It was a hot day. The sun poured down its rays over the scattered trees, and stunted bush, and long grass, and over the dried up river beds. Far in the blue, so high the eye could scarcely mark them, vultures were flying southward, where forty miles off kraals had been destroyed and two hundred black carcasses were lying in the sun.
Under a group of tall straggling trees among the grass and low scrub, on the banks of an almost dried up river bed, a small camp had been pitched.
The party had lost their mules, and pending their recovery had already been there seven days. The three cart loads of provisions they were conveying to the large camp were drawn up under the trees and had a sail thrown across them to form a shelter for some of the men; while on the other side of the cleared and open space that formed the camp, a smaller sail was thrown across two poles forming a rough tent; and away to the left, a little cut off from the rest of the camp by some low bushes, was the bell- shaped tent of the captain, under a tall tree. Before the bell-shaped tent stood a short stunted tree; its thick white stem gnarled and knotted; while two stunted misshapen branches, like arms, stretched out on either side.
Before this tree, up and down, with his gun upon his arm, his head bent and his eyes fixed on the ground, while the hot sun blazed on his shoulders, walked a man.
Three or four fires were burning about the camp in different parts, three cooking the mealies and rice which formed the diet of the men, their stock of tinned meats having been exhausted; while the fourth, which was watched by a native boy, contained the more appetising meal of the Captain.
Most of the men were out of camp; the coloured boys having gone to fetch the mules, which had been discovered in the hills a few miles off, and were expected to arrive in the evening; and the white men had gone out to see what game they could bring down with their guns to flavour the mealie pots, or to reconnoitre the country; though all native habitations had been destroyed within a radius of thirty miles, and the land was as bare of black men as a child's hand of hair; and even the beasts seemed to have vanished.
In the shade of the tent, formed of the canvas across two posts, lay three white men, whose work it was to watch the pots and guard the camp. They were all three Colonial Englishmen, and lay on the ground on their stomachs, passing the time by carrying on a desultory conversation, or taking a few whiffs, slowly, and with care, from their pipes, for tobacco was precious in the camp.
Under some bushes a few yards off lay a huge trooper, whose nationality was uncertain, but who was held to hail from some part of the British Isles, and who had travelled round the world. He was currently reported to have done three years' labour for attempted rape in Australia, but nothing certain was known regarding his antecedents. He had been up on guard half the night, and was now taking his rest lying on his back with his arm thrown over his face; but a slight movement could be noted in his jaw as he slowly chewed a piece of tobacco; and occasionally when he turned it round the mouth opened, and disclosed two rows of broken yellow stumps set in very red gums.
The three Colonial Englishmen took no notice of him. Two, who were slowly smoking, were of the large and powerful build, and somewhat loose set about the shoulders, which is common among Colonial Europeans of the third generation, whether Dutch or English, and had the placidity and general good temper of expression which commonly marks the Colonial European who grows up beyond the range of the cities. The third was smaller and more wiry and of an unusually nervous type, with aquiline nose, and sallow hatchet face, with a somewhat discontented expression. He was holding forth, while his companions smoked and listened.
"Now what I say is this," he brought his hand down on the red sand; "here we are with about one half teaspoon of Dop given us at night, while he has ten empty champagne bottles lying behind his tent. And we have to live on the mealies we're convoying for the horses, while he has pati and beef, and lives like a lord! It's all very well for the regulars; they know what they're in for, and they've got gentlemen over them anyhow, and one can stomach anything if you know what kind of a fellow you've got over you. English officers are gentlemen, anyhow; or if one was under Selous now–"
"Oh, Selous's a MAN!" broke out the other two, taking their pipes from their mouths.
"Yes, well, that's what I say. But these fellows, who couldn't do as farmers, and couldn't do as shopkeepers, and God knows what else; and their friends in England didn't want to have them; they're sent out here to boss it over us! It's a damned shame! Why, I want to know, amn't I as good as any of these fellows, who come swelling it about here? Friends got money, I suppose!" He cast his sharp glance over towards the bell tent. "If they gave us real English officers now–"
"Ah!" said the biggest of his companions, who, in spite of his huge form, had something of the simplicity and good nature of a child in his handsome face; "it's because you're not a big enough swell, you know! He'll be a colonel, or a general, before we've done with him. I call them all generals or colonels up here; it's safest, you know; if they're not that today they will be tomorrow!"
This was intended as a joke, and in that hot weather, and in that dull world, anything was good enough to laugh at: the third man smiled, but the first speaker remained serious.
"I only know this," he said, "I'd teach these fellows a lesson, if any one belonging to me had been among the people they left to be murdered here, while they went gallivanting to the Transvaal. If my mother or sister had been killed here, I'd have taken a pistol and blown out the brains of the great Panjandrum, and the little ones after him. Fine administration of a country, this, to invite people to come in and live here, and then take every fighting man out of the country on a gold hunting marauding expedition to the Transvaal, and leave us to face the bitter end. I look upon every man and woman who was killed here as murdered by the Chartered Company."
"Well, Jameson only did what he was told. He had to obey orders, like the rest of us. He didn't make the plan, and he's got the punishment."
"What business had he to listen? What's all this fine administration they talk of? It's six years since I came to this country, and I've worked like a nigger ever since I came, and what have I, or any men who've worked hard at real, honest farming, got for it? Everything in the land is given away for the benefit of a few big folks over the water or swells out here. If England took over the Chartered Company tomorrow, what would she find?– everything of value in the land given over to private concessionaires– they'll line their pockets if the whole land goes to pot! It'll be the jackals eating all the flesh off the horse's bones, and calling the lion in to lick the bones."
"Oh, you wait a bit and you'll be squared," said the handsome man. "I've been here five years and had lots of promises, though I haven't got anything else yet; but I expect it to come some day, so I keep my mouth shut! If they asked me to sign a paper, that Mr. Over-the-Way"–he nodded towards the bell tent–"never got drunk or didn't know how to swear, I'd sign it, if there was a good dose of squaring to come after it. I could stand a good lot of that sort of thing–squaring–if it would only come my way."
The men laughed in a dreary sort of way, and the third man, who had not spoken yet, rolled round on to his back, and took the pipe from his mouth.
"I tell you what," said the keen man, "those of us up here who have got a bit of land and are trying honestly and fairly to work, are getting pretty sick of this humbugging fighting. If we'd had a few men like the Curries and Bowkers of the old days up here from the first, all this would never have happened. And there's no knowing when a reason won't turn up for keeping the bloody thing on or stopping it off for a time, to break out just when one's settled down to work. It's a damned convenient thing to have a war like this to turn on and off."
Slowly the third man keeled round on to his stomach again: "Let resignation wait. We fight the Matabele again tomorrow," he said, sententiously.
A low titter ran round the group. Even the man under the bushes, though his eyes were still closed and his arm across his face, let his mouth relax a little, and showed his yellow teeth.
"I'm always expecting," said the big handsome man, "to have a paper come round, signed by all the nigger chiefs, saying how much they love the B.S.A. Company, and how glad they are the Panjandrum has got them, and how awfully good he is to them; and they're going to subscribe to the brazen statue. There's nothing a man can't be squared to do."
The third man lay on his back again, lazily examining his hand, which he held above his face. "What's that in the Bible," he said, slowly, "about the statue, whose thighs and belly were of brass, and its feet of mud?"
"I don't know much about the Bible," said the keen man, "I'm going to see if my pot isn't boiling over. Won't yours burn?"
"No, I asked the Captain's boy to keep an eye on it–but I expect he won't. Do you put the rice in with the mealies?"
"Got to; I've got no other pot. And the fellows don't object. It's a tasty variety, you know!"
The keen-faced man slouched away across the square to where his fire burnt; and presently the other man rose and went, either to look at his own pot or sleep under the carts; and the large Colonial man was left alone. His fire was burning satisfactorily about fifty feet off, and he folded his arms on the ground and rested his forehead on them, and watched lazily the little black ants that ran about in the red sand, just under his nose.
A great stillness settled down on the camp. Now and again a stick cracked in the fires, and the cicadas cried aloud in the tree stems; but except where the solitary paced up and down before the little flat-topped tree in front of the captain's tent, not a creature stirred in the whole camp; and the snores of the trooper under the bushes might be heard half across the camp.
The intense midday heat had settled down.
At last there was the sound of someone breaking through the long grass and bushes which had only been removed for a few feet round the camp, and the figure of a man emerged bearing in one hand a gun, and in the other a bird which he had shot. He was evidently an Englishman, and not long from Europe, by the bloom of the skin, which was perceptible in spite of the superficial tan. His face was at the moment flushed with heat; but the clear blue eyes and delicate features lost none of their sensitive refinement.
He came up to the Colonial, and dropped the bird before him. "That is all I've got," he said.
He threw himself also down on the ground, and put his gun under the loose flap of the tent.
The Colonial raised his head; and without taking his elbows from the ground took up the bird. "I'll put it into the pot; it'll give it the flavour of something except weevily mealies"; he said, and fell to plucking it.
The Englishman took his hat off, and lifted the fine damp hair from his forehead.
"Knocked up, eh?" said the Colonial, glancing kindly up at him. 'I've a few drops in my flask still."
"Oh, no, I can stand it well enough. It's only a little warm." He gave a slight cough, and laid his head down sideways on his arm. His eyes watched mechanically the Colonial's manipulation of the bird. He had left England to escape phthisis; and he had gone to Mashonaland because it was a place where he could earn an open-air living, and save his parents from the burden of his support.
"What's Halket doing over there?" he asked suddenly, raising his head.
"Weren't you here this morning?" asked the Colonial. "Didn't you know they'd had a devil of a row?"
"Who?" asked the Englishman, half raising himself on his elbows.
"Halket and the Captain." The Colonial paused in the plucking. "My God, you never saw anything like it!"
The Englishman sat upright now, and looked keenly over the bushes where Halket's bent head might be seen as he paced to and fro.
"What's he doing out there in this blazing sun?"
"He's on guard," said the Colonial. "I thought you were here when it happened. It's the best thing I ever saw or heard of in my whole life!" He rolled half over on his side and laughed at the remembrance. "You see, some of the men went down into the river, to look for fresh pools of water, and they found a nigger, hidden away in a hole in the bank, not five hundred yards from here! They found the bloody rascal by a little path he tramped down to the water, trodden hard, just like a porcupine's walk. They got him in the hole like an aardvark, with a bush over the mouth, so you couldn't see it. He'd evidently been there a long time, the floor was full of bones of fish he'd caught in the pool, and there was a bit of root like a stick half gnawed through. He'd been potted, and got two bullet wounds in the thigh; but he could walk already. It's evident he was just waiting till we were gone, to clear off after his people. He'd got that beastly scurvy look a nigger gets when he hasn't had anything to eat for a long time.
"Well, they hauled him up before the Captain, of course; and he blew and swore, and said the nigger was a spy, and was to be hanged tomorrow; he'd hang him tonight, only the big troop might catch us up this evening, so he'd wait to hear what the Colonel said; but if they didn't come he'd hang him first thing tomorrow morning, or have him shot, as sure as the sun rose. He made the fellows tie him up to that little tree before his tent, with riems round his legs, and riems round his waist, and a riem round his neck."
"What did the native say?" asked the Englishman.
"Oh, he didn't say anything. There wasn't a soul in the camp could have understood him if he had. The coloured boys don't know his language. I expect he's one of those bloody fellows we hit the day we cleared the bush out yonder; but how he got down that bank with his leg in the state it must have been, I don't know. He didn't try to fight when they caught him; just stared in front of him–fright, I suppose. He must have been a big strapping devil before he was taken down.
"Well, I tell you, we'd just got him fixed up, and the Captain was just going into his tent to have a drink, and we chaps were all standing round, when up steps Halket, right before the Captain, and pulls his front lock– you know the way he has? Oh, my God, my God, if you could have seen it! I'll never forget it to my dying day!" The Colonial seemed bursting with internal laughter. "He begins, 'Sir, may I speak to you?' in a formal kind of way, like a fellow introducing a deputation; and then all of a sudden he starts off–oh, my God, you never heard such a thing! It was like a boy in Sunday-school saying up a piece of Scripture he's learnt off by heart, and got all ready beforehand, and he's not going to be stopped till he gets to the end of it."
"What did he say," asked the Englishman.
"Oh, he started, How did we know this nigger was a spy at all; it would be a terrible thing to kill him if we weren't quite sure; perhaps he was hiding there because he was wounded. And then he broke out that, after all, these niggers were men fighting for their country; we would fight against the French if they came and took England from us; and the niggers were brave men, 'please sir'–(every five minutes he'd pull his forelock, and say, 'please sir!')–'and if we have to fight against them we ought to remember they're fighting for freedom; we shouldn't shoot wounded prisoners when they were black if we wouldn't shoot them if they were white!' And then he broke out pure unmitigated Exeter Hall! You never heard anything like it! All men were brothers, and God loved a black man as well as a white; Mashonas and Matabele were poor ignorant folk, and we had to take care of them. And then he started out, that we ought to let this man go; we ought to give him food for the road, and tell him to go back to his people, and tell them we hadn't come to take their land but to teach them and love them. 'It's hard to love a nigger, Captain, but we must try it; we must try it!'–And every five minutes he'd break out with, 'And I think this is a man I know, Captain; I'm not sure, but I think he comes from up Lo Magundis way!'–as if any born devil cared whether a bloody nigger came from Lo Magundis or anywhere else! I'm sure he said it fifteen times. And then he broke out, 'I don't mean that I'm better than you or anybody else, Captain; I'm as bad a man as any in camp, and I know it.' And off he started, telling us all the sins he'd ever committed; and he kept on, 'I'm an unlearned, ignorant man, Captain; but I must stand by this nigger; he's got no one else!' And then he says–'If you let me take him up to Lo Magundis, sir, I'm not afraid; and I'll tell the people there that it's not their land and their women that we want, it's them to be our brothers and love us. If you'll only let me go, sir, I'll go and make peace; give the man to me, sir!'" The Colonial shook with laughter.
"What did the Captain say?" asked the Englishman.
"The Captain; well, you know the smallest thing sets him off swearing all round the world; but he just stood there with his arms hanging down at each side of him, and his eyes staring, and his face getting redder and redder: and all he could say was, 'My Gawd! my Gawd!' I thought he'd burst. And Halket stood there looking straight in front of him, as though he didn't see a soul of us all there."
"What did the Captain do?"
"Oh, as soon as Halket turned away he started swearing, but he got the tail of one oath hooked on to the head of another. It was nearly as good as Halket himself. And when he'd finished and got sane a bit, he said Halket was to walk up and down there all day and keep watch on the nigger. And he gave orders that if the big troop didn't come up tonight, that he was to be potted first thing in the morning, and that Halket was to shoot him."
The Englishman started: "What did Halket say?"
"Nothing. He's been walking there with his gun all day."
The Englishman watched with his clear eyes the spot where Halket's head appeared and disappeared.
"Is the nigger hanging there now?"
"Yes. The Captain said no one was to go near him, or give him anything to eat or drink all day: but–" The Colonial glanced round where the trooper lay under the bushes; and then lowering his voice added, "This morning, a couple of hours ago, Halket sent the Captain's coloured boy to ask me for a drink of water. I thought it was for Halket himself, and the poor devil must be hot walking there in the sun, so I sent him the water out of my canvas bag. I went along afterwards to see what had become of my mug; the boy had gone, and there, straight in front of the Captain's tent, before the very door, was Halket letting that bloody nigger drink out of my mug. The riem was so tight round his neck he couldn't drink but slowly, and there was Halket holding it up to him! If the Captain had looked out! W-h-e-w! I wouldn't have been Halket!"
"Do you think he will try to make Halket do it?" asked the Englishman.
"Of course he will. He's the Devil in; and Halket had better not make a fuss about it, or it'll be the worse for him."
"His time's up tomorrow evening!"
"Yes, but not tomorrow morning. And I wouldn't make a row about it if I was Halket. It doesn't do to fall out with the authorities here. What's one nigger more or less? He'll get shot some other way, or die of hunger, if we don't do it."
"It's hardly sport to shoot a man tied up neck and legs," said the Englishman; his finely drawn eyebrows contracting and expanding a little.
"Oh, they don't feel, these niggers, not as we should, you know. I've seen a man going to be shot, looking full at the guns, and falling like that!– without a sound. They've no feeling, these niggers; I don't suppose they care much whether they live or die, not as we should, you know."
The Englishman's eyes were still fixed on the bushes, behind which Halket's head appeared and disappeared.
"They have no right to order Halket to do it–and he will not do it!" said the Englishman slowly.
"You're not going to be such a fool as to step in, are you?" said the Colonial, looking curiously at him. "It doesn't pay. I've made up my mind never to speak whatever happens. What's the good? Suppose one were to make a complaint now about this affair with Halket, if he's made to shoot the nigger against his will; what would come of it? There'd be half-a- dozen fellows here squared to say what headquarters wanted–not to speak of a fellow like that"–turning his thumb in the direction of the sleeping trooper–"who are paid to watch. I believe he reports on the Captain himself to the big headquarters. All one's wires are edited before they go down; only what the Company wants to go, go through. There are many downright good fellows in this lot; but how many of us are there, do you think, who could throw away all chance of ever making anything in Mashonaland, for the sake of standing by Halket; even if he had a real row with the Company? I've a great liking for Halket myself, he's a real good fellow, and he's done me many a good turn–took my watch only last night, because I was off colour; I'd do anything for him in reason. But, I say this flatly, I couldn't and wouldn't fly in the face of the authorities for him or anyone else. I've my own girl waiting for me down in the Colony, and she's been waiting for me these five years. And whether I'm able to marry her or not depends on how I stand with the Company: and I say, flatly, I'm not going to fall out with it. I came here to make money, and I mean to make it! If other people like to run their heads against stone walls, let them: but they mustn't expect me to follow them. This isn't a country where a man can say what he thinks."
The Englishman rested his elbows on the ground. "And the Union Jack is supposed to be flying over us."
"Yes, with a black bar across it for the Company," laughed the Colonial.
"Do you ever have the nightmare?" asked the Englishman suddenly.
"I? Oh yes, sometimes"; he looked curiously at his companion; "when I've eaten too much, I get it."
"I always have it since I came up here," said the Englishman. "It is that a vast world is resting on me–a whole globe: and I am a midge beneath it. I try to raise it, and I cannot. So I lie still under it–and let it crush me!"
"It's curious you should have the nightmare so up here," said the Colonial; "one gets so little to eat."
There was a silence: he was picking the little fine feathers from the bird, and the Englishman was watching the ants.
"Mind you," the Colonial said at last, "I don't say that in this case the Captain was to blame; Halket made an awful ass of himself. He's never been quite right since that time he got lost and spent the night out on the kopje. When we found him in the morning he was in a kind of dead sleep; we couldn't wake him; yet it wasn't cold enough for him to have been frozen. He's never been the same man since; queer, you know; giving his rations away to the coloured boys, and letting the other fellows have his dot of brandy at night; and keeping himself sort of apart to himself, you know. The other fellows think he's got a touch of fever on, caught wandering about in the long grass that day. But I don't think it's that; I think it's being alone in the veld that's got hold of him. Man, have you ever been out like that, alone in the veld, night and day, and not a soul to speak to? I have; and I tell you, if I'd been left there three days longer I'd have gone mad or turned religious. Man, it's the nights, with the stars up above you, and the dead still all around. And you think, and think, and think! You remember all kinds of things you've never thought of for years and years. I used to talk to myself at last, and make believe it was another man. I was out seven days: and he was only out one night. But I think it's the loneliness that got hold of him. Man, those stars are awful; and that stillness that comes toward morning!" He stood up. "It's a great pity, because he's as good a fellow as ever was. But perhaps he'll come all right."
He walked away towards the pot with the bird in his hand. When he had gone the Englishman turned round on to his back, and lay with his arm across his forehead.
High, high up, between the straggling branches of the tree, in the clear, blue African sky above him, he could see the vultures flying southward.
That evening the men sat eating their suppers round the fires. The large troop had not come up; and the mules had been brought in; and they were to make a start early the next morning.
Halket was released from his duty, and had come up, and lain down a little in the background of the group who gathered round their fire.
The Colonial and the Englishman had given orders to all the men of their mess that Halket was to be left in quiet, and no questions were to be asked him; and the men, fearing the Colonial's size and the Englishman's nerve, left him in peace. The men laughed and chatted round the fire, while the big Colonial ladled out the mealies and rice into tin plates, and passed them round to the men. Presently he passed one to Halket, who lay half behind him leaning on his elbow. For a while Halket ate nothing, then he took a few mouthfuls; and again lay on his elbow.
"You are eating nothing, Halket," said the Englishman, cheerily, looking back.
"I am not hungry now," he said. After a while he took out his red handkerchief, and emptied carefully into it the contents of the plate; and tied it up into a bundle. He set it beside him on the ground, and again lay on his elbow.
"You won't come nearer to the fire, Halket?' asked the Englishman.
"No, thank you, the night is warm."
After a while Peter Halket took out from his belt a small hunting knife with a rough wooden handle. A small flat stone lay near him, and he passed the blade slowly up and down on it, now and then taking it up, and feeling the edge with his finger. After a while he put it back in his belt, and rose slowly, taking up his small bundle and walked away to the tent.
"He's had a pretty stiff day," said the Colonial. "I expect he's glad enough to turn in."
Then all the men round the fire chatted freely over his concerns. Would the Captain stick to his word tomorrow? Was Halket going to do it? Had the Captain any right to tell one man off for the work, instead of letting them fire a volley? One man said he would do it gladly in Halket's place, if told off; why had he made such a fool of himself? So they chatted till nine o'clock, when the Englishman and Colonial left to turn in. They found Halket asleep, close to the side of the tent, with his face turned to the canvas. And they lay down quietly that they might not disturb him.
At ten o'clock all the camp was asleep, excepting the two men told off to keep guard; who paced from one end of the camp to the other to keep themselves awake; or stood chatting by the large fire, which still burnt at one end.
In the Captain's tent a light was kept burning all night, which shone through the thin canvas sides, and shed light on the ground about; but, for the rest, the camp was dead and still.
By half-past one the moon had gone down, and there was left only a blaze of stars in the great African sky.
Then Peter Halket rose up; softly he lifted the canvas and crept out. On the side furthest from the camp he stood upright. On his arm was tied his red handkerchief with its contents. For a moment he glanced up at the galaxy of stars over him; then he stepped into the long grass, and made his way in a direction opposite to that in which the camp lay. But after a short while he turned, and made his way down into the river bed. He walked in it for a while. Then after a time he sat down upon the bank and took off his heavy boots and threw them into the grass at the side. Then softly, on tip-toe, he followed the little footpath that the men had trodden going down to the river for water. It led straight up to the Captain's tent, and the little flat-topped tree, with its white stem, and its two gnarled branches spread out on either side. When he was within forty paces of it, he paused. Far over the other side of the camp the two men who were on guard stood chatting by the fire. A dead stillness was over the rest of the camp. The light through the walls of the Captain's tent made all clear at the stem of the little tree; but there was no sound of movement within.
For a moment Peter Halket stood motionless; then he walked up to the tree. The black man hung against the white stem, so closely bound to it that they seemed one. His hands were tied to his sides, and his head drooped on his breast. His eyes were closed; and his limbs, which had once been those of a powerful man, had fallen away, making the joints stand out. The wool on his head was wild and thick with neglect, and stood out roughly in long strands; and his skin was rough with want and exposure.
The riems had cut a little into his ankles; and a small flow of blood had made the ground below his feet dark.
Peter Halket looked up at him; the man seemed dead. He touched him softly on the arm, then shook it slightly.
The man opened his eyes slowly, without raising his head; and looked at Peter from under his weary eyebrows. Except that they moved they might have been the eyes of a dead thing.
Peter put up his fingers to his own lips–"Hus-h! hus-h!" he said.
The man hung torpid, still looking at Peter.
Quickly Peter Halket knelt down and took the knife from his belt. In an instant the riems that bound the feet were cut through; in another he had cut the riems from the waist and neck: the riems dropped to the ground from the arms, and the man stood free. Like a dazed dumb creature, he stood, with his head still down, eyeing Peter.
Instantly Peter slipped the red bundle from his arm into the man's passive hand.
"Ari-tsemaia! Hamba! Loop! Go!" whispered Peter Halket; using a word from each African language he knew. But the black man still stood motionless, looking at him as one paralysed.
"Hamba! Sucka! Go!" he whispered, motioning his hand.
In an instant a gleam of intelligence shot across the face; then a wild transport. Without a word, without a sound, as the tiger leaps when the wild dogs are on it, with one long, smooth spring, as though unwounded and unhurt, he turned and disappeared into the grass. It closed behind him; but as he went the twigs and leaves cracked under his tread.
The Captain threw back the door of his tent. "Who is there?" he cried.
Peter Halket stood below the tree with the knife in his hand.
The noise roused the whole camp: the men on guard came running; guns were fired: and the half-sleeping men came rushing, grasping their weapons. There was a sound of firing at the little tree; and the cry went round the camp, "The Mashonas are releasing the spy!"
When the men got to the Captain's tent, they saw that the nigger was gone; and Peter Halket was lying on his face at the foot of the tree; with his head turned towards the Captain's door.
There was a wild confusion of voices. "How many were there?" "Where have they gone to now?" "They've shot Peter Halket!"–"The Captain saw them do it"–"Stand ready, they may come back any time!"
When the Englishman came, the other men, who knew he had been a medical student, made way for him. He knelt down by Peter Halket.
"He's dead," he said, quietly.
When they had turned him over, the Colonial knelt down on the other side, with a little hand-lamp in his hand.
"What are you fellows fooling about here for?" cried the Captain. "Do you suppose it's any use looking for foot marks after all this tramping! Go, guard the camp on all sides!"
"I will send four coloured boys," he said to the Englishman and the Colonial, "to dig the grave. You'd better bury him at once; there's no use waiting. We start first thing in the morning."
When they were alone, the Englishman uncovered Peter Halket's breast. There was one small wound just under the left bosom; and one on the crown of the head; which must have been made after he had fallen down.
"Strange, isn't it, what he can have been doing here?" said the Colonial; "a small wound, isn't it?"
"A pistol shot," said the Englishman, closing the bosom.
The Englishman looked up at him with a keen light in his eye.
"I told you he would not kill that nigger.–See–here–" He took up the knife which had fallen from Peter Halket's grasp, and fitted it into a piece of the cut leather that lay on the earth.
"But you don't think–" The Colonial stared at him with wide open eyes; then he glanced round at the Captain's tent.
"Yes, I think that– Go and fetch his great-coat; we'll put him in it. If it is no use talking while a man is alive, it is no use talking when he is dead!"
They brought his great-coat, and they looked in the pockets to see if there was anything which might show where he had come from or who his friends were. But there was nothing in the pockets except an empty flask, and a leathern purse with two shillings in, and a little hand-made two-pointed cap.
So they wrapped Peter Halket up in his great-coat, and put the little cap on his head.
And, one hour after Peter Halket had stood outside the tent looking up, he was lying under the little tree, with the red sand trodden down over him, in which a black man and a white man's blood were mingled.
All the rest of the night the men sat up round the fires, discussing what had happened, dreading an attack.
But the Englishman and the Colonial went to their tent, to lie down.
"Do you think they will make any inquiries?" asked the Colonial.
"Why should they? His time will be up tomorrow."
"Are you going to say anything?"
"What is the use?"
They lay in the dark for an hour, and heard the men chatting outside.
"Do you believe in a God?" said the Englishman, suddenly.
The Colonial started: "Of course I do!"
"I used to," said the Englishman; "I do not believe in your God; but I believed in something greater than I could understand, which moved in this earth, as your soul moves in your body. And I thought this worked in such wise, that the law of cause and effect, which holds in the physical world, held also in the moral: so, that the thing we call justice, ruled. I do not believe it any more. There is no God in Mashonaland."
"Oh, don't say that!" cried the Colonial, much distressed. "Are you going off your head, like poor Halket?"
"No; but there is no God," said the Englishman. He turned round on his shoulder, and said no more: and afterwards the Colonial went to sleep.
Before dawn the next morning the men had packed up the goods, and started.
By five o'clock the carts had filed away; the men rode or walked before and behind them; and the space where the camp had been was an empty circle; save for a few broken bottles and empty tins, and the stones about which the fires had been made, round which warm ashes yet lay.
Only under the little stunted tree, the Colonial and the Englishman were piling up stones. Their horses stood saddled close by.
Presently the large trooper came riding back. He had been sent by the Captain to ask what they were fooling behind for, and to tell them to come on.
The men mounted their horses to follow him; but the Englishman turned in his saddle and looked back. The morning sun was lighting up the straggling branches of the tall trees that had overshadowed the camp; and fell on the little stunted tree, with its white stem and outstretched arms; and on the stones beneath it.
"It's all that night on the kopje!" said the Colonial, sadly.
But the Englishman looked back. "I hardly know," he said, "whether it is not better for him now, than for us."
Then they rode on after the troop.