FICTION

White Magic

M. I. ROBERTSON December 1 1934
FICTION

White Magic

M. I. ROBERTSON December 1 1934

White Magic

M. I. ROBERTSON

FATE, one might perhaps call it. Certainly Alston had not intended to come this way again. Sitting loosely in the saddle, while his tired horse drank greedily at the shallow rock-strewn stream, he looked about him with meditative eyes.

It was a desolate spot, even for Africa; a wild and desolate spot; far more now, it seemed, than when he had seen it last, fourteen years ago.

Fourteen years ago, this now barely defined track had lx*on the main road to the Sabie gold mines. That was before the new road had been made. Alston, in his crosscountry ride, had tried to strike the new road, but somehow or other had missed the way and found himself on the old road, now nothing more than the ghost of a road, when night was falling and his horse was done.

In the old days a combined store and hostel for travellers had sttxxl behind the grove of wattle on the crest of the slope before him; but this store, Alston reflected, had, through lack of custom, probably fallen into ruins long ago. The prospect of lx>ing able to obtain a night’s lodging seemed remote, but, hoping for the best, he gave an encouraging chirrup to his horse and pushed on up the hill.

The store was still standing in the old s|X)t. The rider drew rein and regarded it. On three sides the small, irregular white building was surrounded by a straggling garden, containing fruit trees and a few vegetables, bounded by a dense hedge of Barbados thorn, just then in full blossom and filling the air with heavy perfume.

Alston shuddered. To him those starry blossoms smelt of death. Very vividly he recalled the circumstances which had attended his last visit to this place.

Fourteen years ago, on just such a sultry day as this, he had arrived casually at dusk to find stark tragedy awaiting him. The storekeeper’s young wife lay dying in horrible agony, the victim of a cobra’s bite, while her frenzied husband tried desperate remedies all in vain. Later, by flickering lantern light, he had heljx-d the distraught man to bury the woman’s twisted and swollen body in the garden. How all the grim and ghastly details came crowding in once more upon him, brought back by the sickly, poisonous scent of those accursed flowers! There was a child, too, Alston remembered ; a little girl who had cried heartrendingly . . . Ah, well; the years had passed and those tears would be dried long since. The child, if she had lived, must by this time be almost a woman. Most probably she had left the place long ago.

CTILL SPECULATING, Alston dismounted and, hitching ^ his horse’s bridle over an old post, walked into the store. Round its walls and on the counter was displayed the usual mixed assortment of bright-colored cloths, blankets, tinned foods and cheap Birmingham goods. Several natives wen making purchases. They drew a little to one side and stared curiously at the white man as he entered. Behind the counter a fat, elderly Swazi woman, draped in magentacolored calico and with huge ivory rings in her ears, was attending to the requirements of the customers. Alston was about to address this woman when a slight movement behind her attracted his attention.

There, framed in a dark doorway, stood a slim white girl. She appeared to be about seventeen or eighteen years of age; a lissom, graceful creature, attired in a loose white garment, more like a classical drapery than a dress. She had the beauty of wild things—eyes like a fawn, a skin kissed golden by the sun, brown hair that strayed as it liked in curls.

Alston’s gaze rivetted itself upon her, and she, advancing a step or two, returned the look with a frank, childlike curiosity.

‘‘Good evening," he said politely, when he had found his voice, and added a remark about the weather. Then he made the astounding discovery that this young girl of his own race understoixl no language except that of the blacks around her. After a moment of shocked, incredulous amazement, he repeated his greeting in the Swazi tongue, which as it happened he knew well, and asked, “Who is the owner of this store now?”

“1 am the mistress here,” she answered him then; gravely: “What do you want, White Man?”

“I want food and shelter for myself and my horse.” His penetrating gaze never left her face. “I have stayed here before,” he continued, and added impulsively in a lower tone: “Did not your mother die of snakebite in this house fourteen years ago?”

The girl shuddered slightly and her dark eyes dilated.

“That is true, M'lungu.”

“She was a white woman,” Alston broke in almost sternly, "and your father was a white man. How is it, then, that you do not speak the language of the white people?”

“My father died in less than one moon after my mother, and I have lived here ever since with old Zoraba”—indicating the native woman who had drawn near and was regarding the stranger with marked disfavor. “And so I speak as she speaks,” the girl concluded simply.

“Good lord!” the man muttered to himself. Then aloud; "Is it possible that you have lived here alone with the natives all these years? Have you seen no white people?”

“Once or twice in the distance. No white people have passed here since the new road was made.”

“But has nobody known of your existence and come to see you?”

“No white people—only black.”

Once more the man gave vent to an exclamation of amazement. Then Zoraba intervened. “What does the M'lungu wish here?” she asked in strident tones. “We do not receive strangers now. The M’lungu must go to the big store away over the hill.”

“But it is far, and my horse is tired.” His appeal was addressed not to the last speaker, but to her silent young mistress. “Besides”—as he sniffed the heavy air—“rain is coming.” Even as he spoke, there was a loud clap ot thunder and a few' large drops fell pattering on the iron roof.

With an imperious gesture w'hich Alston rejoiced to see, the girl turned to the old woman.

“It is enough; the M'lungu stays. Go, Zoraba, and make preparation.”

Zoraba went away muttering.

The tw'o stood gazing at each other across the narrow counter. In the weird half light which preceded the storm their faces took on a strange, almost unearthly aspect.

“What is your name, White Man?”

“Alston—Jim Alston. And what is yours?”

“Lalu,” she answered. The name was as attractive as herself. While he was thinking this, its owner suddenly withdrew, vanishing through the doorway in which she had first appeared.

Left alone, Alston remembered his horse and went out to see that it was being properly attended to. Rain had now begun to fall heavily.

When he returned, the store was lighted by a hanging kerosene lamp. Lalu was seated beneath it. Outside, it was now' quite dark. Somebody followed him in so silently that it almost made him start when he suddenly found a tall native in a dripping blanket close behind him.

The new'comer divested himself of his wet outer covering. LIndemeath he was clad in leopard skin and, on his head, he w'ore the ring of the induna, or headman. He saluted Lalu impressively in the Swazi fashion and, turning a piercing look on the white man, saluted him also. Alston gravely returned the salute.

Mapiza, the Great Chief, sends you greeting, O Moonflower, said the induna, addressing the girl, “and these gifts. With a quick movement he undid a bundle that he carried and displayed a magnificent leopard-skin kaross and some barbaric ivory and gold ornaments.

Alston, who at first had looked on idly, became suddenly interested, impressed by the value and the nature of the gifts. Knowing something as he did of native customs, he drew near to Lalu and whispered, “But these are marriage gifts. What does all this mean?” “Mapiza wants me for his wife,” she answered calmly.

The Swazi hesitated, then said sullenly:

“What sign has the white man to show that his words are true?”

Alston was at a loss, but only momentarily.

“This,” he exclaimed, drawing an imposing-looking piece of parchment from his pocket. “The order of the Great White Chief.”

The document in question merely set forth that James Alston was the possessor of certain gold claims in the Sabie territory, but the native could not read the words, and the great seal impressed him, as Alston knew it would. Following up this advantage quickly, he went on:

“Moreover, I am not a stranger here. It was I who helped to lay to rest the white Inkosikazi, Lalu’s mother. Now, hamba kahle (‘Go in peace’),” he concluded firmly, “and carry my message to Mapiza.”

With an indistinct murmur, the induna picked up his bundles, gathered his blanket around him and stalked out into the night.

THEN INDEED Jim Alston had need of all his self-control. Fortunately he realized that to display what he actually felt at this juncture would be, to say the least of it, injudicious. But his whole being was in a ferment. That this young and beautiful white girl should actually be contemplating marriage with a black man—one of high rank,

but still just a savage in a kraal—was to him unspeakably revolting. At all hazards it must be stopped. He cast about for some tían of action, then suddenly exclaimed in Swazi: “Listen, O Induna. Mapiza is a great chief, and these are noble gifts, but Mapiza knows that before such gifts are laid before a young girl the consent of her guardians must be asked.” Before the astonished native could reply, he continued: “It is true that both the parents of this maiden are dead, and that here there is nobody in authority over her, but this has come to the ears of the Great White Chief in Barberton and he has sent me to take charge of her and to conduct her back to her own people.”

Alston drew a breath of relief and turned with a smile to Lalu.

“That has disposed of him, at any rate for the present.” He took it for granted that the girl had seen through his bold game of bluff, but when he caught sight of her face he saw that she had not, thaï she had indeed believed implicitly all that he had said. Somewhat taken aback, he was about to explain when Zoraba came in. To her, Lalu instantly poured out the wonderful story. Then something, some instinct, impelled Alston to keep silent while Zoraba in her turn examined the mysterious document. Her manner, though more deferential, grew if jxissible more antagonistic than it had been before.

In the little room behind the store a meal was set. The table was laid for himself alone, but Alston at once insisted upon Lalu joining him.

“As they think I am the lawful guardian, I had better act the part,” he said to himself.

This high-handed policy was successful, and when the food was on the table and Lalu seated opposite him, he as masteriully requested the black woman, who still hovered in the background, to withdraw.

This curious tête-à-tête in the heart of the wild, with this young white girl who did not know the words of her own language, stirred him strangely. Presently he began to talk to her in English, slowly and using simple words, and was delighted to find that, as he did so, faintly the memory of it began to come back to her. Nobody interrupted them, but, although they seemed to be utterly alone, Alston instinctively knew that the eyes of unseen watchers were upon them, and he had the uncanny feeling that some mysterious power, sinister and strong, was fighting him and trying to nullify his efforts.

Meanwhile the girl listened eagerly to all he had to say. He was trying to impress race consciousness upon her.

“Remember,” he said, “that you are white, and when the time comes for marriage you must marry a white man.”

His manner was almost stern. A prolonged silence followed, then she asked:

“When are you going to take me to the kraal of the Great White Chief?”

This direct question before he had definitely formulated a plan, was embarrassing.

“I must think,” he answered confusedly. “We will talk about it tomorrow.”

IATER, IN THE solitude of his room, Alston sat on the J edge of the little camp bed quite a long time before he started to undress. He was thinking about Lalu; wondering what he ought to do. He had never come up against a situation like this before. It was amazing, pathetic—horrible, too. That nigger, confound him! He had never seen Mapiza, but he had heard about him. A young chief— restless; intelligent above the average; advanced in some ways, curiously retrograde in others; obviously a man to watch. He must speak to the Native Commissioner about

Soon after daybreak, Zoraba appeared with a large cup of steaming coffee. Alston had hardly expected this little attention. With a murmured word of thanks, he took the cup and put it down on the chair beside his bed. The woman hesitated for a moment and then shuffled out, casting him a backward glance as she did so.

Alston raised the cup to his lips, paused, looked at it doubtfully and suddenly put it down un tasted. He went to the door. Outside, the sun was shining. The night of rain had been succeeded by a glittering

morning.

Alston whistled softly. At the sound a mongrel dog that had been sunning himself near-by, came loping up. An outstretched hand and a word of invitation enticed him into the room. Alston poured the coffee out into the saucer and placed it on the floor. The dog rushed up and lapjxd it greedily. Just as he finished the last drop his legs suddenly gave way under him. Uttering a plaintive whine, he sank to the ground, gave a spasmodic kick or two and lay still, turning at the last a reproachful glance upon the man which made the latter wince.

“Poor little beast,” murmured Alston compassionately. Then his lips tightened into a grim line.

“At least we know where we are now,” he said to himself.

him. Alston raged inwardly as he thought of Mapiza’s attitude toward Lalu. Even if Mapiza were not in the picture, Lalu ought not to remain where she was. She ought to be among white people. At last he came to the conclusion that the best course for him to pursue would be to return to Barberton at once and re¡x>rt the matter to the authorities, leaving them to take suitable action. Having thus decided, he lay down on the bed with his loaded revolver under his pillow. Tired although he was, his sleep was very fitful and more than once he sprang up all alert at some real or fancied noise.

HE PICKED UP the lifeless body in his arms, took a quick step to the door and, having glanced sharply to right and left, carefully concealed his burden among some bushes. Returning, he replaced the empty cup and saucer on the chair. Just as he was doing this, a slight noise made him turn abruptly. Zoraba stood in the doorway. Alston

smiled sardonically. “Very excellent coffee, that, Zoraba,” he observed cheerfully.

Continued on page 41

White Magic

Continued from page 11—Starts on page 10

The woman said nothing. A look of fear crossed her face. As she slunk away, Alston said to himself, “She will think I am m'takati (protected by magic;. That is just as well.”

At breakfast he ate only such food as did not admit of being tampered with.

“Have you a horse?” he asked Lalu suddenly.

“Yes.”

“Then have him saddled at once. We shall be leaving immediately after breakfast.” The latest development had brought him to the conclusion that if he carried out his first plan of leaving the girl where she was while he returned to make his report in Barberton, she would probably disappear in some mysterious fashion after he had gone so that by the time the authorities moved on her behalf it would be too late.

He had decided to take her with him. At the same time, he was uncomfortably conscious that this action might evoke criticism in certain quarters. That would have to be risked.

While these thoughts were passing through his mind, Lalu left the room in a flutter of excitement. Presently she returned in tears.

“I cannot go. Zoraba will not remove the m'takati line.”

“The m'takati line. What is that?”

“The line that she and the witch doctor set. It is down by the river yonder. I cannot go beyond it or great harm will come to me.” “That is only a trick to keep you here. Listen, Lalu. This morning Zoraba put poison in my coffee and thought to kill me, but she could not. My magic is stronger than hers. Is that not true, woman?” He addressed the fat negress who had crept up during the conversation. Her black face turned almost livid. There were smothered exclamations and mutterings among the other Swazis who stood near.

Alston drew Lalu with him to the door and they mounted. He quite expected that some attempt would be made to prevent the girl’s departure, but the blacks were afraid. They looked on sullenly, but made no movement.

At the imaginary boundary line Lalu drew up, hesitating. Alston caught her bridle rein.

“Come,” he said. “It is all nonsense really. See. There you are over it. I told you my magic was stronger than theirs.” They rode on together at a canter.

TT WAS A VALLEY of enchantment.

Gigantic tree ferns, pale gaunt cacti, tnapani trees festooned with riotous creepers, fragrant mimosa bushes, stately palms, tall whispering grasses, and a swift, dark, silent river twisting between great rocks—all woven into a fantastic network of light and shadow under the white unearthly radiance of an African moon. The night was breathless and myriads of fireflies were flashing among the trees like falling stars that had lost their way. A scene of fairy splendor, but Alston, though vividly conscious of it, could not keep hié eyes off his companion’s face, more beautiful than ever in the magic of the moonlight.

All day she had ridden by his side, uncomplaining in the heat. He had pushed on faster than in ordinary circumstances, anxious to get far away from the store, fearing as he did some interference from the Swazis. But nothing had happened.

“When do we come to the end of our journey, M’lungu ”

“By nightfall tomorrow. But do not call me M’lungu. Call me Jim.”

“O Jim”—as she pronounced the name it sounded the sweetest music in the world— “tell me about the kraal of the white men.” The request brought Alston violently back to realities. What could he tell her that she would understand? And how would she, who belonged to the moonlight and the untamed veldt, fit into the life of a small town—she who knew all about nature and wild life, but nothing at all of civilization, its tabus and restrictions?

“O Jim, I’m so tired.”

He put a saddle under her head and spread a horse blanket over her. With her hand in his, she lay down like a child.

Suddenly on the night air came a low insistent throbbing; monotonous, compelling. Drums; native drums. Alston had heard them often before, but never had they sounded so eerie and menacing as now. Although the sound was not actually loud, something—the vibration in the air, perhaps —wakened Lalu instantly. She sat up, listening tensely and shivering violently although the night was warm. Once more she had need of Alston’s hand, and held it closely clasped in both of hers. He resisted an almost overwhelming inclination to take her in his arms.

The drums ... It was like the savage heart of Africa beating out there in the stillness.

“Are they sending a message? Do you understand it?” Alston asked. He knew that the drums always meant something—a call, a warning, a threat. What devilry were the Swazis up to? Had it anything to do with himself and Lalu? He was not afraid of anything that Zoraba might do, but the witch doctors were ugly fellows to be up against. Their power—call it suggestion, hypnotism, what you will—was something not to be sneered at. He had seen queer instances of it.

'THREE WEEKS LATER, on the verandah of Mrs. Symington’s boarding-house in Barberton, several ladies were talking.

“It looks peculiar, to say the least of it,” remarked one. “I am surprised at Mrs. Symington allowing the girl to stay here. Alston found her living with the natives somewhere without any other white people near, and brought her in. They must have spent at least two days alone together on the veldt on the journey coming here. Now he appears to be making himself responsible for her, generally. What is one to think?” “Perhaps there is no harm in it after all,” said a second more charitably, adding: “I should not be astonished if he married her. She is very lovely, don’t you think, Miss Eagle?”

“Oh, well—if you admire that sort of style. But he will never marry her,” another voice said sharply. “She’ll go back to the Swazis. You mark my words.”

Someone else, as it happened, heard and marked, namely Alston himself, who just then passed in the street below. As he came up the steps, however, his face betrayed no sign. A flush leaped into the sallow cheeks of the last speaker. An embarrassed smile wreathed her lips. Alston was polite but cool.

Then Lalu came out to meet him. Her rebellious curls were pinned together on the nape of her neck. She was dressed in conventional attire, yet still she preserved in some miraculous manner the look of a wild fawn.

Under the searching gaze of the curious and censorious, Alston greeted her without visible embarrassment and invited her to come for a drive.

They bowled along in the Cape cart rapidly at first, but once they were clear of the town Alston reined in the mules.

“Lalu,” he said suddenly and without preliminary, “will you marry me?”

This question had hovered on his lips ever since that moment when she had looked at him in the moonlight and called him, “O Jim.” But for various reasons he had held it back. She was so young. The difference in their ages was considerable. It would seem like taking advantage of what he had done for her, whereas he wanted her to feel quite independent. He felt that he ought to wait until she had found her feet and had time to look around and decide what she wanted to make of this new life of hers. But his hand had been forced somewhat. Those cattish women ! Why could they not be more human toward the girl? That middle-aged schoolteacher, Miss Eagle, for instance, whom, out of sheer pity for her evident loneliness, he had taken for drives occasionally—why could not she have shown a little friendliness to Lalu? Why not? A woman might have answered this question which, in his male simplicity, he asked himself so innocently.

THE GIRL BURST into tears and threw her arms around his neck. Alston was startled and touched.

“Well,” he said after a long moment, “we will consider that settled.” His eyes were very tender as he looked down at her. He knew now that she loved him. But he was troubled about her. Her nerves seemed to have gone all to pieces.

“What is the matter?” he asked gently. “Tell me all about it.”

“O Jim, I am afraid.”

“Afraid. Not of me?”

“Oh, no. Afraid for us—afraid of things.” “Not of the Swazis? They can’t make you go back to them if you don’t want to. You don’t want to go back to them, do you?” he said uneasily, remembering Miss Eagle’s words.

“No, no. I don’t want to go back, but sometimes—sometimes I feel I must. Something seems to be pulling me. And on moonlight nights when I hear the drums, there is something inside me ... I can’t explain, but one night I know I shall walk out into those hills, and then”—she shuddered violently — “I shall never see you again.”

“You mustn’t talk like that, Lalu. It is all foolishness. Of course you’re not going to walk away and leave me. You belong to me now.”

She clung to him.

“O Jim, could we get married at once?” Again he was surprised.

“Well, hardly. You see, things are not quite ready. We haven’t got a house, and you—you would want a little time to get ready. Girls do, don’t they? Besides, I have to go away on a trip in connection with some mining business. It is very important; I must go. As soon as I come back—”

“You—are—going—away? Leaving—

me?”

“Only for a week, Lalu. I must. You will be perfectly safe here, and when I come back we can get married. I know you are not too happy in this house. Some of them are not as friendly as they might be. But Mrs. Symington is kind, isn’t she? And it is only for about two weeks longer. Then you are coming to me and we shall be very happy. See here, Lalu, we’re not going to bother about a house just yet. We’ll go for a nice long trip somewhere before we settle down. If I pull off this mining business I can afford it. How about that?”

“It’s the nights,” she said in a strange, choked voice. “And next week it is full moon. I—don’t know what will happen.” He held her close.

“All this is just nerves. Lalu, and—and the atmosphere of your upbringing. It needs an effort to wrench yourself away from it, but you will. Now listen”—he became severely practical—“there are bars on your window, aren’t there? And I will speak to Mrs. Symington and ask her—you won’t mind, will you?—to lock your door on the outside every night after you have gone to bed so you won’t be able to get out even if you want to. That will be just for a week. After that we’ll get married and go right away from here and very soon you’ll be smiling at the memory of all this nonsense.” He succeeded, as he thought, in calming and comforting her. On the way back they visited the local jeweller’s, and at the boarding-house dinner table that evening the third finger of Lalu’s left hand drew every eye.

The ladies crowded round her with congratulations and questionings. It was Miss Eagle who struck the jarring note.

“There are two of your black friends at the door to see you,” she said in her hard, high voice. Lalu slipped out nervously. Two gravelooking savages in blankets and armed with knobkerries awaited her. One of them was an induna. For a few minutes she conversed with them, and then they padded away into the hills. Lalu went back into the house.

In the deserted dining room Miss Eagle met her. There was a sort of cold fury in her face.

“Why don’t you go back to the niggers where you belong?” she said in a harsh whisper. “Why do you stay here upsetting things, working on a man’s sympathy, forcing him to marry you? Before you came ...” Her thin shoulders shook; suddenly her control snapped. “Oh, go away, go away!” she cried wildly. “I would like to whip you.”

TLJARD UPON the announcement of the engagement, Alston left town. Lalu clung to him desperately at parting, murmuring disturbing words.

“The Swazis . . . Full moon . . . And Miss Eagle. . . She will hurt me if she can.”

What was all this about Miss Eagle? A light at last dawned on Alston.

Miss Eagle jealous; in love with him. How ridiculous and preposterous! Threatening Lalu! She must be crazy. Thank heaven, there was Mrs. Symington, sensible and kind.

So to Mrs. Symington he spoke as he had said he would. She had lived in Africa long enough not to be surprised at anything, and treated his request as though it were the most natural thing in the world. In the long, hot days after he had gone, whenever she had time from her multifarious duties, she assisted Lalu with her studies. The girl was pathetically eager to fill up the gaps in her neglected education, but now her mind seemed astray. She looked like a person drugged. At night the kind landlady shooed her to bed early and, locking the door, concealed the key in her own bedroom.

rT'HE MOON was full. The night was sultry and quiet. A throbbing of drums came from the hills. Nobody had ever heard the drums quite so loud and insistent before. Perhaps there was going to be a native rising. People in frontier towns are always thinking of native risings. It is an interesting topic of conversation, but usually noththing happens. One cannot wait and listen for ever, and so at last they all went to bed and slept. The drums continued their throbbing.

When all was still at Mrs. Symington’s, a woman’s form in a dressing-gown—most certainly not the matronly shape of Mrs. Symington herself, but that of a woman angular and tall—flitted across the patch of moonlight in the dining room and paused, key in hand, at Lalu’s door.

It was hot in Lalu’s room, unbearably hot. The moon shone full through the barred window. The heavy air pulsed with the throbbing of the drums. Something was calling . . . Something unutterably horrible, and yet not to be resisted, was calling out there in the moonlight . . .

Without consciousness, without volition, the girl groped blindly round the walls and twisted, as she had twisted many times before in vain, the handle of the door. This time it yielded. The door was open.

ON THAT SAME night of full moon, Alston was sitting in a store on the bank of the Crocodile River, listening to the drums. One seemed to be able to do nothing else but listen to them.

“There’s something hellish on tonight,” Anderson, the storekeeper said. “Voodoo. They say that the chief, Mapiza, is the high devil or chief priest of the whole business, and once a black is initiated he is in his power for ever. The ceremonies are horrible. No strangers are ever allowed to watch them. Some people say that initiation is a sort of spell imparted with the blood of a living goat which they drink ; others that it is an inoculation with some sort of drug; others again talk of pure hypnotism. I don’t know, but I do know that once the spell is cast, nothing will break it except death. I could tell you things.” “Do they ever initiate white people?”

“I believe it has been done, but naturally the niggers are very quiet about it. If any white person is mad enough—”

“Where do they hold these ceremonies?” “At the Devil’s Punch Bowl, that lonely hollow in the hills. From all the signs there must be an initiation going on tonight. But why bother ourselves about it? Let’s have a game of chess.”

“Your queen is in danger.” Anderson’s utterance of the conventional warning made Alston start violently. Then he apologized.

“I’m afraid I can’t play tonight, old chap. I’m fancying things. You’ll think it foolish, but that remark of yours quite jarred my nerves. It sounded prophetic. You know the girl I told you about; the girl I am going to marry. I’m desperately uneasy about her, wondering if she is mixed up in this voodoo business. Perhaps she is in danger.”

“Why should she be? You told me you had left her safely fixed.”

“Yes, but—”

At that moment some Swazis passed the store, jabbering excitedly. Anderson’s face changed. “Those niggers were saying something about a white girl . . .I’m afraid there may be some truth in your premonitions.”

Both men had risen. The chess table was swept on one side.

“Alston, don’t do anything foolish. I know how you are feeling, but force won’t help you. We are only two against hundreds. The niggers are like tinder just now. One shot would start the blaze. That talked-of rising is nearer than people think. A little thing would start it. If you were mad enough to try it, you would not be able to save your girl, and you would plunge hundreds of other white women into hideous danger. Imagine what would happen if those devils ran amok in the town before sufficient help could come ! If you’ve got to circumvent them, you must do it by guile, by palaver—any way except by force.”

“I know. Magic against magic. I’ve had some experience of that already. But it’s difficult to think calmly when—what if she is there now in their hands !”

“Even so, there will be a lot of palaver before anything actually happens. You know their way. We shall be in time. The thing is, if she is there, to think up something that will impress and hold them while we get her away. She may not be there at all, but safe in her bed asleep. We’ll go to the hollow, however, though it may be more than our lives are worth, to find out what’s afoot. I’ll get the horses.”

When he returned, Alston was pacing up and down deep in thought. Suddenly he said:

“I suppose you have got some alum and sulphate of zinc in the store.”

Too preoccupied to query the request, Anderson replied:

“If there is anything you want just help yourself. We can’t start for a few minutes. One of the horses is lame. I must go out and bring in another.”

ON THE EDGE of a hollow, a crowd of loose-lipped blacks were dancing themselves into a frenzy. There was something intoxicating, maddening in the beat of the drums. Even the two white watchers, crouched low among the pampas grass, felt it.

In the centre of the dancers, one figure held the eye—a superbly-formed savage, naked except for the hide of a goat. He held aloft the headless body of a black cock: its blood streamed down his arms.

“That’s Mapiza,” Anderson whispered.

The beat of the drums quickened; the dancing became more frenzied. From a hut near by, three women emerged. Their almost naked bodies swayed to the beat of those devilish drums. The centre one seemed to hang back, but was dragged forward by her companions to meet the sinister, blood-dripping figure in the goatskin. The moon shone full upon them.

The woman in the centre was Lalu. Mapiza had advanced toward her. Now he held a bowl and a knife.

“Stop!”

Instantly there was confusion. The drums wavered. The dancing ceased. An amazed and angry muttering rose from the dazed savages as a lone white man advanced upon the charmed circle. His gaze was on Lalu, but her chalk-white face showed no recognition. Her wide-open eyes, like those of a sleep-walker, were still fixed on Mapiza.

“It is death to be here, M'lungu. Why do you come?” It was an old witch doctor who spoke. Anderson, watching, held his breath. He knew that Alston’s life hung on a trigger hair. It would not help if he went forward and stood beside him. All he could do was to lie still and pray that Alston would handle the situation aright.

“I have come to show you magic greater than any that you can show.”

At these words, spoken in their own language, the blacks drew near. Their attitude was still menacing, but curiosity was struggling with resentment.

Alston turned to the chief.

“As for you, Mapiza, you had your answer when I sent back the induna with your gifts. What you are doing now is foolishness. The white girl is my bride.”

Mapiza was sullen and defiant.

“I summoned the Moonflower from afar, and the kraal of the white men could not hold her. What magic have you that is greater than that, M’lungu?”

“That to which yours is as nothing. Can you or your witch doctors walk barefoot on fire and be unhurt?”

“Waow!” exclaimed the dusky listeners all in unison, for who but a god or a demon could walk on fire and be unhurt?

Alston sat down and calmly drew off his riding boots and socks.

“Let fire be brought.”

“Listen to him, the great joker, the great boaster!” Swayed as easily as children, the savages had now forgotten everything in their eagerness to prove the white man a braggart and a liar. The red hot embers of a dozen fires were quickly brought and mockingly laid in a glowing pathway before him.

There was a dramatic pause. Then slowly, unflinchingly, along the red hot pathway the white man, with his feet bare, walked; treading the fire as though it were soft, green turf.

At this amazing and uncanny spectacle a sort of concerted gasp went up from the Swazis.

”M’takati\ M’lakatil" they screamed. There was a momentary hesitation; and then the black ranks broke in terror-stricken flight.

VXTRAPPED IN Alston’s coat, Lalu * V passed from a violent shivering fit into a deep sleep. The two men watched her. Anderson drew a hand across his eyes.

“You had me all fooled and bothered, too,” he said. “Was it an optical illusion or what?”

“Just an old trick I learned in India. Bathe your feet in a solution of alum and sulphate of zinc and you, too, will be able to walk on fire.”

Lalu stirred and wakened. In her eyes there was no memory of the night of horror, only wonderment. The sun was rising.

“O Jim, what has happened? Where am I? How did we come here?”

“Hypnotism,” suggested Anderson. “You see she doesn’t remember anything about it now, and a good job, too. It is ghastly to think what would have happened if we had not got there in time. Things were all set for that devil to get her into his power for life. You have frightened him properly, and so there’ll be no more trouble.”

Lalu wrinked her brows.

“O Jim, what is the man talking about?” “Magic,” said Alston.

Lalu looked at him. There was in that look the oldest magic in the world. Alston took her in his arms and their lips met in a long kiss. Anderson had discreetly disappeared. Only a sleepy crocodile on the flats below was watching.