Read OUR LADY OF THE LAKE of Cinderella in the South Twenty-Five South African Tales , free online book, by Arthur Shearly Cripps, on ReadCentral.com.

We had been dining on the bridge of H.M.S. Kampala the captain, the two ship’s officers, the gunnery lieutenant and he who writes this story. We had come in as it grew dark that August evening, and anchored some few miles out from the German’s great place. For that great place a big gun, rumored or real, commanded respect.

I suppose our main object on that patrol trip of ours was the stopping of rice-running, the preservation of our lake blockade. We had had some firing a few days ago at presumptive stores, also at a dhow and lighter dimly descried (they were in the papyrus-fringed labyrinth of a boat-passage). But of late we had been lying up for the most part off a lonely island. Perhaps they would think we were out of the way, perhaps not. We should see what we should see.’ I suppose that the gunnery lieutenant was almost as sanguine of adventure as I was of humdrum peace in this after-dinner hour on the darkened bridge. Adventure, or at least what seemed to be its promising prelude arrived quite suddenly.

There was a sudden announcement to our captain about a light being seen, a brief one-sided discussion, the whistle blowing for ‘Stations,’ the rattle of arms as the Indian ship’s-guard fell in. These all affected me with strange twinges of futile protest. Surely there was a time for all things, and this was the time for coffee and tobacco, not for disconcerting risks and detestable noises. I wanted never to hear our four-inch gun again by day. The idea of its shaking the peace of night to bits was preposterous. Yet a light was reported ahead, a moving light on the lake itself. ‘You haven’t much time, Craig,’ I heard the lieutenant cry to our captain. The engine-room bells rang ominously, there was much puffing and spouting, then we were off. I stole into a safe sort of corner, as corners went, by the doctor’s cabin. I edged out of the way of the Indian riflemen who were sorting themselves, making ready for action. We were running along somewhither. I didn’t know much about our bearings, but I had misgivings as to whether that big gun of the Germans was not getting nearer. ’I’ve been thinking it may be a lure to draw us on,’ hazarded the Eurasian doctor by and by. That was just what I’d been thinking. I was glad when the tension ceased suddenly, not so many minutes after it had started. The light had vanished; we were out of the hunt somehow it seemed; our captain meant to wait till morning, then possibly he would show us a thing. Meanwhile there were some hours to morning. We had had no night-firing after all. Nor did there seem to be much prospect of any. One might as well go to bed in the dark without delay.

Morning came and we hunted around, but drew blank. Then we started away to look for a supposed dhow in likely covers of creeks or inlets, but we drew these blank also. What was the vanished light? That of the resurrected German steam-tug? Possibly. Possibly it was not that of a dhow after all. Anyhow it was gone out of our ken. ’There’s dirty work in there of night, Craig,’ the gunnery-lieutenant had said with a stern eye on that German harbor. He spoke as a partisan. Was it such very dirty work if they did run a little food across to feed their own people? Anyhow their dirty work, whatever it was, had seemingly baffled our immaculate patrol under our white ensign, for that time at any rate.

I don’t think there is anything strange about this story as it stands up to this point, do you? There may have been a dhow ahead of us that night in August, and it may have been its light that our watchman spied. Also it may have put out its light all of a sudden, and so we may have lost it in the darkness. That simple explanation sounds probable enough, doesn’t it, when you come to think of it?

Nevertheless in the following week, a more romantic explanation was tendered to me it concerned a gramophone.

‘That was the last tune before the light was seen,’ a bluejacket told me solemnly. ’It’s a good tune, you perhaps know it, sir, “Ave Maris Stella"’? We had fraternized over recollections of Hastings, that was his birth-place. I told him how I had been into his church there, which was not mine, Saint Mary’s, Star of the Sea. I recalled the blue-circled chancel and its glittering stars with admiration. Now he was confidential about what had happened a few nights before. He seemed to regard the putting-on of that particular gramophone record at that particular moment as significant. I was sympathetic, but I only grasped his point vaguely. ‘You mean,’ I said. ‘I mean that She may have meant it,’ he said rather confusedly. ’She may have meant us luck. If we’d only gone in straight where Her light showed, we might have found our luck.’ ‘You mean we might have captured Muanza, I suppose,’ I said rather skeptically. ’Well, we might have killed a lot of Germans, sir, and done a lot of good. But our captain’s too cautious altogether.’

‘It’s possible,’ I said. ‘She may have meant to give us the tip,’ he went on. ‘I don’t think it’s likely, but you may be right,’ I said with some detachment. The notion of Our Lady illuminating the lake that she might give us the tip to kill Germans was not so very convincing. I’m afraid I choked off the surmiser a bit with my Tolstoyite incredulity. He drew in his horns there and then; he confided none of his views to me again on similar subjects. He was to die at sea a year or so after. They had got him on to a ship from an island hospital, but he never reached the South African port they had shipped him for. I am glad now to think of his faith in Our Lady, Our Lady good at need.

It was before he went down to the coast, that we advanced and took a great island renowned for its rice commerce. Then the day came only a month or so after that our troops marched into Muanza. The main body of its German defenders had steamed away down that land-locked sound of theirs a little while before. We had not stormed the place from the lake after all, we had arrived by a back-door road among the kopjes. Yet there we were at last. It seemed curious to be in the place that I had peered at apprehensively on patrol. How mysterious its lights and its harbor had looked from a darkened bridge or a deck of old. Now I went to and fro in the glaring Boma square, climbed the road among the rocks to the Fort Hospital with the tower and its dummy guns, patrolled the palm-tree promenade where no band played, but lake-water provided placid music much more to my taste than that of drums and brass.

It was in the church above the bay, the church of the White Fathers, that I came upon my sequel, or at least what looks like the earthly sequel of my story. Afterwards, of course, I may hear much more. The White Father I had gone to see, took me into the church one morning and showed me Our Lady’s altar. Over it was an altar-piece of familiar design I think it represented Our Lady of Good Counsel, but I am not sure. In front votive candles blazed, in very creditable profusion for those hard times surely. A silver star with about two-inch points caught my eye. There were other stars hung there too, much less conspicuous ones. There were also two or three little models of dhows or boats set on a ledge before that altar. I pointed to the silver star, and my guide answered my mute question: ’A gift to Our Lady, Star of this lake and these lake-shores,’ he said. ’It was one night in August of last year that it happened, the miracle or whatever you wish to call it.’ ‘Did Our Lady appear on the lake?’ I asked keenly, for memories began to stir in me. ‘No, not quite that,’ said the White Father. He had a brown beard, and a very white face, and he spoke clear-cut English. ’There was a light seen over the water.’ Then it was that the surmise about the gramophone recurred to me. ‘Do you really think,’ I asked, ’that there was a light to be seen? If so, what was there strange about it?’ ‘Well, it was a miracle of sorts,’ he said. ’I didn’t believe about it at first, for I didn’t see reason for it. They said it was a light given to lure the English within range. That was the talk of some of our Catholics in the town, but it wasn’t good talk. I argued against it.’ He paused. Then I told him, smilingly, the story of the gramophone. ‘It’s a parallel story,’ I said. ’Our Lady was indeed divided against herself that night in her clients’ estimation.’ ’It shows the absurdity of war between Catholics,’ he murmured. ’Yes, of war between so-called Christian nations,’ I agreed. In an impulse I shook his hand. ‘But there was a light,’ I said: ‘I saw it.’ ‘So did I,’ he said. ‘Was it the light of a dhow?’ I wondered. ‘No,’ he said, surprisingly, ‘the dhow was on the other side of your ship.’ He pointed to the votive star. ’That star commemorates this sight of a light, or rather of a star,’ he said. ’I veritably believe that the star light was Our Lady of the Lake’s work. Yet she did not in the least mean to show the English where to land and slaughter us, nor on the other hand to lure them on to a fiery doom. Our Lady wants the salvage of men’s lives not their destruction. Guess what happened that night.’

I was puzzled. I took the star into my hand and looked it over. It only had ‘Muanza’ graved upon it, ‘Muanza’ and the date of that August evening. No, I gave it up. So he told me his version of events. ’There was a dhow beating round the corner of an island. The Goanese skipper had no idea that you were there. It was a near thing. He was lucky, wasn’t he, that the alarm of the light seen by your watch came just then? He was running almost straight for your war-ship. But you started off on a course that took you far out of his way, started off on a light’s chase or rather a star’s chase. He is a very pious man, that Goanese skipper; he was here for two Masses this morning. He has a great devotion to Our Lady, as I believe, and he knows how to pray. He vowed a silver star to Our Lady Our Lady of the Lake, if she would but bring him through with his ship safe. He made a fair voyage after all. But he thanked the star that led you off from him for it, say rather Her who kindled that star. He is a man of prayer, the sort of prayer that invites miracles.’ I was very silent. I knelt before the statue a little. Then I said ‘Good-bye.’ When I had said it I looked at two of the stars (that were not silver) curiously. Were they not Belgian officers’ stars, and were they not likely to have a tragical history? ’Ask the silver star-man, please,’ I said, ’to pray for God’s miracle of peace. It does seem to me as if his prayers might do a lot of good. I’d give Our Lady of the Lake a whole Southern-Crossful of stars should peace come before the year’s out.’ Did he forget to ask that star-man for his prayers?