by H. Rider Haggard
When I had buried my father, and seen a
successor installed in his place--for the station was the property of the
Society--I set to work to carry out a plan which I had long cherished, but been
unable to execute because it would have involved separation from my father. Put
shortly, it was to undertake a trading journey of exploration right through the
countries now known as the Free State and the Transvaal, and as much further
North as I could go. It was an adventurous scheme, for though the emigrant Boers
had begun to occupy positions in these territories, they were still to all
practical purposes unexplored. But I was now alone in the world, and it mattered
little what became of me; so, driven on by the overmastering love of adventure,
which, old as I am, will perhaps still be the cause of my death, I determined to
undertake the journey.
Accordingly I sold such stock and goods as we
had upon the station, reserving only the two best waggons and two spans of oxen.
The proceeds I invested in such goods as were then in fashion, for trading
purposes, and in guns and ammunition. The guns would have moved any modern
explorer to merriment; but such as they were I managed to do a good deal of
execution with them. One of them was a single-barrelled, smooth bore, fitted for
percussion caps--a roer we called it--which threw a three-ounce ball, and was
charged with a handful of coarse black powder. Many is the elephant that I
killed with that roer, although it generally knocked me backwards when I fired
it, which I only did under compulsion. The best of the lot, perhaps, was a
double-barrelled No. 12 shot-gun, but it had flint locks. Also there were some
old tower muskets, which might or might not throw straight at seventy yards. I
took six Kaffirs with me, and three good horses, which were supposed to be
salted--that is, proof against the sickness. Among the Kaffirs was an old fellow
named Indaba-zimbi, which, being translated, means "tongue of iron." I
suppose he got this name from his strident voice and exhaustless eloquence. This
man was a great character in his way. He had been a noted witch-doctor among a
neighbouring tribe, and came to the station under the following circumstances,
which, as he plays a considerable part in this history, are perhaps worth
Two years before my father's death I had
occasion to search the country round for some lost oxen. After a long and
useless quest it occurred to me that I had better go to the place where the oxen
were bred by a Kaffir chief, whose name I forget, but whose kraal was about
fifty miles from our station. There I journeyed, and found the oxen safe at home.
The chief entertained me handsomely, and on the following morning I went to pay
my respects to him before leaving, and was somewhat surprised to find a
collection of some hundreds of men and women sitting round him anxiously
watching the sky in which the thunder-clouds were banking up in a very ominous
"You had better wait, white man,"
said the chief, "and see the rain-doctors fight the lightning."
I inquired what he meant, and learned that this
man, Indaba-zimbi, had for some years occupied the position of wizard-in-chief
to the tribe, although he was not a member of it, having been born in the
country now known as Zululand. But a son of the chief's, a man of about thirty,
had lately set up as a rival in supernatural powers. This irritated Indaba-zimbi
beyond measure, and a quarrel ensued between the two witch-doctors that resulted
in a challenge to trial by lightning being given and accepted. These were the
conditions. The rivals must await the coming of a serious thunderstorm, no
ordinary tempest would serve their turn. Then, carrying assegais in their hands,
they must take their stand within fifty paces of each other upon a certain patch
of ground where the big thunderbolts were observed to strike continually, and by
the exercise of their occult powers and invocations to the lightning, must
strive to avert death from themselves and bring it on their rival. The terms of
this singular match had been arranged a month previously, but no storm worthy of
the occasion had arisen. Now the local weather-prophets believed it to be
I inquired what would happen if neither of the
men were struck, and was told that they must then wait for another storm. If
they escaped the second time, however, they would be held to be equal in power,
and be jointly consulted by the tribe upon occasions of importance.
The prospect of being a spectator of so unusual
a sight overcame my desire to be gone, and I accepted the chief's invitation to
see it out. Before mid-day I regretted it, for though the western heavens grew
darker and darker, and the still air heralded the coming of the storm, yet it
did not come. By four o'clock, however, it became obvious that it must burst
soon--at sunset, the old chief said, and in the company of the whole assembly I
moved down to the place of combat. The kraal was built on the top of a hill, and
below it the land sloped gently to the banks of a river about half a mile away.
On the hither side of the bank was the piece of land that was, the natives said,
"loved of the lightning." Here the magicians took up their stand,
while the spectators grouped themselves on the hillside about two hundred yards
away--which was, I thought, rather too near to be pleasant. When we had sat
there for a while my curiosity overcame me, and I asked leave of the chief to go
down and inspect the arena. He said I might do so at my own risk. I told him
that the fire from above would not hurt white men, and went to find that the
spot was a bed of iron ore, thinly covered with grass, which of course accounted
for its attracting the lightning from the storms as they travelled along the
line of the river. At each end of this iron-stone area were placed the
combatants, Indaba-zimbi facing the east, and his rival the west, and before
each there burned a little fire made of some scented root. Moreover they were
dressed in all the paraphernalia of their craft, snakeskins, fish-bladders, and
I know not what beside, while round their necks hung circlets of baboons' teeth
and bones from human hands. First I went to the western end where the chief's
son stood. He was pointing with his assegai towards the advancing storm, and
invoking it in a voice of great excitement.
"Come, fire, and lick up Indaba-zimbi!
"Hear me, Storm Devil, and lick
Indaba-zimbi with your red tongue!
"Spit on him with your rain!
"Whirl him away in your breath!
"Make him as nothing--melt the marrow in
"Run into his heart and burn away the lies!
"Show all the people who is the true Witch
"Let me not be put to shame in the eyes of
this white man!"
Thus he spoke, or rather chanted, and all the
while rubbed his broad chest--for he was a very fine man--with some filthy
compound of medicine or mouti.
After a while, getting tired of his song, I
walked across the iron-stone, to where Indaba-zimbi sat by his fire. He was not
chanting at all, but his performance was much more impressive. It consisted in
staring at the eastern sky, which was perfectly clear of cloud, and every now
and again beckoning at it with his finger, then turning round to point with the
assegai towards his rival. For a while I looked at him in silence. He was a
curious wizened man, apparently over fifty years of age, with thin hands that
looked as tough as wire. His nose was much sharper than is usual among these
races, and he had a queer habit of holding his head sideways like a bird when he
spoke, which, in addition to the humour that lurked in his eye, gave him a most
comical appearance. Another strange thing about him was that he had a single
white lock of hair among his black wool. At last I spoke to him:
"Indaba-zimbi, my friend," I said,
"you may be a good witch-doctor, but you are certainly a fool. It is no
good beckoning at the blue sky while your enemy is getting a start with the
"You may be clever, but don't think you
know everything, white man," the old fellow answered, in a high, cracked
voice, and with something like a grin.
"They call you Iron-tongue," I went
on; "you had better use it, or the Storm Devil won't hear you."
"The fire from above runs down iron,"
he answered, "so I keep my tongue quiet. Oh, yes, let him curse away, I'll
put him out presently. Look now, white man."
I looked, and in the eastern sky there grew a
cloud. At first it was small, though very black, but it gathered with
This was odd enough, but as I had seen the same
thing happen before it did not particularly astonish me. It is by no means
unusual in Africa for two thunderstorms to come up at the same time from
different points of the compass.
"You had better get on, Indaba-zimbi,"
I said, "the big storm is coming along fast, and will soon eat up that baby
of yours," and I pointed to the west.
"Babies sometimes grow to giants, white
man," said Indaba-zimbi, beckoning away vigorously. "Look now at my
I looked; the eastern storm was spreading
itself from earth to sky, and in shape resembled an enormous man. There was its
head, its shoulders, and its legs; yes, it was like a huge giant travelling
across the heavens. The light of the setting sun escaping from beneath the lower
edge of the western storm shot across the intervening space in a sheet of
splendour, and, lighting upon the advancing figure of cloud, wrapped its middle
in hues of glory too wonderful to be described; but beneath and above this
glowing belt his feet and head were black as jet. Presently, as I watched, an
awful flash of light shot from the head of the cloud, circled it about as though
with a crown of living fire, and vanished.
"Aha," chuckled old Indaba-zimbi,
"my little boy is putting on his man's ring," and he tapped the gum
ring on his own head, which natives assume when they reach a certain age and
dignity. "Now, white man, unless you are a bigger wizard than either of us
you had better clear off, for the fire-fight is about to begin."
I thought this sound advice.
"Good luck go with you, my black uncle,"
I said. "I hope you don't feel the iniquities of a mis-spent life weighing
on you at the last."
"You look after yourself, and think of
your own sins, young man," he answered, with a grim smile, and taking a
pinch of snuff, while at that very moment a flash of lightning, I don't know
from which storm, struck the ground within thirty paces of me. That was enough
for me, I took to my heels, and as I went I heard old Indaba-zimbi's dry chuckle
I climbed the hill till I came to where the
chief was sitting with his indunas, or headmen, and sat down near to him. I
looked at the man's face and saw that he was intensely anxious for his son's
safety, and by no means confident of the young man's powers to resist the magic
of Indaba-zimbi. He was talking in a low voice to the induna next to him. I
affected to take no notice and to be concentrating my attention on the novel
scene before me; but in those days I had very quick ears, and caught the drift
of the conversation.
"Hearken!" the chief was saying,
"if the magic of Indaba-zimbi prevails against my son I will endure him no
more. Of this I am sure, that when he has slain my son he will slay me, me also,
and make himself chief in my place. I fear Indaba-zimbi. Ou!"
"Black One," answered the induna,
"wizards die as dogs die, and, once dead, dogs bark no more."
"And once dead," said the chiefs,
"wizards work no more spells," and he bent and whispered in the
induna's ear, looking at the assegai in his hand as he whispered.
"Good, my father, good!" said the
induna, presently. "It shall be done to-night, if the lightning does not do
"A bad look-out for old Indaba-zimbi,"
I said to myself. "They mean to kill him." Then I thought no more of
the matter for a while, the scene before me was too tremendous.
The two storms were rapidly rushing together.
Between them was a gulf of blue sky, and from time to time flashes of blinding
light passed across this gulf, leaping from cloud to cloud. I remember that they
reminded me of the story of the heathen god Jove and his thunderbolts. The storm
that was shaped like a giant and ringed with the glory of the sinking sun made
an excellent Jove, and I am sure that the bolts which leapt from it could not
have been surpassed even in mythological times. Oddly enough, as yet the flashes
were not followed by thunder. A deadly stillness lay upon the place, the cattle
stood silently on the hillside, even the natives were awed to silence. Dark
shadows crept along the bosom of the hills, the river to the right and left was
hidden in wreaths of cloud, but before us and beyond the combatants it shone
like a line of silver beneath the narrowing space of open sky. Now the western
tempest was scrawled all over with lines of intolerable light, while the inky
head of the cloud-giant to the east was continually suffused with a white and
deadly glow that came and went in pulses, as though a blood of flame was being
pumped into it from the heart of the storm.
The silence deepened and deepened, the shadows
grew blacker and blacker, then suddenly all nature began to moan beneath the
breath of an icy wind. On sped the wind; the smooth surface of the river was
ruffled by it into little waves, the tall grass bowed low before it, and in its
wake came the hissing sound of furious rain.
Ah! the storms had met. From each there burst
an awful blaze of dazzling flame, and now the hill on which we sat rocked at the
noise of the following thunder. The light went out of the sky, darkness fell
suddenly on the land, but not for long. Presently the whole landscape grew vivid
in the flashes, it appeared and disappeared, now everything was visible for
miles, now even the men at my side vanished in the blackness. The thunder rolled
and cracked and pealed like the trump of doom, whirlwinds tore round, lifting
dust and even stones high into the air, and in a low, continuous undertone rose
the hiss of the rushing rain.
I put my hand before my eyes to shield them
from the terrible glare, and looked beneath it towards the lists of iron-stone.
As flash followed flash, from time to time I caught sight of the two wizards.
They were slowly advancing towards one another, each pointing at his foe with
the assegai in his hand. I could see their every movement, and it seemed to me
that the chain lightning was striking the iron-stone all round them.
Suddenly the thunder and lightning ceased for a
minute, everything grew black, and, except for the rain, silent.
"It is over one way or the other, chief,"
I called out into the darkness.
"Wait, white man, wait!" answered the
chief, in a voice thick with anxiety and fear.
Hardly were the words out of his mouth when the
heavens were lit up again till they literally seemed to flame. There were the
men, not ten paces apart. A great flash fell between them, I saw them stagger
beneath the shock. Indaba-zimbi recovered himself first--at any rate when the
next flash came he was standing bolt upright, pointing with his assegai towards
his enemy. The chief's son was still on his legs, but he was staggering like a
drunken man, and the assegai had fallen from his hand.
Darkness! then again a flash, more fearful, if
possible, than any that had gone before. To me it seemed to come from the east,
right over the head of Indaba-zimbi. At that instant I saw the chief's son
wrapped, as it were, in the heart of it. Then the thunder pealed, the rain burst
over us like a torrent, and I saw no more.
The worst of the storm was done, but for a
while the darkness was so dense that we could not move, nor, indeed, was I
inclined to leave the safety of the hillside where the lightning was never known
to strike, and venture down to the iron-stone. Occasionally there still came
flashes, but, search as we would, we could see no trace of either of the wizards.
For my part, I believed that they were both dead. Now the clouds slowly rolled
away down the course of the river, and with them went the rain; and now the
stars shone in their wake.
"Let us go and see," said the old
chief, rising and shaking the water from his hair. "The fire-fight is ended,
let us go and see who has conquered."
I rose and followed him, dripping as though I
had swum a hundred yards with my clothes on, and after me came all the people of
We reached the spot; even in that light I could
see where the iron-stone had been split and fused by the thunderbolts. While I
was staring about me, I suddenly heard the chief, who was on my right, give a
low moan, and saw the people cluster round him. I went up and looked. There, on
the ground, lay the body of his son. It was a dreadful sight. The hair was burnt
off his head, the copper rings upon his arms were fused, the assegai handle
which lay near was literally shivered into threads, and, when I took hold of his
arm, it seemed to me that every bone of it was broken.
The men with the chief stood gazing silently,
while the women wailed.
"Great is the magic of Indaba-zimbi!"
said a man, at length. The chief turned and struck him a heavy blow with the
kerrie in his hand.
"Great or not, thou dog, he shall die,"
he cried, "and so shalt thou if thou singest his praises so loudly."
I said nothing, but thinking it probable that
Indaba-zimbi had shared the fate of his enemy, I went to look. But I could see
nothing of him, and at length, being thoroughly chilled with the wet, started
back to my waggon to change my clothes. On reaching it, I was rather surprised
to see a strange Kaffir seated on the driving-box wrapped up in a blanket.
"Hullo! come out of that," I said.
The figure on the box slowly unrolled the
blanket, and with great deliberation took a pinch of snuff.
"It was a good fire-fight, white man, was
it not?" said Indaba-zimbi, in his high, cracked voice. "But he never
had a chance against me, poor boy. He knew nothing about it. See, white man,
what becomes of presumption in the young. It is sad, very sad, but I made the
flashes fly, didn't I?"
"You old humbug," I said, "unless
you are careful you will soon learn what comes of presumption in the old, for
your chief is after you with an assegai, and it will take all your magic to
"Now you don't say so," said
Indaba-zimbi, clambering off the waggon with rapidity; "and all because of
this wretched upstart. There's gratitude for you, white man. I expose him, and
they want to kill me. Well, thank you for the hint. We shall meet again before
long," and he was gone like a shot, and not too soon, for just then some of
the chief's men came up to the waggon.
On the following morning I started homewards.
The first face I saw on arriving at the station was that of Indaba-zimbi.
"How do you do, Macumazahn?" he said,
holding his head on one side and nodding his white lock. "I hear you are
Christians here, and I want to try a new religion. Mine must be a bad one seeing
that my people wanted to kill me for exposing an impostor."
Previous / Continue