Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Forging the Blades: A Tale of the Zulu Rebellion

Bertram Mitford

  Produced by Nick Hodson of London, England

  Forging the Blades, by Bertram Mitford.


  ________________________________________________________________________FORGING THE BLADES, BY BERTRAM MITFORD.



  The river swirled on through the heat, the sweltering, fever-breathingheat. The long, deep reach made but scant murmur, save where the boughsof a luxuriant vegetation dipped on its surface. Above, on either hand,masses of rolling verdure, tall forest trees, undergrowth in richprofusion, and, high up against the blue sky, battlemented rock walls.

  Two dark objects relieved the shimmering smoothness of the surface ofthe reach--two minute dark objects to the ordinary observer, afloat,motionless. Yet why should these remain motionless instead of floatingdown with the fairly strong, though smooth, current? Well, there mighthave been, behind each, about twelve feet of ugly, scaly saurian, whosepowerful under-water stroke kept them stationary, while watchful,against the descending stream.

  A grassy glade slopes down to the bank, tailing away inland into a pathsomething like a "ride" in an English game covert. Great trees, risingoverhead, shade this, in a dimness which shuts out, save in a faintnetwork, the glare of the molten sun. And it is at present occupied bytwo horses and a man.

  The horses still have their saddles on, though the girths are loosened.The animals are grazing, their bridles trailing on the ground. Suddenlyboth throw up their heads and snort, then walk quickly away, further upthe forest path. The man, who is standing up, gazing meditatively outupon the river reach, notices this and turns. Then he advances a stepor two, and halts suddenly. For there is a movement in the grass a fewyards in front, and immediately from this rises the head and neck of alarge green mamba.

  Instinctively the man's hand goes to his revolver, then he pauses. Thesnake is hissing viciously. More of the long neck appears, waving toand fro as though preparing for a spring. This is a peculiarly fierceand aggressive species when disturbed, and the man knows it. He knowsalso that the chances of being able to stop its rush with a bullet aresmall. He abandons the firearm and starts another plan.

  He begins whistling in a low but peculiarly clear note. The effect ismagical. The angry, excited waving of the sinuous neck ceases. Thehead, still raised, is motionless as though under some new andenthralling influence. Clearly on the part of its owner hostilities aresuspended.

  He sustains the spell. Tune after tune trills forth in that clear note,and the reptile, its deadly head still raised, its original fury dulledto an almost placid expression, still listens. To the performer theposition now seems ridiculous, then rather interesting. He has neverset up as a snake-charmer before. For now, indeed, the horror withwhich the much dreaded reptile had inspired him has given way to asubtle sort of sympathy. He no longer fears it. He seems to have tamedit, and feels accordingly. It is a strange and appropriate picture: theman and the dreaded serpent, the dim shadowing away of the tangledforest, the two horses snuffing with uneasy curiosity in the background,the river reach, still and deep-flowing, with the muzzles of its twovoracious denizens causing a light ripple on its surface.

  All thought of destruction has faded from the mind of the human actor inthis weird performance. He continues to evolve his natural music, evenadvancing a few steps nearer to his grim listener. The latter shows nosign of fear or resentment. Then an interruption occurs.

  Crash! The motionless, uplifted neck of the serpent seems to fly nearlyin half, and the great coils beat and burst convulsively in the grass.The man turns. Another man is standing behind him holding a shotgun,one barrel of which is still smoking.

  "What the devil did you do that for?" says the first angrily.

  The other laughs, a thick sort of laugh, and by no means a pleasant one.

  "Do that for?" he echoes, speaking with somewhat of a Jewish tone andaccent. "Can't I shoot a blighted snake without having to ask yourleave?"

  "You idiot. I was in the thick of a most interesting experiment, andyou've spoilt it all by your infernal and officious interference."

  "Interesting experiment? I call it disgusting."

  "Here, drop that gun sharp, or I'll blow your head into the river."

  The Jewish-looking man with the shotgun starts. The other's revolver ispointing right at his chest, and there is no mistaking the determinationin his steely eyes. He knows full well that there is every reason whyhis life is in mortal peril. So he drops the gun sullenly into thegrass.

  "Now, then. Take five steps back from it. If you move otherwise you'redead."

  There is no alternative but to obey, and this the threatened one does.

  "Don't know if you've gone mad," he says. "Fooling with snakes musthave sent you off your chump, I reckon."

  "Do you? Well, you chose to fasten yourself on to me for your ownpurpose--to wit, blackmail. Now you are going to write down, here andnow, something which will put it out of your power to try any moreblackmail on me for ever."

  "I'll see you damned first. I'll see you damned before I writeanything."

  "Will you? But you'll have to wait for that some time--till you've hada spell of damnation yourself first. Now, then, are you going to doit?"


  The pistol cracks. It is a miss. The bullet has grazed the other'sear. The assailed is standing just on the edge of the bank with hisback to the river.

  "Don't move. I'll give you another chance. I'm aiming lower this time.You'll get it bang amidships, between wind and water, so to say, and--it'll hurt more. You were going to stick to me till I came to yourprice, were you? But you've stuck rather too tight."

  "Oh, but--you'll swing for this," says the other, between dry, tremulouslips.

  "Not much `swing.' Why, nobody will be any the wiser. Not a soul hasseen us together. You disappear, that's all. Well, are you going to doas I tell you? I've got everything here--well-filled fountain pen, andpaper; strangely out of place in these surroundings, still, here theyare."

  The threatened man does not immediately reply. He is calculating hischances, and in a flash it is borne home to him that he has no chances.Opposite him stands a desperate and determined man dictating terms.These he will have to accept, and will feel anything but safe even then;for well he knows that the other has every motive for sending him out ofthe world.

  "Well? Are you going to do it? I'll count five."

  But hardly has he begun to do so than the situation changes. The man onthe river brink suddenly puts his hand behind him, ducking low as hedoes so, to avoid the shot that simultaneously whizzes over where hischest had been a fraction of a second earlier. A revolver glints in hishand, but he is not quick enough. Before he can get in a shot the otherpistol cracks again, this time with effect. He topples heavily into thewater.

  Yet he is struggling for his chance of life, but a glance is sufficientto show that he can hardly swim a stroke even if unwounded--which he isnot. The other points his pistol for a final and decisive shot. Butthere is something in the wild appealing scream of the drowning wretchthat unnerves him, that shatters his callous desperation. And then--thecrocodiles.

  "Make for this stump," he shouts, running down the bank. "I'll give youa hand out. Now I'm going to fire over your head."

  There is nothing now to fire at. The two motionless objects havedisappeared, nevertheless he sends a bullet into the water at the placewhere they had been.

  Splashing, kicking, panting, the drowning man makes for the stumpindicated. In a moment he will have
seized it and the other is runningdown to help him. A yard further and he will be safe. His hand isalready stretched forth to grasp it, when--with a frightful scream ofagony and terror he disappears beneath the surface.

  The survivor stands on the bank appalled.

  "The `crocs' have got him, by God!" he exclaims. A moment back and hehimself was ready to take this man's life--for all he knew he had takenit. But the final method of his death is so revolting, so ghastly thathe could wish him safe back again. Well, at any rate he had done whathe could to save him. It was not his fault if the fool chose to toppleinto the river. Yet, but for his own compulsion the said "fool" wouldnot have been standing where he was.

  He stands gazing down the reach. Is that blood, floating in a darkpatch upon the surface lower down? No. Only the light and shade. Andnow, what to do next?

  If the body should be found the bullet wound would tell its own tale.Even then the natives, already in a state of unrest, would be creditedwith another outrage. But if, as he surmised, the dead man had beenpulled under by crocodiles, why then there would be little enough leftof him to tell any tale at all. But--what of his horse?

  This is something of a problem, and sitting down with his back against ayellowwood-tree he proceeds to think it out. Shall he shoot the animaland leave it there, for its return anywhere without its rider will, ofcourse, raise an alarm? Then an idea strikes him--rather an originaland ghastly one. The dead mamba? Its poison glands are intact. Can henot by some means make the dead head bite the living animal? That wouldlook less suspicious than a bullet hole, in the event of the carcasebeing found. But he doubts whether the venom will inject under thecircumstances. No. He must sacrifice the poor brute to his own senseof self-preservation.

  The two horses have withdrawn some little way, uneasy at the sound ofthe firing. Now he lounges quietly towards them, and has no difficultyin securing the bridle rein of both, trailing, as that is, upon thegrass. He hitches his own mount to a strong sapling and leads the otherto the river bank.

  But this is not so easy. The horse, by some instinct, grasps thatsomething is wrong, and demurs to leaving its fellow. At last by dintof patience and coolness it is induced to do so, and is led to anoverhanging bank similar to that whence its owner took his last plunge.A quick shot. Four kicking hoofs turn convulsively upwards and thelifeless carcase falls into the deep water with a great splash. The manlooks after it for a minute or two as it sinks.

  "A pity, but necessary," he reflects. "Too much cannonading, though.Sure to have been heard." Then he reseats himself on the grass andlights his pipe.

  "This is no murder," run his reflections. "The fool brought it uponhimself. He was given every chance." Then, as the long period ofblackmailing to which the dead man has subjected him comes back, hefeels ruthless. Yet the tragedy just enacted seems to have left itsmark. He has taken life--human life--and somehow the considerationweighs; in spite of the feeling of relief at having rid himself, and theworld, of that most pestilent thing alive--a blackmailer. Should thecircumstances leak out he would have to stand his trial for murder--anugly word. But--how should they? This wild, lonely forest valley,seldom visited even by natives, never by whites, would keep its ownsecret. And nobody had seen them together.

  As he sits there the whole situation seems to get upon his nerves,high-strung as they are after the quick excitement of the foregoingevents. The whole atmosphere of the tangled forest, of the deep-flowingriver, seems to breathe death. The dank, decaying vegetation, thedimness, the very airlessness of the sweltering valley--all this is notmerely heat. It is asphyxia. It is strangely silent too; only themurmur of the river, and that remindful of its voracious denizens,breaks upon the fever-breathing stillness. He shivers, then, as with aneffort, starts up, and going over to his horse, he hitches it, strapstighter the girths, and mounted, rides away down the dim, overhung path.

  But not until six hours later does he remember that the dead man'sshotgun has been left lying just where it was dropped.