Read CHAPTER XXI of The Sign of the Spider , free online book, by Bertram Mitford, on ReadCentral.com.

“THE STRONG WIND THAT BURNS FROM THE NORTH.”

From where they stood the ground fell away in great wooded spurs to a broad level valley, or rather plain, shut in on the farther side by rolling ranges of forest-clad hills. The valley bottom, green and undulating, was watered by numerous streams, flashing like bands of silver ribbon in the golden glow of the newly risen sun. Clustering here and there, five or six together, were kraals, circular and symmetrical, built on the Zulu plan, and from their dome-shaped grass huts blue lines of smoke were arising upon the still morning air. Already, dappling the sward, the many coloured hides of innumerable cattle could be seen moving, and the long drawn shout and whistle of these who tended them rose in faint and harmonious echo to the height whence they looked down. Patches of broad, flag-like maize, too, stood out, in darker squares, from the verdancy of the grass, and bird voices in glad note made merry among the cool, leafy, forest slopes. Coming in contrast to the steamy heat, the dank and gloomy equatorial vegetation, the foul and noisome surroundings of the cannibal villages, this smiling land of plenty did indeed offer to him who now first beheld it a fair and blithesome sight.

But another object attracted and held the attention of the spectator even more than all. This was an immense kraal. It lay on the slope at least ten miles away, but with the aid of his glass, which had been returned to him from among the slavers’ loot, Laurence could bring it very near indeed. The yellow-domed huts lay six or seven deep between their dark, ringed fences, the great circular space in the middle the isigodhlo, or inclosure of royal dwellings partitioned off at the upper end why, the place might have been the chief kraal of Cetywayo or Dingane miraculously transferred to this remote and unexplored region.

“Lo! Imvungayo. The seat of the Great Great One the Strong Wind that burns from the North,” murmured Ngumunye, interpreting his glance of inquiry. “Come let us go down.”

As the great impi, which up till now had been marching “at ease,” emerged upon the plain, once more the warriors formed into rank, and advanced in serried columns singing a war-song. Immediately the whole land was as a disturbed beehive. Men, women, and children flocked forth to welcome them, the latter especially, pressing forward with eager curiosity to obtain a glimpse of the white man, the first of the species they had ever seen, and the air rang with the shrill, excited cries of astonishment wherewith they greeted his appearance, and the calm, unruffled way in which he ignored both their presence and amazement. Much singing followed; the stay-at-homes answering the war-song of the warriors in responsive strophes but there was little variety in these, which consisted largely, as it seemed to Laurence, of exuberant references to “The Spider” and praise of the king.

As they drew near the great kraal, two companies of girls, arrayed in beaded dancing dresses, advanced, waving green boughs, and, halting in front of the returning impi, sang a song of welcome. Their voices were melodious and pleasing to the last degree, imparting a singular charm to the somewhat monotonous repetition of the wild chant now in a soft musical contralto, now shrilling aloft in a note of pealing gladness. Laurence, who was beginning to feel vividly interested in this strange race of valiant fighters, failed not to note that many of these girls were of extraordinarily prepossessing appearance, with their tall, beautiful figures and supple limbs, their clear eyes and white teeth, and bright, pleasing faces. Then suddenly song and dance alike ceased, and the women, parting into two companies, the whole impi moved forward again, marching between them.

The huge kraal was very near now, the palisade lined with the faces of eager spectators. But Laurence, quick to take in impressions, noticed that here there were no severed heads stuck about in ghastly ornament. This splendid race, as pitiless and unsparing in victory as it was intrepid in the field, was clearly above the more monstrous and revolting forms of savage barbarity. Then all further reflections were diverted into an entirely new channel, for the whole impi tossing the unarmed right hand aloft thundered aloud the salute royal, then fell prostrate:

Bayete!

The roar sudden, and as one man of that multitude of voices was startling, well-nigh terrifying. Laurence, unprepared for any such move, found himself standing there he alone, erect while around him, as so much mown corn, lay prostrate on their faces this immense company of armed warriors. Then he took in the reason.

Just in front of where the impi had halted rose a small cluster of trees crowning a knoll. Beneath the shade thus formed was a group of men, in a half-squatting, half-crouching attitude all save one.

Yes. One alone was standing standing a little in advance of the group standing tall, erect, majestic in a splendid attitude of ease and dignity, as, with head thrown slightly back, he darted his clear expressive eyes proudly over the bending host. A man in the prime of life a perfect embodiment of symmetry and strength he wore no attempt at gew-gaws or meretricious adornment. His shaven head was crowned with the usual isicoco, or ring, whose jetty blackness seemed to render the rich copper hue of the smooth skin even lighter, and for all clothing he wore a mutya of lion-skin and leopards’ tails. Yet Laurence Stanninghame, gazing upon him, recognized a natural dignity nay, a majesty enthroning this nearly naked savage such as he had never seen quite equalled in the aspect or deportment of any other living man. Clearly this was the king Tyisandhlu “The Strong Wind that burns from the North.” Removing his hat with one hand he raised the other above his head, and repeated the salute royal as he had heard it from the warriors.

The king acknowledged his greeting by a brief murmur. Then he called aloud:

“Rise up, my children.”

As one man that huge assembly sprang to its feet, and the quivering rattle of spear-hafts was as a winter gale rushing through a leafless wood; with one voice it began to thunder forth the royal titles.

“O Great Spider! Terrible Spider! Blood-drinking Spider, whose bite is death! O Serpent! O Elephant! Thunderer of the heavens! Divider of the Sun! House Burner! O Destroyer! O All Devouring Beast!” These were some of the titles used but the praisers would always bring back the bonga to some attribute of the spider. Laurence, who understood the system, noted this peculiarity, differing, as it did, from the Zulu practice of making the serpent the principal term of praise. Finally, as by signal, the shouting ceased, and the principal leaders of the impi, disarming, crept forward, two by two, to the king’s feet.

Laurence was too far off to hear what was said, for the tone was low, but he judged, and rightly, that the chiefs were giving an account of the expedition. At length the king dismissed them, and pointing with the short knob-stick he held in his hand, ordered that he himself should be brought forward.

The ranks of the warriors opened to let him through, and as, having been careful to disarm in turn, he advanced, Laurence could not repress a tightening thrill of the pulses as he wondered what fate it was, as regarded himself, that should now fall from the lips of this despot, whose very name meant a terror and a scourge.

Tyisandhlu for some moments uttered no word, but stood gazing fixedly upon his prisoner in contemplative silence. Laurence, for his part, was studying, no less attentively, the king. The finely shaped head and lofty brow the clear eyes and oval face, culminating in a short beard, whose jetty thickness just began to show here and there a streak of gray, the noble stature and erect carriage, impressed him even more, thus face to face, than at a distance.

“They say thou bearest the Sign of this nation, O stranger,” began the king, speaking in the Zulu tongue, “and that to this thou owest thy life.”

“That is true, Great Great One,” answered Laurence.

“But how know we that the Sign is genuine?” continued Tyisandhlu.

“By this, Father of the People of the Spider. Not once has it stood between me and death, but twice, and that at the hands of your people.”

A murmur of astonishment escaped his hearers. But the king said:

“When was this other time? for such would, in truth, be something of a test.”

Then Laurence told the tale of his conflict with the Ba-gcatya warriors beneath the tree-fern by the lagoon and the murmur among the listeners deepened.

“I was but one man, and they were twelve,” he concluded. “Twelve of the finest warriors in the world, even the warriors of the People of the Spider. Yet they could not harm me, see you, Great Great One. They could not prevail against the man who held who wore the Sign of the Spider.”

Now an emphatic hum arose on the part of all who heard and indeed there had been a silence that might be felt while he had been narrating his tale. More than ever was Laurence convinced that in deciding to tell it he had acted with sound judgment. He had little or nothing to fear from the vengeance of the relatives of those he had slain for he had seen enough of these people to guess that they did not bear a grudge over the fortunes of war over losses sustained in fair and open fight. And, on the other hand, he had immensely strengthened his own case.

“Yet, you made common cause with these foul and noisome Izimu," said the king, shifting somewhat his ground. “These carrion dogs, who devour one another, even their own flesh and blood?”

“I but spared one of their villages, O Great North Wind. For the rest, how many have I left standing?”

“That is so,” said Tyisandhlu, still gazing fixedly at his prisoner. Then he signed the latter to retire among the warriors, and, turning, gave a few rapid directions in a low voice to an attendant.

In the result, a group of armed warriors was seen hurrying forward, and in its midst a man, unarmed a man ragged and covered with dried blood, and with his arms ignominiously bound behind him. And wild amazement was in store for Laurence. He had reckoned himself the sole survivor of the massacre. Yet now in this helpless and ill-treated prisoner he recognized no less a personage than Lutali.

His body and limbs slashed with many spear-wounds his clothing cut to ribbons his half-starved and filthy aspect as he was hustled forward into the king’s presence, the Arab would have looked a pitiable object enough but for one thing. The dignity begotten of high descent and indomitable courage never left him not for one moment. Weak as he was with loss of blood and the pain of his untended and mortifying wounds the glance of his eyes, no less than the set of his keen, hawk-like face, was as proud, as fearless, as that of the king himself.

“Down, dog!” growled the guards, flinging him forward on his face. “Lick the earth at the feet of the Great North Wind, whose blast kills!”

But immediately Lutali staggered to his feet, and the hell blast of hate and fury which shone from his eyes was perfectly demoniacal.

“There is but one God, and Mohammed is the prophet of God!” he roared. “Am I to prostrate myself before an infidel dog the chief dog of a pack of dogs? This for the scum!” And he spat full towards Tyisandhlu.

An indescribable shiver of awe ran through the dense and serried ranks of armed warriors, followed by a terrible tumult.

Au! he is mad!” cried some; while others clamoured, “Give him to us, Great Great One. We will put him to the fiery death!”

But the king returned no word. It is even possible that his own intrepid soul was moved to admiration by the sublime courage of this man his prisoner, bound, helpless, weakened standing thus before him before him at whose frown men trembled face to face, and thus defying him. One other who beheld it, the sight must have powerfully moved, for with a lull in the tumult a voice rose clear and distinct:

“Spare him, O Great Great One, for he is a brave man.”

If anyone had told Laurence Stanninghame but an hour earlier that he was about to commit so rash and suicidal an act as to beg the life of another at the hands of a grossly insulted despot, and in the face of an enraged nation, he would have scouted the idea as too weakly idiotic for words. Yet, in fact, he had just committed that very act. Deep and savage were the resentful growls that greeted his words. “Au! he presumes! He shares in the insult offered to the majesty of the king,” were some of the ominous mutterings that went forth.

The king merely glanced in the direction of the speaker, and said nothing. But Lutali, becoming aware for the first time of the presence of his former confederate, turned towards the latter.

“Ask not my life at the hands of these dogs, these unclean swine, Afa,” he cried; “lo, Paradise awaits to receive the believer. I hasten to it; I enter it;” and he threw back his head fearlessly, while his eyes shone with a fanatical glare.

“Spare him, O king, for he is a brave man,” urged Laurence again.

“And so art thou, I think,” replied Tyisandhlu, turning a somewhat haughty stare upon the speaker. Then he muttered, “Yet not this one.”

An interruption occurred; gruesome, grotesque. A number of figures, seeming to spring from no one knew where, were seen gliding forward. They were coal black from head to foot, and their faces were more like masks than the human countenance, being bedaubed with some pigment that gave each of them the aspect of possessing two huge goggle eyes. But these horrible beings seemed at first sight to have no arms and no legs, their whole anatomy being encased in a sort of black, hairy sacking, whence tails and streamers, also hairy, flapped in the air as they moved. Hideous, indeed, they looked, hideous and grotesque, half reptile, half devil.

They surrounded Lutali all in dead silence, the guards precipitately falling back to give them way. Then the king spoke, and his words were gentle and mocking:

“Go now to thy Paradise, O believer; these will show thee the way. Hamba-gahle!

He waved his hand, and, in obedience to the signal, the whole group of black horrors fastened upon the Arab and dragged him away. And from all who beheld there went up a deep, chest note of exclamation that was part satisfaction, part awe.

The king, having received further reports and attended to other business connected with the army, withdrew. Laurence, watching the stately personality of this splendid savage retiring amid the groups of indunas towards the gate of the great kraal, felt his ever-present conjectures as to his own fate merge in a vivid sense of interest. But Tyisandhlu seemed to have forgotten his existence, for he bestowed no further word upon him; however, he was taken charge of by Ngumunye, who assigned him a large hut within the royal kraal.