The Ivory Child
Chapter XVI: Hans Steals the Keys
A few hours later some of the White Kendah arrived at the house and very politely delivered to us Ragnall’s and poor Savage’s guns and pistols, which they said they had found lying in the grass on the mountain-side, and with them the bull’s-eye lantern that Ragnall had thrown away in his flight; all of which articles I accepted without comment. That evening also Harût called and, after salutations, asked where Bena was as he did not see him. Then my indignation broke out:
“Oh! white-bearded father of liars,” I said, “you know well that he is in the belly of the serpent which lives in the cave of the mountain.”
“What, Lord!” exclaimed Harût addressing Ragnall in his peculiar English, “have you been for walk up to hole in hill? Suppose Bena want see big snake. He always very fond of snake, you know, and they very fond of him. You ‘member how they come out of his pocket in your house in England? Well, he know all about snake now.”
“You villain!” exclaimed Ragnall, “you murderer! I have a mind to kill you where you are.”
“Why you choke me, Lord, because snake choke your man? Poor snake, he only want dinner. If you go where lion live, lion kill you. If you go where snake live, snake kill you. I tell you not to. You take no notice. Now I tell you all--go if you wish, no one stop you. Perhaps you kill snake, who knows? Only you no take gun there, please. That not allowed. When you tired of this town, go see snake. Only, ‘member that not right way to House of Child. There another way which you never find.”
“Look here,” said Ragnall, “what is the use of all this foolery? You know very well why we are in your devilish country. It is because I believe you have stolen my wife to make her the priestess of your evil religion whatever it may be, and I want her back.”
“All this great mistake,” replied Harût blandly. “We no steal beautiful lady you marry because we find she not right priestess. Also Macumazana here not to look for lady but to kill elephant Jana and get pay in ivory like good business man. You, Lord, come with him as friend though we no ask you, that all. Then you try find temple of our god and snake which watch door kill your servant. Why we not kill you, eh?”
“Because you are afraid to,” answered Ragnall boldly. “Kill me if you can and take the consequences. I am ready.”
Harût studied him not without admiration.
“You very brave man,” he said, “and we no wish kill you and p’raps after all everything come right in end. Only Child know about that. Also you help us fight Black Kendah by and by. So, Lord, you quite safe unless you big fool and go call on snake in cave. He very hungry snake and soon want more dinner. You hear, Light-in-Darkness, Lord-of-the-Fire,” he added suddenly turning on Hans who was squatted near by twiddling his hat with a face that for absolute impassiveness resembled a deal board. “You hear, he very hungry snake, and you make nice tea for him.”
Hans rolled his little yellow eyes without even turning his head until they rested on the stately countenance of Harût, and answered in Bantu:
“I hear, Liar-with-the-White-Beard, but what have I to do with this matter? Jana is my enemy who would have killed Macumazana, my master, not your dirty snake. What is the good of this snake of yours? If it were any good, why does it not kill Jana whom you hate? And if it is no good, why do you not take a stick and knock it on the head? If you are afraid I will do so for you if you pay me. That for your snake,” and very energetically he spat upon the floor.
“All right,” said Harût, still speaking in English, “you go kill snake. Go when you like, no one say no. Then we give you new name. Then we call you Lord-of-the-Snake.”
As Hans, who now was engaged in lighting his corn-cob pipe, did not deign to answer these remarks, Harût turned to me and said:
“Lord Macumazana, your leg still bad, eh? Well, I bring you some ointment what make it quite well; it holy ointment come from the Child. We want you get well quick.”
Then suddenly he broke into Bantu. “My Lord, war draws near. The Black Kendah are gathering all their strength to attack us and we must have your aid. I go down to the River Tava to see to certain matters, as to the reaping of the outlying crops and other things. Within a week I will be back; then we must talk again, for by that time, if you will use the ointment that I have given you, you will be as well as ever you were in your life. Rub it on your leg, and mix a piece as large as a mealie grain in water and swallow it at night. It is not poison, see,” and taking the cover off a little earthenware pot which he produced he scooped from it with his finger some of the contents, which looked like lard, put it on his tongue and swallowed it.
Then he rose and departed with his usual bows.
Here I may state that I used Harût’s prescription with the most excellent results. That night I took a dose in water, very nasty it was, and rubbed my leg with the stuff, to find that next morning all pain had left me and that, except for some local weakness, I was practically quite well. I kept the rest of the salve for years, and it proved a perfect specific in cases of sciatica and rheumatism. Now, alas! it is all used and no recipe is available from which it can be made up again.
The next few days passed uneventfully. As soon as I could walk I began to go about the town, which was nothing but a scattered village much resembling those to be seen on the eastern coasts of Africa. Nearly all the men seemed to be away, making preparations for the harvest, I suppose, and as the women shut themselves up in their houses after the Oriental fashion, though the few that I saw about were unveiled and rather good-looking, I did not gather any intelligence worth noting.
To tell the truth I cannot remember being in a more uninteresting place than this little town with its extremely uncommunicative population which, it seemed to me, lived under a shadow of fear that prevented all gaiety. Even the children, of whom there were not many, crept about in a depressed fashion and talked in a low voice. I never saw any of them playing games or heard them shouting and laughing, as young people do in most parts of the world. For the rest we were very well looked after. Plenty of food was provided for us and every thought taken for our comfort. Thus a strong and quiet pony was brought for me to ride because of my lameness. I had only to go out of the house and call and it arrived from somewhere, all ready saddled and bridled, in charge of a lad who appeared to be dumb. At any rate when I spoke to him he would not answer.
Mounted on this pony I took one or two rides along the southern slopes of the mountain on the old pretext of shooting for the pot. Hans accompanied me on these occasions, but was, I noted, very silent and thoughtful, as though he were hunting something up and down his tortuous intelligence. Once we got quite near to the mouth of the cave or tunnel where poor Savage had met his horrid end. As we stood studying it a white-robed man whose head was shaved, which made me think he must be a priest, came up and asked me mockingly why we did not go through the tunnel and see what lay beyond, adding, almost in the words of Harût himself, that none would attempt to interfere with us as the road was open to any who could travel it. By way of answer I only smiled and put him a few questions about a very beautiful breed of goats with long silky hair, some of which he seemed to be engaged in herding. He replied that these goats were sacred, being the food of “one who dwelt in the Mountain who only ate when the moon changed.”
When I inquired who this person was he said with his unpleasant smile that I had better go through the tunnel and see for myself, an invitation which I did not accept.
That evening Harût appeared unexpectedly, looking very grave and troubled. He was in a great hurry and only stayed long enough to congratulate me upon the excellent effects of his ointment, since “no man could fight Jana on one leg.”
I asked him when the fight with Jana was to come off. He replied:
“Lord, I go up to the Mountain to attend the Feast of the First-fruits, which is held at sunrise on the day of the new moon. After the offering the Oracle will speak and we shall learn when there will be war with Jana, and perchance other things.”
“May we not attend this feast, Harût, who are weary of doing nothing here?”
“Certainly,” he answered with his grave bow. “That is, if you come unarmed; for to appear before the Child with arms is death. You know the road; it runs through yonder cave and the forest beyond the cave. Take it when you will, Lord.”
“Then if we can pass the cave we shall be welcome at the feast?”
“You will be very welcome. None shall hurt you there, going or returning. I swear it by the Child. Oh! Macumazana,” he added, smiling a little, “why do you talk folly, who know well that one lives in yonder cave whom none may look upon and love, as Bena learned not long ago? You are thinking that perhaps you might kill this Dweller in the cave with your weapons. Put away that dream, seeing that henceforth those who watch you have orders to see that none of you leave this house carrying so much as a knife. Indeed, unless you promise me that this shall be so you will not be suffered to set foot outside its garden until I return again. Now do you promise?”
I thought a while and, drawing the two others aside out of hearing, asked them their opinion.
Ragnall was at first unwilling to give any such promise, but Hans said:
“Baas, it is better to go free and unhurt without guns and knives than to become a prisoner once, as you were among the Black Kendah. Often there is but a short step between the prison and the grave.”
Both Ragnall and I acknowledged the force of this argument and in the end we gave the promise, speaking one by one.
“It is enough,” said Harût; “moreover, know, Lord, that among us White Kendah he who breaks an oath is put across the River Tava unarmed to make report thereof to Jana, Father of Lies. Now farewell. If we do not meet at the Feast of the First-fruits on the day of the new moon, whither once more I invite you, we can talk together here after I have heard the voice of the Oracle.”
Then he mounted a camel which awaited him outside the gate and departed with an escort of twelve men, also riding camels.
“There is some other road up that mountain, Quatermain,” said Ragnall. “A camel could sooner pass through the eye of a needle than through that dreadful cave, even if it were empty.”
“Probably,” I answered, “but as we don’t know where it is and I dare say it lies miles from here, we need not trouble our heads on the matter. The cave is our only road, which means that there is no road.”
That evening at supper we discovered that Hans was missing; also that he had got possession of my keys and broken into a box containing liquor, for there it stood open in the cooking-hut with the keys in the lock.
“He has gone on the drink,” I said to Ragnall, “and upon my soul I don’t wonder at it; for sixpence I would follow his example.”
Then we went to bed. Next morning we breakfasted rather late, since when one has nothing to do there is no object in getting up early. As I was preparing to go to the cook-house to boil some eggs, to our astonishment Hans appeared with a kettle of coffee.
“Hans,” I said, “you are a thief.”
“Yes, Baas,” answered Hans.
“You have been at the gin box and taking that poison.”
“Yes, Baas, I have been taking poison. Also I took a walk and all is right now. The Baas must not be angry, for it is very dull doing nothing here. Will the Baases eat porridge as well as eggs?”
As it was no use scolding him I said that we would. Moreover, there was something about his manner which made me suspicious, for really he did not look like a person who has just been very drunk.
After we had finished breakfast he came and squatted down before me. Having lit his pipe he asked suddenly:
“Would the Baases like to walk through that cave to-night? If so, there will be no trouble.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, suspecting that he was still drunk.
“I mean, Baas, that the Dweller-in-the-cave is fast asleep.”
“How do you know that, Hans?”
“Because I am the nurse who put him to sleep, Baas, though he kicked and cried a great deal. He is asleep; he will wake no more. Baas, I have killed the Father of Serpents.”
“Hans,” I said, “now I am sure that you are still drunk, although you do not show it outside.”
“Hans,” added Ragnall, to whom I had translated as much of this as he did not understand, “it is too early in the day to tell good stories. How could you possibly have killed that serpent without a gun--for you took none with you--or with it either for that matter?”
“Will the Baases come and take a walk through the cave?” asked Hans with a snigger.
“Not till I am quite sure that you are sober,” I replied; then, remembering certain other events in this worthy’s career, added; “Hans, if you do not tell us the story at once I will beat you.”