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- Hilda Wade - 30/52 -
finding some work to do which should vindicate her existence.
I parted from her at a point on the monotonous plain where one rubbly road branched off from another. Then I jogged on in the full morning sun over that scorching plain of loose red sand all the way to Salisbury. Not a green leaf or a fresh flower anywhere. The eye ached at the hot glare of the reflected sunlight from the sandy level.
My business detained me several hours in the half-built town, with its flaunting stores and its rough new offices; it was not till towards afternoon that I could get away again on my sorrel, across the blazing plain once more to Klaas's.
I moved on over the plateau at an easy trot, full of thoughts of Hilda. What could be the step she expected Sebastian to take next? She did not know, herself, she had told me; there, her faculty failed her. But SOME step he WOULD take; and till he took it she must rest and be watchful.
I passed the great tree that stands up like an obelisk in the midst of the plain beyond the deserted Matabele village. I passed the low clumps of dry karroo-bushes by the rocky kopje. I passed the fork of the rubbly roads where I had parted from Hilda. At last, I reached the long, rolling ridge which looks down upon Klaas's, and could see in the slant sunlight the mud farmhouse and the corrugated iron roof where the oxen were stabled.
The place looked more deserted, more dead-alive than ever. Not a black boy moved in it. Even the cattle and Kaffir sheep were nowhere to be seen. . . . But then it was always quiet; and perhaps I noticed the obtrusive air of solitude and sleepiness even more than usual, because I had just returned from Salisbury. All things are comparative. After the lost loneliness of Klaas's farm, even brand-new Salisbury seemed busy and bustling.
I hurried on, ill at ease. But Tant Mettie would, doubtless, have a cup of tea ready for me as soon as I arrived, and Hilda would be waiting at the gate to welcome me.
I reached the stone enclosure, and passed up through the flower- garden. To my great surprise, Hilda was not there. As a rule, she came to meet me, with her sunny smile. But perhaps she was tired, or the sun on the road might have given her a headache. I dismounted from my mare, and called one of the Kaffir boys to take her to the stable. Nobody answered. . . . I called again. Still silence. . . . I tied her up to the post, and strode over to the door, astonished at the solitude. I began to feel there was something weird and uncanny about this home-coming. Never before had I known Klaas's so entirely deserted.
I lifted the latch and opened the door. It gave access at once to the single plain living-room. There, all was huddled. For a moment my eyes hardly took in the truth. There are sights so sickening that the brain at the first shock wholly fails to realise them.
On the stone slab floor of the low living-room Tant Mettie lay dead. Her body was pierced through by innumerable thrusts, which I somehow instinctively recognised as assegai wounds. By her side lay Sannie, the little prattling girl of three, my constant playmate, whom I had instructed in cat's-cradle, and taught the tales of Cinderella and Red Riding Hood. My hand grasped the lollipops in my pocket convulsively. She would never need them. Nobody else was about. What had become of Oom Jan Willem--and the baby?
I wandered out into the yard, sick with the sight I had already seen. There Oom Jan Willem himself lay stretched at full length; a bullet had pierced his left temple; his body was also riddled through with assegai thrusts.
I saw at once what this meant. A rising of the Matabele!
I had come back from Salisbury, unknowing it, into the midst of a revolt of bloodthirsty savages.
Yet, even if I had known, I must still have hurried home with all speed to Klaas's--to protect Hilda.
Hilda? Where was Hilda? A breathless sinking crept over me.
I staggered out into the open. It was impossible to say what horror might not have happened. The Matabele might even now be lurking about the kraal--for the bodies were hardly cold. But Hilda? Hilda? Whatever came, I must find Hilda.
Fortunately, I had my loaded revolver in my belt. Though we had not in the least anticipated this sudden revolt--it broke like a thunder-clap from a clear sky--the unsettled state of the country made even women go armed about their daily avocations.
I strode on, half maddened. Beside the great block of granite which sheltered the farm there rose one of those rocky little hillocks of loose boulders which are locally known in South Africa by the Dutch name of kopjes. I looked out upon it drearily. Its round brown ironstones lay piled irregularly together, almost as if placed there in some earlier age by the mighty hands of prehistoric giants. My gaze on it was blank. I was thinking, not of it, but of Hilda, Hilda.
I called the name aloud: "Hilda! Hilda! Hilda!"
As I called, to my immense surprise, one of the smooth round boulders on the hillside seemed slowly to uncurl, and to peer about it cautiously. Then it raised itself in the slant sunlight, put a hand to its eyes, and gazed out upon me with a human face for a moment. After that it descended, step by step, among the other stones, with a white object in its arms. As the boulder uncurled and came to life, I was aware, by degrees . . . yes, yes, it was Hilda, with Tant Mettie's baby!
In the fierce joy of that discovery I rushed forward to her, trembling, and clasped her in my arms. I could find no words but "Hilda! Hilda!"
"Are they gone?" she asked, staring about her with a terrified air, though still strangely preserving her wonted composure of manner.
"Who gone? The Matabele?"
"Did you see them, Hilda?"
"For a moment--with black shields and assegais, all shouting madly. You have been to the house, Hubert? You know what has happened?"
"Yes, yes, I know--a rising. They have massacred the Klaases."
She nodded. "I came back on my bicycle, and, when I opened the door, found Tant Mettie and little Sannie dead. Poor, sweet little Sannie! Oom Jan was lying shot in the yard outside. I saw the cradle overturned, and looked under it for the baby. They did not kill her--perhaps did not notice her. I caught her up in my arms, and rushed out to my machine, thinking to make for Salisbury, and give the alarm to the men there. One must try to save others--and YOU were coming, Hubert! Then I heard horses' hoofs--the Matabele returning. They dashed back, mounted,--stolen horses from other farms,--they have taken poor Oom Jan's,--and they have gone on, shouting, to murder elsewhere! I flung down my machine among the bushes as they came,--I hope they have not seen it,--and I crouched here between the boulders, with the baby in my arms, trusting for protection to the colour of my dress, which is just like the ironstone."
"It is a perfect deception," I answered, admiring her instinctive cleverness even then. "I never so much as noticed you."
"No, nor the Matabele either, for all their sharp eyes. They passed by without stopping. I clasped the baby hard, and tried to keep it from crying--if it had cried, all would have been lost; but they passed just below, and swept on toward Rozenboom's. I lay still for a while, not daring to look out. Then I raised myself warily, and tried to listen. Just at that moment, I heard a horse's hoofs ring out once more. I couldn't tell, of course, whether it was YOU returning, or one of the Matabele, left behind by the others. So I crouched again. . . . Thank God, you are safe, Hubert!"
All this took a moment to say, or was less said than hinted. "Now, what must we do?" I cried. "Bolt back again to Salisbury?"
"It is the only thing possible--if my machine is unhurt. They may have taken it . . . or ridden over and broken it."
We went down to the spot, and picked it up where it lay, half- concealed among the brittle, dry scrub of milk-bushes. I examined the bearings carefully; though there were hoof-marks close by, it had received no hurt. I blew up the tire, which was somewhat flabby, and went on to untie my sturdy pony. The moment I looked at her I saw the poor little brute was wearied out with her two long rides in the sweltering sun. Her flanks quivered. "It is no use," I cried, patting her, as she turned to me with appealing eyes that asked for water. "She CAN'T go back as far as Salisbury; at least, till she has had a feed of corn and a drink. Even then, it will be rough on her."
"Give her bread," Hilda suggested. "That will hearten her more than corn. There is plenty in the house; Tant Mettie baked this morning."
I crept in reluctantly to fetch it. I also brought out from the dresser a few raw eggs, to break into a tumbler and swallow whole; for Hilda and I needed food almost as sorely as the poor beast herself. There was something gruesome in thus rummaging about for bread and meat in the dead woman's cupboard, while she herself lay there on the floor; but one never realises how one will act in these great emergencies until they come upon one. Hilda, still calm with unearthly calmness, took a couple of loaves from my hand, and began feeding the pony with them. "Go and draw water for her," she said, simply, "while I give her the bread; that will save time. Every minute is precious."
I did as I was bid, not knowing each moment but that the insurgents would return. When I came back from the spring with the bucket, the mare had demolished the whole two loaves, and was going on upon some grass which Hilda had plucked for her.
"She hasn't had enough, poor dear," Hilda said, patting her neck.
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