resemblance to a mud cottage with broken chimneys (which were his ears flapping on each side of him), and the yard pump projecting from the upper window.
“We shall beat him now, Hans,” I said looking at the broad river which was now close at hand.
“Yes, Baas,” answered Hans doubtfully and in jerks. “This is very good camel, Baas. He runs so fast that I have no inside left, I suppose because he smells his wife over that river, to say nothing of death behind him. But, Baas, I am not sure; that devil Jana is still faster than the camel, and he wants to settle for his lost eye, which makes him lively. Also I see stones ahead, which are bad for camels. Then there is the river, and I don’t know if camels can swim, but Jana can as Marût learned. Do you think, Baas, that you could manage to sting him up with a bullet in his knee or that great trunk of his, just to give him something to think about besides ourselves?”
Thus he prattled on, I believe to occupy my mind and his own, till at length, growing impatient, I replied:
“Be silent, donkey. Can I shoot an elephant backwards over my shoulder with a rifle meant for springbuck? Hit the camel! Hit it hard!”
Alas! Hans was right! There were stones at the verge of the river, which doubtless it had washed out in periods of past flood, and presently we were among them. Now a camel, so good on sand that is its native heath, is a worthless brute among stones, over which it slips and flounders. But to Jana these appeared to offer little or no obstacle. At any rate he came over them almost if not quite as fast as before. By the time that we reached the brink of the water he was not more than ten yards behind. I could even see the blood running down from the socket of his ruined eye.
Moreover, at the sight of the foaming but shallow torrent, the camel, a creature unaccustomed to water, pulled up in a mulish kind of way and for a moment refused to stir. Luckily at this instant Jana let off one of his archangel kind of trumpetings which started our beast again, since it was more afraid of elephants than it was of water.
In we went and were presently floundering among the loose stones at the bottom of the river, which was nowhere over four feet deep, with Jana splashing after us not more than five yards behind. I twisted myself round and fired at him with the rifle. Whether I hit him or no I could not say, but he stopped for a few seconds, perhaps because he remembered the effect of a similar explosion upon his eye, which gave us a trifling start. Then he came on again in his steam-engine fashion.
When we were about in the middle of the river the inevitable happened. The camel fell, pitching us over its head into the stream. Still clinging to the rifle I picked myself up and began half to swim half to wade towards the farther shore, catching hold of Hans with my free hand. In a moment Jana was on to that camel. He gored it with his tusks, he trampled it with his feet, he got it round the neck with his trunk, dragging nearly the whole bulk of it out of the water. Then he set to work to pound it down into the mud and stones at the bottom of the river with such a persistent thoroughness, that he gave us time to reach the other bank and climb up a stout tree which grew there, a sloping, flat-topped kind of tree that was fortunately easy to ascend, at least for a man. Here we sat gasping, perhaps about thirty feet above the ground level, and waited.