It’s evening here, just past sundown with a glow still on the western horizon. The first autumn chill is in the air; the trees will soon shed their leaves. It’s the kind of evening which reminds me of autumns long gone, of friends who have traveled ahead of me into the Great Mystery. I miss them but smile a bit as I remember them, and recall good times which are held in memory ever green.

I found a treasure a couple of weeks ago in a very unlikely place. It was early morning in the mountainside park where I work; I’d finished the early chores and was reading at a picnic table in front of my little museum. This time of year I move from history to literature; if I read another word about the American Civil War I’ll go insane.

It was quiet in the park; a few deer were grazing on the playground. I was reading H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines. Haggard was an excellent writer, but was hardly anyone’s idea of “deep”; he wrote good adventure yarns, books which now hover on the verge of being considered “literature” if for no other reason than the fact they’re still read over a century after they were written.

There, in the morning quiet, buried in the pages of Haggard, I found a treasure. I thought of it again tonight as I sat in the twilight and remembered those dear to me who have passed on.

I thought of Umbopa’s words and, nodding, I smiled…

It was evening when we pitched our camp, and the great ball of the sun was sinking into the desert, sending glorious rays of many-coloured light flying all over its vast expanse. Leaving Good to superintend the arrangement of our little camp, I took Sir Henry with me, and walking to the top of the slope opposite, we gazed across the desert. The air was very clear, and far, far away I could distinguish the faint blue outlines, here and there capped with white, of the Suliman Berg.

“There,” I said, “there is the wall round Solomon’s Mines, but God knows if we shall ever climb it.”

“My brother should be there, and if he is, I shall reach him somehow,” said Sir Henry, in that tone of quiet confidence which marked the man.

“I hope so,” I answered, and turned to go back to the camp, when I saw that we were not alone. Behind us, also gazing earnestly towards the far-off mountains, stood the great Kafir Umbopa.

The Zulu spoke when he saw that I had observed him, addressing Sir Henry, to whom he had attached himself.

“Is it to that land that thou wouldst journey, Incubu?” (a native word meaning, I believe, an elephant, and the name given to Sir Henry by the Kafirs), he said, pointing towards the mountain with his broad assegai.

I asked him sharply what he meant by addressing his master in that familiar way. It is very well for natives to have a name for one among themselves, but it is not decent that they should call a white man by their heathenish appellations to his face. The Zulu laughed a quiet little laugh which angered me.

“How dost thou know that I am not the equal of the Inkosi whom I serve?” he said. “He is of a royal house, no doubt; one can see it in his size and by his mien; so, mayhap, am I. At least, I am as great a man. Be my mouth, O Macumazahn, and say my words to the Inkoos Incubu, my master, for I would speak to him and to thee.”

I was angry with the man, for I am not accustomed to be talked to in that way by Kafirs, but somehow he impressed me, and besides I was curious to know what he had to say. So I translated, expressing my opinion at the same time that he was an impudent fellow, and that his swagger was outrageous.

“Yes, Umbopa,” answered Sir Henry, “I would journey there.”

“The desert is wide and there is no water in it, the mountains are high and covered with snow, and man cannot say what lies beyond them behind the place where the sun sets; how shalt thou come thither, Incubu, and wherefore dost thou go?”

I translated again.

“Tell him,” answered Sir Henry, “that I go because I believe that a man of my blood, my brother, has gone there before me, and I journey to seek him.”

“That is so, Incubu; a Hottentot I met on the road told me that a white man went out into the desert two years ago towards those mountains with one servant, a hunter. They never came back.”

“How do you know it was my brother?” asked Sir Henry.

“Nay, I know not. But the Hottentot, when I asked what the white man was like, said that he had thine eyes and a black beard. He said, too, that the name of the hunter with him was Jim; that he was a Bechuana hunter and wore clothes.”

“There is no doubt about it,” said I; “I knew Jim well.”

Sir Henry nodded. “I was sure of it,” he said. “If George set his mind upon a thing he generally did it. It was always so from his boyhood. If he meant to cross the Suliman Berg he has crossed it, unless some accident overtook him, and we must look for him on the other side.”

Umbopa understood English, though he rarely spoke it.

“It is a far journey, Incubu,” he put in, and I translated his remark.

“Yes,” answered Sir Henry, “it is far. But there is no journey upon this earth that a man may not make if he sets his heart to it. There is nothing, Umbopa, that he cannot do, there are no mountains he may not climb, there are no deserts he cannot cross, save a mountain and a desert of which you are spared the knowledge, if love leads him and he holds his life in his hands counting it as nothing, ready to keep it or lose it as Heaven above may order.”

I translated.

“Great words, my father,” answered the Zulu—I always called him a Zulu, though he was not really one—”great swelling words fit to fill the mouth of a man. Thou art right, my father Incubu. Listen! what is life? It is a feather, it is the seed of the grass, blown hither and thither, sometimes multiplying itself and dying in the act, sometimes carried away into the heavens. But if that seed be good and heavy it may perchance travel a little way on the road it wills. It is well to try and journey one’s road and to fight with the air. Man must die. At the worst he can but die a little sooner. I will go with thee across the desert and over the mountains, unless perchance I fall to the ground on the way, my father.”

He paused awhile, and then went on with one of those strange bursts of rhetorical eloquence that Zulus sometimes indulge in, which to my mind, full though they are of vain repetitions, show that the race is by no means devoid of poetic instinct and of intellectual power.

“What is life? Tell me, O white men, who are wise, who know the secrets of the world, and of the world of stars, and the world that lies above and around the stars; who flash your words from afar without a voice; tell me, white men, the secret of our life—whither it goes and whence it comes!

“You cannot answer me; you know not. Listen, I will answer. Out of the dark we came, into the dark we go. Like a storm-driven bird at night we fly out of the Nowhere; for a moment our wings are seen in the light of the fire, and, lo! we are gone again into the Nowhere. Life is nothing. Life is all. It is the Hand with which we hold off Death. It is the glow-worm that shines in the night-time and is black in the morning; it is the white breath of the oxen in winter; it is the little shadow that runs across the grass and loses itself at sunset.”

“You are a strange man,” said Sir Henry, when he had ceased.

Umbopa laughed. “It seems to me that we are much alike, Incubu. Perhaps I seek a brother over the mountains.”

H. Rider Haggard; Chapter V, King Solomon’s Mines.

A treasure, yes, in a most unlikely place.

As I sat this evening, enjoying the chill of an early autumn, I was again struck by the wisdom of Haggard’s words just as I’d been on that morning in the park. It is well to remember that we should enjoy our brief moment in the light of the fire, for our wings will carry us back to the darkness far too soon.

Steve

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