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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesShe - Chapter VII - USTANE SINGS
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She - Chapter VII - USTANE SINGS Post by :stevencortez Category :Long Stories Author :H. Rider Haggard Date :May 2011 Read :2774

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She - Chapter VII - USTANE SINGS

When the kissing operation was finished--by the way, none of the young
ladies offered to pet me in this fashion, though I saw one hovering
round Job, to that respectable individual's evident alarm--the old man
Billali advanced, and graciously waved us into the cave, whither we
went, followed by Ustane, who did not seem inclined to take the hints
I gave her that we liked privacy.

Before we had gone five paces it struck me that the cave that we were
entering was none of Nature's handiwork, but, on the contrary, had
been hollowed by the hand of man. So far as we could judge it appeared
to be about one hundred feet in length by fifty wide, and very lofty,
resembling a cathedral aisle more than anything else. From this main
aisle opened passages at a distance of every twelve or fifteen feet,
leading, I supposed, to smaller chambers. About fifty feet from the
entrance of the cave, just where the light began to get dim, a fire
was burning, which threw huge shadows upon the gloomy walls around.
Here Billali halted, and asked us to be seated, saying that the people
would bring us food, and accordingly we squatted ourselves down upon
the rugs of skins which were spread for us, and waited. Presently the
food, consisting of goat's flesh boiled, fresh milk in an earthenware
pot, and boiled cobs of Indian corn, was brought by young girls. We
were almost starving, and I do not think that I ever in my life before
ate with such satisfaction. Indeed, before we had finished we
literally ate up everything that was set before us.

When we had done, our somewhat saturnine host, Billali, who had been
watching us in perfect silence, rose and addressed us. He said that it
was a wonderful thing that had happened. No man had ever known or
heard of white strangers arriving in the country of the People of the
Rocks. Sometimes, though rarely, black men had come here, and from
them they had heard of the existence of men much whiter than
themselves, who sailed on the sea in ships, but for the arrival of
such there was no precedent. We had, however, been seen dragging the
boat up the canal, and he told us frankly that he had at once given
orders for our destruction, seeing that it was unlawful for any
stranger to enter here, when a message had come from "/She-who-must-
be-obeyed/," saying that our lives were to be spared, and that we were
to be brought hither.

"Pardon me, my father," I interrupted at this point; "but if, as I
understand, '/She-who-must-be-obeyed/' lives yet farther off, how
could she have known of our approach?"

Billali turned, and seeing that we were alone--for the young lady,
Ustane, had withdrawn when he had begun to speak--said, with a curious
little laugh--

"Are there none in your land who can see without eyes and hear without
ears? Ask no questions; /She/ knew."

I shrugged my shoulders at this, and he proceeded to say that no
further instructions had been received on the subject of our disposal,
and this being so he was about to start to interview "/She-who-must-
be-obeyed/," generally spoken of, for the sake of brevity, as "Hiya"
or /She/ simply, who he gave us to understand was the Queen of the
Amahagger, and learn her wishes.

I asked him how long he proposed to be away, and he said that by
travelling hard he might be back on the fifth day, but there were many
miles of marsh to cross before he came to where /She/ was. He then
said that every arrangement would be made for our comfort during his
absence, and that, as he personally had taken a fancy to us, he
sincerely trusted that the answer he should bring from /She/ would be
one favourable to the continuation of our existence, but at the same
time he did not wish to conceal from us that he thought this doubtful,
as every stranger who had ever come into the country during his
grandmother's life, his mother's life, and his own life, had been put
to death without mercy, and in a way he would not harrow our feelings
by describing; and this had been done by the order of /She/ herself,
at least he supposed that it was by her order. At any rate, she never
interfered to save them.

"Why," I said, "but how can that be? You are an old man, and the time
you talk of must reach back three men's lives. How therefore could
/She/ have ordered the death of anybody at the beginning of the life
of your grandmother, seeing that herself she would not have been
born?"

Again he smiled--that same faint, peculiar smile, and with a deep bow
departed, without making any answer; nor did we see him again for five
days.

When we had gone we discussed the situation, which filled me with
alarm. I did not at all like the accounts of this mysterious Queen,
"/She-who-must-be-obeyed/," or more shortly /She/, who apparently
ordered the execution of any unfortunate stranger in a fashion so
unmerciful. Leo, too, was depressed about it, but consoled himself by
triumphantly pointing out that this /She/ was undoubtedly the person
referred to in the writing on the potsherd and in his father's letter,
in proof of which he advanced Billali's allusions to her age and
power. I was by this time too overwhelmed with the whole course of
events that I had not even the heart left to dispute a proposition so
absurd, so I suggested that we should try to go out and get a bath, of
which we all stood sadly in need.

Accordingly, having indicated our wish to a middle-aged individual of
an unusually saturnine cast of countenance, even among this saturnine
people, who appeared to be deputed to look after us now that the
Father of the hamlet had departed, we started in a body--having first
lit our pipes. Outside the cave we found quite a crowd of people
evidently watching for our appearance, but when they saw us come out
smoking they vanished this way and that, calling out that we were
great magicians. Indeed, nothing about us created so great a sensation
as our tobacco smoke--not even our firearms.(*) After this we
succeeded in reaching a stream that had its source in a strong ground
spring, and taking our bath in peace, though some of the women, not
excepting Ustane, showed a decided inclination to follow us even
there.

(*) We found tobacco growing in this country as it does in every other
part of Africa, and, although they were so absolutely ignorant of
its other blessed qualities, the Amahagger use it habitually in
the form of snuff and also for medicinal purposes.--L. H. H.

By the time that we had finished this most refreshing bath the sun was
setting; indeed, when we got back to the big cave it had already set.
The cave itself was full of people gathered round fires--for several
more had now been lighted--and eating their evening meal by their
lurid light, and by that of various lamps which were set about or hung
upon the walls. These lamps were of a rude manufacture of baked
earthenware, and of all shapes, some of them graceful enough. The
larger ones were formed of big red earthenware pots, filled with
clarified melted fat, and having a reed wick stuck through a wooden
disk which filled the top of the pot. This sort of lamp required the
most constant attention to prevent its going out whenever the wick
burnt down, as there were no means of turning it up. The smaller hand
lamps, however, which were also made of baked clay, were fitted with
wicks manufactured from the pith of a palm-tree, or sometimes from the
stem of a very handsome variety of fern. This kind of wick was passed
through a round hole at the end of the lamp, to which a sharp piece of
hard wood was attached wherewith to pierce and draw it up whenever it
showed signs of burning low.

For a while we sat down and watched this grim people eating their
evening meal in silence as grim as themselves, till at length, getting
tired of contemplating them and the huge moving shadows on the rocky
walls, I suggested to our new keeper that we should like to go to bed.

Without a word he rose, and, taking me politely by the hand, advanced
with a lamp to one of the small passages that I had noticed opening
out of the central cave. This we followed for about five paces, when
it suddenly widened out into a small chamber, about eight feet square,
and hewn out of the living rock. On one side of this chamber was a
stone slab, about three feet from the ground, and running its entire
length like a bunk in a cabin, and on this slab he intimated that I
was to sleep. There was no window or air-hole to the chamber, and no
furniture; and, on looking at it more closely, I came to the
disturbing conclusion (in which, as I afterwards discovered, I was
quite right) that it had originally served for a sepulchre for the
dead rather than a sleeping-place for the living, the slab being
designed to receive the corpse of the departed. The thought made me
shudder in spite of myself; but, seeing that I must sleep somewhere, I
got over the feeling as best I might, and returned to the cavern to
get my blanket, which had been brought up from the boat with the other
things. There I met Job, who, having been inducted to a similar
apartment, had flatly declined to stop in it, saying that the look of
the place gave him the horrors, and that he might as well be dead and
buried in his grandfather's brick grave at once, and expressed his
determination of sleeping with me if I would allow him. This, of
course, I was only too glad to do.

The night passed very comfortably on the whole. I say on the whole,
for personally I went through a most horrible nightmare of being
buried alive, induced, no doubt, by the sepulchral nature of my
surroundings. At dawn we were aroused by a loud trumpeting sound,
produced, as we afterwards discovered, by a young Amahagger blowing
through a hole bored in its side into a hollowed elephant tusk, which
was kept for the purpose.

Taking the hint, we got up and went down to the stream to wash, after
which the morning meal was served. At breakfast one of the women, no
longer quite young, advanced and publicly kissed Job. I think it was
in its way the most delightful thing (putting its impropriety aside
for a moment) that I ever saw. Never shall I forget the respectable
Job's abject terror and disgust. Job, like myself, is a bit of a
misogynist--I fancy chiefly owing to the fact of his having been one
of a family of seventeen--and the feelings expressed upon his
countenance when he realised that he was not only being embraced
publicly, and without authorisation on his own part, but also in the
presence of his masters, were too mixed and painful to admit of
accurate description. He sprang to his feet, and pushed the woman, a
buxom person of about thirty, from him.

"Well, I never!" he gasped, whereupon probably thinking that he was
only coy, she embraced him again.

"Be off with you! Get away, you minx!" he shouted, waving the wooden
spoon, with which he was eating his breakfast, up and down before the
lady's face. "Beg your pardon, gentlemen, I am sure I haven't
encouraged her. Oh, Lord! she's coming for me again. Hold her, Mr.
Holly! please hold her! I can't stand it; I can't, indeed. This has
never happened to me before, gentlemen, never. There's nothing against
my character," and here he broke off, and ran as hard as he could go
down the cave, and for once I saw the Amahagger laugh. As for the
woman, however, she did not laugh. On the contrary, she seemed to
bristle with fury, which the mockery of the other women about only
served to intensify. She stood there literally snarling and shaking
with indignation, and, seeing her, I wished Job's scruples had been at
Jericho, forming a shrewd guess that his admirable behaviour had
endangered our throats. Nor, as the sequel shows, was I wrong.

The lady having retreated, Job returned in a great state of
nervousness, and keeping his weather eye fixed upon every woman who
came near him. I took an opportunity to explain to our hosts that Job
was a married man, and had had very unhappy experiences in his
domestic relations, which accounted for his presence here and his
terror at the sight of women, but my remarks were received in grim
silence, it being evident that our retainer's behaviour was considered
as a slight to the "household" at large, although the women, after the
manner of some of their most civilised sisters, made merry at the
rebuff of their companion.

After breakfast we took a walk and inspected the Amahagger herds, and
also their cultivated lands. They have two breeds of cattle, one large
and angular, with no horns, but yielding beautiful milk; and the
other, a red breed, very small and fat, excellent for meat, but of no
value for milking purposes. This last breed closely resembles the
Norfolk red-pole strain, only it has horns which generally curve
forward over the head, sometimes to such an extent that they have to
be cut to prevent them from growing into the bones of the skull. The
goats are long-haired, and are used for eating only, at least I never
saw them milked. As for the Amahagger cultivation, it is primitive in
the extreme, being all done by means of a spade made of iron, for
these people smelt and work iron. This spade is shaped more like a big
spear-head than anything else, and has no shoulder to it on which the
foot can be set. As a consequence, the labour of digging is very
great. It is, however, all done by the men, the women, contrary to the
habits of most savage races, being entirely exempt from manual toil.
But then, as I think I have said elsewhere, among the Amahagger the
weaker sex has established its rights.

At first we were much puzzled as to the origin and constitution of
this extraordinary race, points upon which they were singularly
uncommunicative. As the time went on--for the next four days passed
without any striking event--we learnt something from Leo's lady friend
Ustane, who, by the way, stuck to that young gentleman like his own
shadow. As to origin, they had none, at least, so far as she was
aware. There were, however, she informed us, mounds of masonry and
many pillars, near the place where /She/ lived, which was called Kôr,
and which the wise said had once been houses wherein men lived, and it
was suggested that they were descended from these men. No one,
however, dared go near these great ruins, because they were haunted:
they only looked on them from a distance. Other similar ruins were to
be seen, she had heard, in various parts of the country, that is,
wherever one of the mountains rose above the level of the swamp. Also
the caves in which they lived had been hollowed out of the rocks by
men, perhaps the same who built the cities. They themselves had no
written laws, only custom, which was, however, quite as binding as
law. If any man offended against the custom, he was put to death by
order of the Father of the "Household." I asked how he was put to
death, and she only smiled and said that I might see one day soon.

They had a Queen, however. /She/ was their Queen, but she was very
rarely seen, perhaps once in two or three years, when she came forth
to pass sentence on some offenders, and when seen was muffled up in a
big cloak, so that nobody could look upon her face. Those who waited
upon her were deaf and dumb, and therefore could tell no tales, but it
was reported that she was lovely as no other woman was lovely, or ever
had been. It was rumoured also that she was immortal, and had power
over all things, but she, Ustane, could say nothing of all that. What
she believed was that the Queen chose a husband from time to time, and
as soon as a female child was born, this husband, who was never again
seen, was put to death. Then the female child grew up and took the
place of the Queen when its mother died, and had been buried in the
great caves. But of these matters none could speak with certainty.
Only /She/ was obeyed throughout the length and breadth of the land,
and to question her command was instant death. She kept a guard, but
had no regular army, and to disobey her was to die.

I asked what size the land was, and how many people lived in it. She
answered that there were ten "Households," like this that she knew of,
including the big "Household," where the Queen was, that all the
"Households" lived in caves, in places resembling this stretch of
raised country, dotted about in a vast extent of swamp, which was only
to be threaded by secret paths. Often the "Households" made war on
each other until /She/ sent word that it was to stop, and then they
instantly ceased. That and the fever which they caught in crossing the
swamps prevented their numbers from increasing too much. They had no
connection with any other race, indeed none lived near them, or were
able to thread the vast swamps. Once an army from the direction of the
great river (presumably the Zambesi) had attempted to attack them, but
they got lost in the marshes, and at night, seeing the great balls of
fire that move about there, tried to come to them, thinking that they
marked the enemy camp, and half of them were drowned. As for the rest,
they soon died of fever and starvation, not a blow being struck at
them. The marshes, she told us, were absolutely impassable except to
those who knew the paths, adding, what I could well believe, that we
should never have reached this place where we then were had we not
been brought thither.

These and many other things we learnt from Ustane during the four
days' pause before our real adventures began, and, as may be imagined,
they gave us considerable cause for thought. The whole thing was
exceedingly remarkable, almost incredibly so, indeed, and the oddest
part of it was that so far it did more or less correspond to the
ancient writing on the sherd. And now it appeared that there was a
mysterious Queen clothed by rumour with dread and wonderful
attributes, and commonly known by the impersonal, but, to my mind,
rather awesome title of /She/. Altogether, I could not make it out,
nor could Leo, though of course he was exceedingly triumphant over me
because I had persistently mocked at the whole thing. As for Job, he
had long since abandoned any attempt to call his reason his own, and
left it to drift upon the sea of circumstance. Mahomed, the Arab, who
was, by the way, treated civilly indeed, but with chilling contempt,
by the Amahagger, was, I discovered, in a great fright, though I could
not quite make out what he was frightened about. He would sit crouched
up in a corner of the cave all day long, calling upon Allah and the
Prophet to protect him. When I pressed him about it, he said that he
was afraid because these people were not men or women at all, but
devils, and that this was an enchanted land; and, upon my word, once
or twice since then I have been inclined to agree with him. And so the
time went on, till the night of the fourth day after Billali had left,
when something happened.

We three and Ustane were sitting round a fire in the cave just before
bedtime, when suddenly the woman, who had been brooding in silence,
rose, and laid her hand upon Leo's golden curls, and addressed him.
Even now, when I shut my eyes, I can see her proud, imperial form,
clothed alternately in dense shadow and the red flickering of the
fire, as she stood, the wild centre of as weird a scene as I ever
witnessed, and delivered herself of the burden of her thoughts and
forebodings in a kind of rhythmical speech that ran something as
follows:--

Thou art my chosen--I have waited for thee from the beginning!
Thou art very beautiful. Who hath hair like unto thee, or skin so
white?
Who hath so strong an arm, who is so much a man?
Thine eyes are the sky, and the light in them is the stars.
Thou art perfect and of a happy face, and my heart turned itself
towards thee.
Ay, when mine eyes fell upon thee I did desire thee,--
Then did I take thee to me--oh, thou Beloved,
And hold thee fast, lest harm should come unto thee.
Ay, I did cover thine head with mine hair, lest the sun should
strike it;
And altogether was I thine, and thou wast altogether mine.
And so it went for a little space, till Time was in labour with
an evil Day;
And then what befell on that day? Alas! my Beloved, I know not!
But I, I saw thee no more--I, I was lost in the blackness.
And she who is stronger did take thee; ay, she who is fairer than
Ustane.
Yet didst thou turn and call upon me, and let thine eyes wander in
the darkness.
But, nevertheless, she prevailed by Beauty, and led thee down
horrible places,
And then, ah! then my Beloved----

Here this extraordinary woman broke off her speech, or chant, which
was so much musical gibberish to us, for all that we understood of
what she was talking about, and seemed to fix her flashing eyes upon
the deep shadow before her. Then in a moment they acquired a vacant,
terrified stare, as though they were striving to realise some half-
seen horror. She lifted her hand from Leo's head, and pointed into the
darkness. We all looked, and could see nothing; but she saw something,
or thought she did, and something evidently that affected even her
iron nerves, for, without another sound, down she fell senseless
between us.

Leo, who was growing really attached to this remarkable young person,
was in a great state of alarm and distress, and I, to be perfectly
candid, was in a condition not far removed from superstitious fear.
The whole scene was an uncanny one.

Presently, however, she recovered, and sat up with an extraordinary
convulsive shudder.

"What didst thou mean, Ustane?" asked Leo, who, thanks to years of
tuition, spoke Arabic very prettily.

"Nay, my chosen," she answered, with a little forced laugh. "I did but
sing unto thee after the fashion of my people. Surely, I meant
nothing. Now could I speak of that which is not yet?"

"And what didst thou see, Ustane?" I asked, looking her sharply in the
face.

"Nay," she answered again, "I saw naught. Ask me not what I saw. Why
should I fright ye?" And then, turning to Leo with a look of the most
utter tenderness that I ever saw upon the face of a woman, civilised
or savage, she took his head between her hands, and kissed him on the
forehead as a mother might.

"When I am gone from thee, my chosen," she said; "when at night thou
stretchest out thine hand and canst not find me, then shouldst thou
think at times of me, for of a truth I love thee well, though I be not
fit to wash thy feet. And now let us love and take that which is given
us, and be happy; for in the grave there is no love and no warmth, nor
any touching of the lips. Nothing perchance, or perchance but bitter
memories of what might have been. To-night the hours are our own, how
know we to whom they shall belong to-morrow?"

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