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The Drink of the Dead by Frederick Cornell


This tale was told me over a camp-fire in lonely Bushmanland.

A wild and desolate land it is, but little known except to the occasional nomad “trek-boer,” who in the seasons when rain has made it possible wanders from water-hole to water-hole with his scanty flocks and herds; or to the mounted trooper on his long and lonely patrol; or the even more infrequent prospector in his search for the mineral wealth that abounds in the district, but which scarcity of water and cost of transport have so far rendered useless. A land with a character all its own of wide stretches of low grey bush, intermingled with the vivid-green patches of luxuriant “melkbosch,” giving deceptive promise of non-existent moisture; of level plains, gay with brilliant flowers, from which long humped ranges of granite rise in serried lines.

A common necessity had drawn two of us white men to a distant and isolated water-hole, which to our dismay we had found dry and empty. Neither of us knew of other water within twelve hours' trek, our beasts were tired, and it was a great relief when Karelse, my Hottentot driver, declared he knew of good water only about four hours away. I wondered I had never heard of it before, but Karelse, who knew every inch of the country, was confident that though he had never been to the spot we should find plenty of water there; and, sure enough, nightfall brought us to the place, and there was water in abundance. Here we shared coffee and biltong, and afterwards sat smoking and yarning by the cheerful blaze of the dry fire-bush.

The night was wild and stormy, and a cold wind blew in sharp gusts round the fantastic pile of rocks that rose abruptly from the small deep pool of black-looking water, sending the sparks swirling upwards and causing the flames to leap fiercely, whilst the flicker of the fire shone on the glittering “baviaan-spel” of the rocks, and the black shadows danced to the whistle of the wind.

Overhead the sky seemed charged with rain the heavy, hurrying clouds lowered and trailed and seemed as though at any moment they might launch a deluge upon the parched and yearning veldt; but the promise was ever an empty one, for not a drop fell, and the rain-charged phalanxes sped onward and ever onward, to shed their precious burthen upon distant and more-favored fields. . . .

Jason I had met before. Like myself he was a prospector, and had known many lands. He was a reserved, reliable man, who possessed a habit of silence rare amongst men of our fraternity. Our talk had been of Brazil, where we had both spent many years of our youth, and almost unconsciously we had fallen into Portuguese a language we both spoke fluently.

It was then that the Other Man appeared. Suddenly, silently, and alone he stepped from among the flickering shadows of the rocks, so abruptly as to cause both Jason and I to start up with an exclamation. By the uncertain light of the fire he appeared to be an elderly man of medium size, swarthy, weather-beaten, and bearded to the eyes. He strode to the fire, extended a limp, cold hand to Jason and I in turn with an almost inaudible greeting, and crouched down by the dying blaze, his dark eyes bent upon the glowing embers. Naturally expecting him to be Dutch, both Jason and I had greeted him in the usual manner by giving our own names in self-introduction. He had made no reply; but though our hearth was but a campfire in a wild country, we felt that whoever he was he was in a measure our guest, and therefore we made no immediate attempt to find out who or what he was. Still he did not speak. He put aside our proffered coffee, gently but without a word, and sat glowering and gazing into the fire.

At last Jason spoke to him direct first in Dutch, and, getting no reply, in English.

“Come far?” he queried.

There was no sign that the man had heard. Jason looked at me with a lift of the eyebrow. Then I tried.

“Farming?” I asked.

No answer.


Still no answer.

“Man's dumb!” grunted Jason.

But he was muttering now. Gradually his words became clearer, and to our amazement he was speaking Portuguese!

“Pesquisadores pesquisadores,” he murmured, “como nos outras dos tempos antigos.” (Prospectors searchers for wealth, like we others of the olden days.) ”... Searching for that which is not yours, but mine, mine by every right. . . . But you will never find it or if you do your bones will lie beside those others beneath the black water, where the dead drink . . .!”

His mutterings became again inarticulate. I looked at Jason. He sat staring open-mouthed at our strange visitor. For my own part I confess I was puzzled and somewhat startled. Jason's eyes left the stranger abruptly, and met my own, and mutually and silently our lips framed the word “Mad!” Yes, surely he must be mad, this strange man who spoke of the “ancient days” in a tongue rarely heard in this part of Africa; but what was he doing here, here, alone, in this desolate spot, full fifty miles from human habitation.

And as we looked at each other in doubt and hesitation the stranger began again to speak, first in broken, disconnected sentences. But gradually the strange, far-away tone like that of a man talking in his sleep became clearer and more connected, and soon Jason and I were gazing at him as though spellbound, and drinking in every word of the queer archaic-sounding Portuguese in which he told his weird story fragment, delirium, wanderings of a madman, call it what you will.

“... There were Bushmen, then wild dwarf men who shot with poisoned arrows, and had seen no white man before . . . .

“Alvaro Nunes had still five charges for his arquebus, and I as many for my hand petronel. . . . When they heard the thunder of the powder they cast aside their weapons and crawled to us on their knees, taking us for gods. . . . And bearing in mind all that the shipwrecked Castilian we had found at Cabo Tormentoso had told us of the mine of precious stones, we hastened to propitiate them in every way. . . . The gauds we had brought, gay beads, bright kerchiefs, and the like with these we won our way to their goodwill. They hunted for us; of buck and of wild game they brought us abundance; but though months passed we were no nearer that which we sought the mine of bright stones such as the Spanisher had shown us and the whereabouts of which these strange black, dwarfish people alone knew. Never could we master their strange tongue like to the creaking and rustling of dry bones upon a gibbet more than the speech of humans and time and patience alone showed us a way. Their man of magic held great power over them. He was of another race, of our own stature, and with a yellow skin. He had another tongue than these dwarf men of the bush, and this Alvaro and I learnt when his suspicion of us gave way and he found that we wished not to alienate the tribe from his authority. . . . For the Spanisher had said: 'Their magician, because of his black magic, he alone hath the secret of the mine of stones like unto those of Golconda.' . . . Little did we fear his magic we who feared nothing in heaven or earth or in the waters beneath Alvaro and I, old freebooters of the Spanish Main; but they others Luiz Fonseca, Jose Albuquerque, and Antonio Mendez brave men, but ignorant shipmen, they were fearful of the witch-doctor and his black art.

“Then when N'buqu, the witch, had heard all of the wonders of our land across the great water, he would fain plot to come with us and see all these wondrous things of which we spake. And cunningly Alvaro led him on day by day until he was all impatient to leave this tribe of dwarfs, who were not even his own kinsmen. Then when all was ripe he told him that with us there were no wild lands full of buck for those who cared to shoot them, that our wealth was in red gold and shining stones! And at long last he showed the stone taken from the Spanisher at the Cape of Storms. . . .

“At night when the moon was full N'buqu took us to the black water-pit lying deep and dark at the foot of the rocky hill. Ten fathoms deep was it and full to the brim with icy water. Many times had we drank from it, for though all around the land lay parched in the torrid heat the black water-pit was always full to the brim. . . .

“But what magic was this? Here was no water, but a yawning shaft gaped black and dismal where the pool had been. The shipmen shrank back in dismay. 'Here is magic!' they muttered fearfully, crossing themselves. N'buqu laughed. He also had learnt something of our tongue, and understood. 'No magic is here,' said he, ''tis but a spring from yonder hill that fills this pool, and it needs but to turn the stream aside and the water will all drain away. Later I will show!'

“From a fire-stick he had brought he lit a torch of dry wood. By its glare we saw that a hide ladder dangled from an overhanging rock into the deep pit. Down it N'buqu led the way, followed by us all in turn the shipmen with many muttered prayers and misgivings. . . . Slimy and dank was the fearsome place, but the bottom was firm and rocky, and from it there branched a cavern wide enough for us all to walk abreast. Gently it led upward . . . and then we stood in a broader cavern, where the light from the torch in every direction flashed back from a myriad dazzling points: ceiling, walls, every rock protuberance, even the very floor gleamed and scintillated till the whole place blazed as though on fire. N'buqu thrust the torch into Alvaro's hand. 'Look!' he cried, and smote with a spear he carried at the wall of the cavern. At the light blow a handful of the flashing points fell to the floor. We picked them up. They were the 'bright stones' of the Spanisher they were diamonds! Here was wealth beyond conception wealth beside which the fabled Golconda would be as nought, wealth untold for us all. But on the floor among the flashing gems there lay many white bones the bones of dead men. . . . Wealth, vast wealth for us all, and yet we quarreled there as to the division of the stones, and as to how we were to get them away. 'Get all we can at once and flee this very night!' urged the shipmen. 'And die of thirst in the desert places!' said Alvaro for it was the season of drought! 'Stay only until we can fill our water-skins,' they counseled. But Alvaro and myself we were wiser.

“N'buqu his must be the plan. He knew the best paths back to the Cape of Tempests, he knew the water-holes; we must be guided by his counsel. And we forced them to listen. Yes, he had a plan. Three nights hence we must flee. He would have water ready in skins. Meanwhile each night he would divert the water, and we must descend and collect the stones so that we should have enough for all. At night the tribe believed that the spirits of the dead came to the black water to drink, and always avoided the spot. . . . And by the light of the flickering torch we broke down showers of the glittering stones from the soft blue rock in which they were embedded till our pouches were full and the torch had burned out. Then we stumbled and groped our way over slime and bones till we came to the shaft, and one by one we climbed up and out into the fair white moonlight. . . .

“Fools! fools! The shipmen quarreled over the stones the first day. Alvaro lent them dice and they gambled with each other for their new-found wealth. And as Alvaro wished, they quarreled; and Albuquerque and Fonseca drew steel upon each other, and there in the sunshine stabbed each other to death. 'The more for us,' said Alvaro, and we divided the stones they fought for.

“That night we four went again to the black water. Once more we loaded our pouches and climbed out one by one. I the first, for I was faint with the air of the cavern. Then came N'buqu. But Alvaro came not, nor Mendez the shipman. Impatiently I shook the ladder: it was near dawn. Then at length came Alvaro. He was ghastly in the moonlight. And at the top he began to pull up the ladder he had climbed by. 'But Mendez?' I muttered. He answered not, but still hauled the hide rope. Then I seized him by the shoulder and looked in his face. There was blood upon him. 'He struck me from behind,' he said; 'my vest of mail saved me; he is dead. The more for us!' I liked not Alvaro's face, and looked to my dagger lest to-morrow he should say 'The more for me.' . . .

“That third night Alvaro and I for the last time descended the black shaft. Well watched we each the other. He had both dagger and arquebus, and I my hand petronel and dagger too. N'buqu came not down with us, feigning that he must prepare all things that we might flee as soon as we had loaded our pouches for the last time. . . . There he left us in the black shaft my life-long comrade and I; and by reason of the lust of wealth that came upon me and because of the fear of that which I saw in Alvaro's eye I struck him unawares as he knelt for the last gem. Deep behind the neck my dagger drank his blood. His vest of mail did not save him from me! ... And turning to flee hastily with all the stones, I found the ladder drawn up and N'buqu laughing at me from above. “'Ho! ho! white man, white wizard!' he called. 'Ye who would show me the wondrous things of thine own land. How fares it with ye now? Surely thou hast enough of the bright stones now thy dead comrade's share and all he had taken; thou hast them all! Handle them, gaze on them, eat of them, drink of them; for of a surety naught else will there be for thee to eat and drink! Ho! ho! surely the black man's magic is vain against the wisdom of the white!'

“And thus he taunted me, whilst vainly I strove by means of my dagger to cut footholds in the slimy walls of the shaft and thus climb to freedom. But the holes crumbled as soon as my weight bore on them, and after falling again and again I desisted in despair. . . . And ever the yellow fiend above taunted me, and it was abundantly clear that he had but feigned to fall in with our scheme the more fully to encompass our destruction. . . . Dawn found me raving in terror of my coming fate alone with the bodies of the friend whom I had slain and the shipman who had been by him slain. Terror had helped to parch my tongue with thirst, and both shaft and cavern, though moist, were drained too dry to afford one mouthful of the precious fluid. Yet though longing for water I knew well that when N'buqu should choose again to direct the stream I should drown like any rat. The day passed. I heard the frightened mutterings of the dwarf men as they crowded round the mouth of the shaft seeking the black water that had vanished; but at my first hoarse shout they fled, yelling in alarm. Day turned to night, and I had become as one dead. The ghosts of dead Alvaro and Mendez and a thousand others crowded round me, gibing, and mouthing, and seeking too for the black water. Again day, and again night came and went. Still the water I longed for and yet feared came not. I suffered the tortures of the damned, and fain would I have scattered my throbbing brains with that last charge of my hand petronel; but ever as I raised it dead Alvaro caught my hand in an icy grip and I could not die. . . .

“Then again I heard N'buqu, and with him certain men of the dwarfs he ruled. And in their whistling, creaking tongue I heard him hold forth: 'Lo! ye who doubted me, thus do I show my power. These other white gods that came from afar, ye thought them stronger than I, yet have I caused their utter destruction. But because of the little faith ye had in me, and as a sign of my power and displeasure, have I also caused the spirits that dwell in the black pool to take away the water that is life to ye all!'

“Then I heard them moaning and begging for the water, and the voice of the witch-doctor ordering them to lie flat on their faces and look not up whilst he forced the spirits to bring back that which they had taken. Then he called to me in my own tongue loudly: 'Ho! thou white god! eat thou thy fill of the bright stones; of water thou shalt soon drink plenty!' And I knew that he would soon move that rock whereby the water could be diverted back to the pit. But even as he gibed at me, leaning over the brink, dead Alvaro's ice-cold hand guided my petronel till it covered the black fiend's body, and the iron ball struck full and true below his throat. Down at my feet hurtled the body, and at the report I could hear the dwarfs shriek and fly away from the spot in fear.

“Not dead, but dying was he, for his magic was naught against the weapons of the white man. Yet magic had he, and as he died so did he curse me and cast over me a spell of terror: 'Thou shalt guard well thy bright stones, oh, slayer of thy friend!' he shrieked. 'Water shalt thou have, and yet shall never quench thine awful thirst; hunger shall consume thee and thou shalt not eat; thou shalt long for death, yet shalt thou not die!' And cursing thus he died; and his ghost joined the band of weird watchers in the cavern of bright stones. . . .

“And the tribe of dwarfs one by one died of thirst, for it was a year of fearful heat, and they knew of no other water. Day by day they came shrieking and praying to the spirits of the black shaft to give them back the water. Day by day they flung living men into the pit as sacrifice to join the spirits below, till all, all were dead. Yet could I not die! . . .

“Over their bleached bones the black water again runs. Below, guarded by the dread watchers, lie the bright stones. Seek not the spot, ye white men who speak the old tongue, lest ye too watch for ever; for the place is accursed! . . .”

The strange narration ended as it began, not abruptly, but in indistinct mutterings.

Half fascinated, Jason and I had followed every word of the strange archaic Portuguese. The rhythmic sentences seemed to have had an almost hypnotic effect upon us, for neither of us afterwards remembered how and when we fell asleep.

I was awakened by Karelse shaking me. It was just break of day. I felt heavy, sleepy, and confused, and for a moment remembered nothing.

“Coffee, baas,” said the Hottentot; and as I sipped it I remembered. I looked round. Jason was sleeping like a log. Our strange visitor had gone. “Where is the other baas?” I inquired of Karelse. He stared at me, and then looked over at Jason. “No, no,” I said impatiently, “the old baas that came in the night?” Karelse's face was a study. He had evidently seen no one, though the boy's fire had been not twenty yards from our own. Had I dreamt the whole thing? I strode over and roused Jason. He woke with a startled exclamation. His first words assured me the old man had been there. “Damn that mad chap,” he said. “His horrible old yarn made me dream badly. Where is he?” Karelse stared from one to the other, his yellow face a queer ashen grey. He was plainly frightened. “Come,” said I to Jason, “let us go and have a sluice: there is water in plenty.” I led the way to the pool. It had been too dark for us to see it properly when we had arrived the evening before. We bent over the dark, clear water. Sheer and black the pit went down, and it was plainly of great depth. And from the brink the granite kopje rose abruptly. Jason and I looked at each other, then at Karelse.

“Karelse,” I asked, “have you ever been here before?”

“No, baas,” he faltered; “there is always plenty of good water here, they say, but the place has a bad name and no one comes here. They say it is haunted.”

“What do they call the place?” I asked.

“Dood Drenk,” he said “the Drink of the Dead!”