The most beautiful retrograde! The suitcase rolled down and hit the old man, the young man ran and intercepted him

发表于 2023-09-23 05:15:28 来源:Return to basics and return to true nature

Another opening is made on the opposite side to that of the first. After some trouble two oxen are driven through. They rush out together, one falling by the hand of the lurking slaughterer, the other meeting a speedy death at the assegais of the spectators.There still remain upwards of a dozen within the kraal, but of these not one can be induced to pass out. Panic-stricken they huddle together closer still, until at last, their terror giving way to a frenzy of rage, the maddened brutes turn and furiously charge their tormentors. The air is rent with savage bellowings and the clashing of horns. The dust flies in clouds from the rumbling earth as the frenzied creatures tear round and round the inclosure. Two of the Kafirs, less agile or less fortunate than their fellows, are flung high in the air, falling with a lifeless thud among the spectators outside; then, crashing through the fence in a body, the panic-stricken bullocks stream forth into the open, scattering the crowd right and left before the fury of their rush.Then ensues a wild and stirring scene. Their great horns lowered, the infuriated animals course madly through the village, each beset by a crowd of armed savages whose dark, agile forms, avoiding the fierce impetus of their charge, may be seen to spring alongside, plying the deadly assegai. One turns suddenly and heads straight for its pursuers, bellowing hideously. Like magic the crowd parts, there is a whizz of assegais in the air, and the poor beast crashes earthward, bristling with quivering assegai hafts, as a pin cushion with pins. Yelling, whistling like fiends, in their uncontrollable excitement, the savages dart in and out among the fleeing beasts, and the red firelight gleams upon assegai points and rolling eyeballs, and the air rings with the frenzied bellowing of the pursued, and the wild shouts of the pursuers.But it cannot last long. Soon the mad fury of the chase gives way to the nauseous accompaniments of a slaughter house on a large scale. In an incredibly short space of time, each of the bullocks is reduced to a disjointed heap of flesh and bones. Men, staggering beneath huge slabs of quivering meat, make their way to the fires, leaving the dogs to snarl and quarrel over an abundant repast of steaming offal.The great joints frizzle and sputter over the red coals. Squatted

leg through the fearful pathway up to the thigh. An involuntary cry escaped him as, grasping a stem above him, he drew it forth with a supreme effort, and his brown visage assumed a hue a good many shades paler, as through the hole thus made he contemplated a little cloud of leaves and sticks swirling away into the abyss.“Great Heaven!” he ejaculated. “Are we never coming to the end of this ghastly place?”“How would you like to cross it running at full speed, like a monkey, as I was forced to do? I told you I had to fly through the air,” muttered Josane, who had overheard. “The horror of it has only just begun—just begun. Hau! Did I not say it was going to be a horrible place?”But they were destined to reach the end of it without mishap, and right glad were they to find themselves crawling along a narrow ledge overhung by a great rock, still skirting the abyss, but at any rate there was hard ground under them; not a mere shaky network of more or less rotten roots.“Is this the only way, Josane?” said Eustace at length, as they paused for a few minutes to recover breath, and, truth to say, to steady their nerves a trifle. Even he put the question with some diffidence, for as they drew nearer and nearer to the locality of their weird quest the old Gcaléka’s manner had undergone a still further change. He had become morose and taciturn, gloomy and abstracted to a degree.“It is not,” he answered. “It is the only way I know. When I came here my eyes were shut; when I went away they were open. Then I approached it from above; now we have approached from below. The way by which I left, is the way you have seen.”“O Lord! I wouldn’t travel the last infernal hundred yards again for a thousand pounds,” muttered Hoste ruefully. “And now, I’ve got to do it again for nothing. I’d sooner run the gauntlet of the whole Gcaléka tribe, as we did before.”“We may have to do that as well,” remarked Shelton. “But I think Inever did see such an utterly dismal and God-forsaken corner in my life. Looks as if Old Nick had built it out of sheer devilment.”There was reason in what he said. The immense funnel-like hole seemed an extraordinary caprice of Nature. Nothing grew at the bottom but coarse herbage and a few stunted bushes. It seemed absolutely lacking in raison d’être. Occurring at the top of a mountain, it would at once have suggested an ancient crater. Occurring, as it did, in solid ground on the steep slope of a lofty river bank that theory seemed not to hold good. On all sides, save the narrow defile they had come through, it was shut in by lofty wooded heights breaking here and there into a red iron-stone cliff.Their guide resumed his way, advancing in a listening attitude, and with intense caution. The ledge upon which they crept, now on all-fours, widened considerably. The projecting rock overhead jutted out further and further, till it overhung the abyss for a considerable distance. Beneath its shade they were already in semi-gloom. Crawling along, toilsomely, laboriously, one behind the other, each man with all his senses, all his faculties, on the alert, the fact that their guide had stopped came upon them as a surprise. Then, as they joined him, and crouched there side by side—each man’s heart beat quicker, each man’s face slightly changed colour. For the overhanging rock had heightened—the ledge had widened to an area of fifteen or twenty feet. Flooring and rock-roof no longer met. At the bottom of this area, both yawned away from each other in a black horizontal rift.Save through this rift there was no getting any further. Quickly each mind grasped the solution. The cave yawning in front of them was—“Where does that hole lead to, Josane?” said Hoste.“Kwa ’zinyoka,” replied the Gcaléka, impressively.Such creatures are we of the light and air, that it is safe to assert that not even the boldest among us can undertake the most cursory exploration into the bowels of the earth without a consciousness of ever so slight a sobering influence, a kind of misgiving begotten of the idea of

The most beautiful retrograde! The suitcase rolled down and hit the old man, the young man ran and intercepted him

darkness and weight—a feeling as though the cavern roof might crush down upon us, and bury us there throughout the aeons of eternity. It is not surprising, therefore, that our three friends—all men of tried courage —should sit down for a few minutes, and contemplate this yawning black hole in dubious silence.It was no reflection on their courage, either. They had just dared and surmounted a peril trying and frightful enough to tax the strongest nerves —and now before them lay the entrance to an unknown inferno; a place bristling with grim and mysterious terrors such as even their stout-hearted guide—the only man who knew what they were—recoiled from braving again. They could hardly believe that the friend and fellow-countrymen, whom all these months they had reckoned among the slain, lay near them within that fearful place, alive, and perchance unharmed. It might be, however, that the cavern before them was but a tunnel, leading to some hidden and inaccessible retreat like the curious crater-like hollow they had just skirted.“Au!” exclaimed Josane, with a dissatisfied shake of the head. “We cannot afford to sleep here. If we intend to go in we must do so at once.”There was reason in this. Their preparations were simple enough— and consisted in seeing that their weapons were in perfect readiness. Eustace, too, had lighted a strong bull’s-eye lantern with a closing slide. Besides this, each man was plentifully supplied with candles, which, however, it was decided, should only be used if a quantity of light became absolutely necessary.Be it remembered not one of the three white men had other than the vaguest idea of the nature of the horrors which this gruesome place might disclose. Whether through motives of superstition or from whatever cause, Josane had hitherto preserved a remarkable silence on the subject. Now he said, significantly:“Hear my words, Amakosi. Tread one behind the other, and look neither to the right nor to the left, nor above. But look where you place your steps, and look carefully. Remember my words, for I know that of which I speak.”They compared their watches. It was just half-past one. They sent a last long look at the sky and the surrounding heights. As they did so there rolled forth upon the heavy air a long, low boom of distant thunder. Then they fell into their places and entered the cavern, the same unspoken thought in each man’s mind—Would they ever behold the fair light of day again?And the distant, muttering thunder peal, hoarse, heavy, sullen, breaking upon the sultry air, at the moment when they left the outer world, struck them as an omen—the menacing voice of outraged Nature booming the knell of those who had the temerity to seek to penetrate her innermost mysteries.Chapter Forty Four.Inferno.For the first forty yards the roof of the cave was so low that they had to advance in a stooping posture. Then it heightened and the tunnel widened out simultaneously. Eustace led the way, his bull’s-eye lantern strapped around him, throwing a wide disk of yellow light in front. Behind him, but keeping a hand on his shoulder in order to guide him, walked Josane; the other two following in single file.A turn of the way had shut out the light from the entrance. Eustace closing the slide of the lantern for a moment, they were in black, pitchy darkness.A perceptible current of air blew into the cavern. That looked as if there should be an outlet somewhere. Old Josane, while enjoining silence upon the rest of the party, had, from the moment they had entered, struck up a low, weird, crooning song, which sounded like an incantation. Soon a glimmer of light showed just in front.“That is the other way in,” muttered old Josane. “That is the way I came in. The other is the way I came out. Hau!”An opening now became apparent—a steep, rock shaft, reaching away into the outer air. It seemed to take one or more turnings in its upward passage, for the sky was not visible, and the light only travelled down in a dim, chastened glimmer as though it was intercepted in its course. An examination of this extraordinary feature revealed the fact that it was a kind of natural staircase.“This is the way I came in. Ha!” muttered Josane again, with a glare of resentment in his eyes as though recalling to mind some particularly ignominious treatment—as he narrowly scrutinised the slippery, rocky sides of the shaft.“I suppose it’ll be the best way for us to get out,” said Hoste.

The most beautiful retrograde! The suitcase rolled down and hit the old man, the young man ran and intercepted him

“Anything rather than that devil of a scramble again.”“The time to talk of getting out is not yet,” rejoined the Kafir drily. “We are not in yet.”They resumed their way. As they penetrated deeper, the cavern suddenly slanted abruptly upwards. This continued for some twenty or thirty yards, when again the floor became level, though ever with a slight upward bend. Great slabs of rock projected from the sides, but the width of the tunnel varied little, ranging between six and ten yards. The same held good of its height.As they advanced they noticed that the current of air was no longer felt. An extraordinary foetid and overpowering atmosphere had taken its place. Similarly the floor and sides of the cavern, which before they reached the outlet had been moist and humid, now became dry and firm.“Hand us your flask, Shelton,” said Hoste. “Upon my soul I feel as if I was going to faint. Faugh!”The odour was becoming more and more sickening with every step. Musky, rank, acreous—it might almost be felt. Each man required a pull at something invigorating, if only to neutralise the inhalation of so pestilential an atmosphere. Smoking was suggested, but this Josane firmly tabooed.“It cannot be,” he said. “It would be madness. Remember my words,Amakosi. Look neither to the right nor to the left—only straight in front of you, where you set down your steps.”Then he resumed his strange wild chant, now sinking it to an awe-struck whisper hardly above his breath. It was a weird, uncanny sight, those four shadowy figures advancing through the thick black darkness, the fiery eye of the lantern darting forth its luminous column in front, while the deep-toned, long-drawn notes of the wild, heathenish rune died away in whispering echoes overhead.“Oh! good Lord! Look at that!”The cry broke from Shelton. All started, so great was the state of tension that their nerves were undergoing. Following his glance they promptly discovered what it was that had evoked it.Lying upon a great slab of rock, about on a level with their chests, was an enormous puff-adder. The bloated proportions of the hideous reptile were disposed in a sinuous coil—shadowy, repulsive to the last degree, in the light of the lantern. A shudder ran through every one of the three white men.“Quick, Josane. Hand me one of your kerries,” said Shelton. “I can get a whack at him now.”But the Kafir, peremptorily, almost angrily refused.“Why did you not listen to my words?” he said. “Look neither to the right nor to the left, was what I told you. Then you would have seen nothing. Now let us move on.”But Shelton and Hoste stood, irresolutely staring at the horrid reptile as though half fascinated. It—as if resenting the intrusion—began to unwind its sluggish folds, and raising its head, emitted a low, warning hiss, at the same time blowing itself out with a sound as of a pair of bellows collapsing, after the fashion which has gained for this most repulsive of all serpents its distinctive name.“You must not kill it,” repeated the Kafir, in a tone almost of command. “This is ‘The Home of the Serpents,’ remember. Did I not warn you?”They saw that he was deadly in earnest. Here in this horrible den, right in the heart of the earth, the dark-skinned, superstitious savage seemed the one to command. It was perhaps remarkable that no thought of disobeying him entered the mind of any one of the three white men; still more so, that no resentment entered in either. They resumed their way without a murmur; not, however, without some furtive glances behind, as though dreading an attack on the part of the deadly reptile they were leaving in their rear. More than once they thought to detect the

The most beautiful retrograde! The suitcase rolled down and hit the old man, the young man ran and intercepted him

sound of that slow, crawling glide—to discern an indistinct and sinuous shadow moving in the subdued light.“This is ‘The Home of the Serpents’!” chanted Josane, taking up once more his weird refrain.“This is The Home of the Serpents, the abode of the Spirit-dead. O Inyoka ’Nkúlu (Great Serpent) do us no hurt! O Snake of Snakes, harm us not!“The shades of thy home are blacker than blackest night.“We tread the dark shades of thy home in search of the white man’s friend.“Give us back the white man’s friend, so may we depart in peace—“In peace from The Home of the Serpents, the abode of the Spirit-dead.“Into light from the awe-dealing gloom, where the shades of our fathers creep.“So may we return to the daylight in safety with him whom we seek.“Harm us not, O Snake of snakes! Do us no hurt,O Inyoka ’Nkúlu!”The drawn out notes of this lugubrious refrain were uttered with a strange, low, concentrative emphasis which was indescribably thrilling. Eustace, the only one of the party who thoroughly grasped its burden, felt curiously affected by it. The species of devil worship implied in the heathenish invocation communicated its influence to himself. His spirits, up till now depressed and burdened as with a weight of brooding evil, seemed to rise to an extraordinary pitch of exaltation, as though rejoicing at the prospect of prompt admission into strange mysteries. Far otherwise, however, were the other two affected by the surroundings.

Indeed, it is by no means certain that had their own inclinations been the sole guide in the matter, they would there and then have turned round and beat a hasty and ignominious retreat, leaving Tom Carhayes and his potential fate to the investigation of some more enterprising party.The atmosphere grew more foetid and pestilential. Suddenly the cavern widened out. Great slabs of rock jutted horizontally from the sides, sometimes so nearly meeting that there was only just room to pass in single file between. Then a low cry of horror escaped the three white men. They stopped short, as though they had encountered a row of fixed bayonets, and some, at any rate, of the party were conscious of the very hair on their heads standing erect.For, lying about upon the rock slabs were numbers of shadowy, sinuous shapes, similar to the one they had just disturbed. Some were lying apart, some were coiled up together in a heaving, revolting mass. As the light of the lantern flashed upon them, they began to move. The hideous coils began to separate, gliding apart, head erect, and hissing till the whole area of the grisly cavern seemed alive with writhing, hissing serpents. Turn the light which way they would, there were the same great wriggling coils, the same frightful heads. Many, hitherto unseen, were pouring their loathsome, gliding shapes down the rocks overhead, and the dull, dragging heavy sound, as the horrible reptiles crawled over the hard and stony surface, mingled with that of strident hissing. What a sight to come upon in the heart of the earth!It is safe to assert that no object in Nature is held in more utter and universal detestation by man than the serpent. And here were these men penned up within an underground cave in the very heart of the earth, with scores, if not hundreds, of these frightful and most deadly reptiles—some too, of abnormal size—around them; all on the move, and so near that it was as much as they could do to avoid actual contact. Small wonder that their flesh should creep and that every drop of blood should seem to curdle within their veins. It was a position to recur to a man in his dreams until his dying day.“Oh, I can’t stand any more of this,” said Hoste, who was walking last. “Hang it. Anything above ground, you know—but this—! Faugh!Man, woman, or demon—which was it?

A grim, massive face, a pair of fierce, rolling eyes, which seemed to sparkle with a cruel and blood thirsty scintillation, a large, strongly built trunk, whose conformation alone betrayed the sex of the creature. Limbs and body were hung around thickly with barbarous “charms” in hideous and disgusting profusion—birds’ heads and claws, frogs and lizards, snakes’ skins, mingling with the fresh and bloody entrails of some animal. But the head of this revolting object was simply demoniacal in aspect. The hair, instead of being short and woolly, had been allowed to attain some length, and hung down on each side of the frightful face in a black, kinky mane, save for two lengths of it, which, stiffened with some sort of horrid pigment, stood erect like a couple of long red horns on each side of the wearer’s ears. Between these “horns,” and crowning the creature’s head, grinned a human skull, whose eyeless sockets were smeared round with a broad circle in dark crimson. And that nothing should be wanting to complete the diabolical horror of her appearance, the repulsive and glistening coils of a live serpent were folding and unfolding about the left arm and shoulder of the sorceress.Something like a shudder of fear ran through the ranks of the armed warriors as they gazed upon this frightful apparition. Brave men all— fearless fighters when pitted against equal forces—now they quailed, sat there in their armed might, thoroughly cowed before this female fiend. She would require blood—would demand a life, perhaps several—that was certain. Whose would it be?The wild, beast-like bounds of the witch-doctress subsided into a kind of half-gliding, half-dancing step—her demoniacal words into a weird nasal sort of chant—as she approached the chief and his councillors.“Seek not for Ngcenika, O son of Hintza, father of the children of Xosa!” she cried in a loud voice, fixing her eyes upon Kreli. “Seek not for Ngcenika, O amapakati, wise men of the House of Gcaléka, when your wisdom is defeated by the witchcraft of your enemies. Seek not Ngcenika, O ye fighting men, children of the Great Chief, your father, when your blood is spilled in battle, and your bullets fly harmless from the bodies of the whites because of the evil wiles of the enemy within your ranks. Seek her not, for she is here—here to protect you—here to ‘smell out’ the evil wizard in your midst. She needs no seeking; she needs nocalling. She is here!”“Ha! ha!” ejaculated the warriors in a kind of gasping roar, for those ominous words told but too truly what would presently happen. Not a man but dreaded that he might be the victim, and in proportion as each man stood well in rank or possessions, so much the greater was his apprehension.“I hear the voices of the shadowy dead!” went on the sorceress, striking an attitude of intense listening, and gazing upwards over the heads of her audience. “I hear their voices like the whispering murmur of many waters. I hear them in the air? No. I hear them in the roar of the salt waves of yonder blue sea? No. I hear them in the whispering leaves of the forest—in the echoing voices of the rocks? No. In the sunshine? No. I am in the dark—in the dark!” she repeated, raising her tone to a high, quavering shriek, while her features began to work, her eyes to roll wildly. “I am in the gloom of the far depths, and the world itself is rolling above me. The air is thick. I choke. I suffocate. I am in the tomb. The rock walls close me in. There are faces around me—eyes—myriads of eyes— serpent eyes—hissing tongues. They come about me in the black gloom. They scorch—they burn. Ah-ah!”An awful change had come over the speaker. Her features were working convulsively—she foamed at the mouth—her eyes were turned literally inward so that nothing but the white was visible. Her body swayed to and fro in short, irregular jerks, as though avoiding the attack of unseen enemies. The live serpent, which, grasped by the neck, she held aloft in the air, writhed its sinuous length, and with hood expanded and eyes scintillating, was hissing ferociously. The effect upon the savage audience was striking. Not a word was uttered—not a finger moved. All sat motionless, like so many statues of bronze, every eye bent in awesome entrancement upon the seer. Even Eustace felt the original contemptuous interest with which he had watched the performance deepen into a blood-curdling sort of repulsion. From the stage of mere jugglery the case had entered upon one which began to look uncommonly like genuine diabolical possession.“I am in the gloom of the depths,” shrieked the hideous sorceress,

“even the Home of the Immortal Serpents, which none can find save those who are beloved of the spirits. The air is black and thick. It is shining with eyes—eyes, eyes—everywhere eyes. The ground is alive with serpents, even the spirits of our valiant dead, and they speak. They speak but one word and that is ‘Blood! Blood—blood—blood!’” repeated the frightful monster. “Blood must flow! blood! blood!” And uttering a series of deafening howls she fell prone to the earth in frightful convulsions.Not one of the spectators moved. The hideous features working, the eyes rolling till they seemed about to drop from their sockets, the foam flying from the lips—the body of Ngcenika seeming to stiffen itself like a corpse, bounded many feet in the air, and falling to the earth with a heavy thud, bounded and rebounded again—the festoons of barbarous and disgusting ornaments which adorned her person, twisting and untwisting in the air like clusters of snakes. The live rinkhaals, which had escaped from her grasp, lay coiled in an attitude of defence, its head reared threateningly.For some minutes this appalling scene continued. Then the horrible contortions of the body ceased. The witch-doctress lay motionless; the swollen eyes, the terrible face, set and rigid, staring up to Heaven. She might have been dead. So, too, might have been the spectators, so still, so motionless were they.The suspense was becoming horrible, the silence crushing. There was just a whisper of air among the leaves of the surrounding forest, causing a faint rustle, otherwise not a sound—not even the distant call of a bird. Eustace, gazing upon the motionless dark forms that surrounded him and upon the immeasurably repulsive figure of the prostrate demoniac, felt that he could stand it no longer—that he must do something to break that awful silence even though it should cost him his life, when an interruption occurred, so sudden, so startling in its unexpectedness, that he could hardly believe his eyes.The witch-doctress, who had seemed prone in the powerlessness of extreme exhaustion for hours at least, suddenly sprang to her feet with a blood-curdling yell.“The white wizard!” she shrieked. “The white wizard!”“Ha! The white wizard! The white wizard!” echoed the warriors, relieved that the storm had passed them by this time. “Let us see. Is his charm too strong for Ngcenika?”The time had come. Though unarmed, Eustace was still unbound. Instinctively and warily he glanced around, eager to grasp at some means of doing battle for his life. But no such means rewarded his glance.Ngcenika walked up to one of the guards, and laid her hand on the bundle of assegais which he carried. The man surrendered it with alacrity, striving to conceal the apprehension which came over his features as he came face to face with the terrible witch-doctress. She chose a short-handled, broad-bladed stabbing assegai, examined it critically, and returned to her former position.Placing the weapon on the ground she proceeded to dance round it in a circle, chanting a weird, droning incantation. The prisoner watched her keenly. No attempt had been made to bind him. At last her song ceased. Grasping the assegai in her powerful right hand, she advanced towards Eustace.At a sign from Ngcenika the guards fell back some twenty yards. Behind them were the dense ranks of armed warriors, all craning eagerly forward to watch what was to follow. At about the same distance in front sat the group of chiefs and councillors, so that the prisoner and the sorceress were completely hemmed in.“White wizard—white dog!” she began, standing within striking distance. “Wizard indeed! What is thy magic worth? Dost thou not fear me?”Eustace, seeing through the repulsive mass of gew-gaws which represented the juggling line of business, realised that he had to deal with a powerful, broadly built, middle-aged woman of about five foot ten. She looked hard and muscular, and as strong as any two men—in fact,


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