BEFORE THE STATUE
It was night -- dead night -- and the silence lay on the
Frowning City like a cloud.
Secretly, as evildoers, Sir Henry Curtis, Umslopogaas,
and myself threaded our way through the passages towards a by-entrance to
the great Throne Chamber. Once we were met by the fierce rattling
challenge of the sentry. I gave the countersign, and the man grounded his
spear and let us pass. Also we were officers of the Queens' bodyguard, and
in that capacity had a right to come and go unquestioned.
We gained the hall in safety. So empty and so still was
it, that even when we had passed the sound of our footsteps yet echoed up
the lofty walls, vibrating faintly and still more faintly against the
carven roof, like ghosts of the footsteps of dead men haunting the place
that once they trod.
It was an eerie spot, and it oppressed me. The moon was
full, and threw great pencils and patches of light through the high
windowless openings in the walls, that lay pure and beautiful upon the
blackness of the marble floor, like white flowers on a coffin. One of
these silver arrows fell upon the statue of the sleeping Rademas, and of
the angel form bent over him, illumining it, and a small circle round it,
with a soft clear light, reminding me of that with which Catholics illumine
the altars of their cathedrals.
Here by the statue we took our stand, and waited. Sir
Henry and I close together, Umslopogaas some paces off in the darkness, so
that I could only just make out his towering outline leaning on the outline
of an axe.
So long did we wait that I almost fell asleep resting
against the cold marble, but was suddenly aroused by hearing Curtis give a
quick catching breath. Then from far away there came a little sound as
though the statues that lined the walls were whispering to each other some
message of the ages.
It was the faint sweep of a lady's dress. Nearer it
grew, and nearer yet. We could see a figure steal from patch to patch of
moonlight, and even hear the soft fall of sandalled feet. Another second
and I saw the black silhouette of the old Zulu raise its arm in mute
salute, and Nyleptha was before us.
Oh, how beautiful she looked as she paused a moment just
within the circle of the moonlight! Her hand was pressed upon her heart,
and her white bosom heaved beneath it. Round her head a broidered scarf
was loosely thrown, partially shadowing the perfect face, and thus
rendering it even more lovely; for beauty, dependent as it is to a certain
extent upon the imagination, is never so beautiful as when it is half hid.
There she stood radiant but half doubting, stately and yet so sweet. It
was but a moment, but I then and there fell in love with her myself, and
have remained so to this hour; for, indeed, she looked more like an angel
out of heaven than a loving, passionate, mortal woman. Low we bowed before
her, and then she spoke.
'I have come,' she whispered, 'but it was at great risk.
Ye know not how I am watched. The priests watch me. Sorais watches me
with those great eyes of hers. My very guards are spies upon me. Nasta
watches me too. Oh, let him be careful!' and she stamped her foot. 'Let
him be careful; I am a woman, and therefore hard to drive. Ay, and I am a
Queen, too, and can still avenge. Let him be careful, I say, lest in place
of giving him my hand I take his head,' and she ended the outburst with a
little sob, and then smiled up at us bewitchingly and laughed.
'Thou didst bid me come hither, my Lord Incubu' (Curtis
had taught her to call him so). 'Doubtless it is about business of the
State, for I know that thou art ever full of great ideas and plans for my
welfare and my people's. So even as a Queen should I have come, though I
greatly fear the dark alone,' and again she laughed and gave him a glance
from her grey eyes.
At this point I thought it wise to move a little, since
secrets 'of the State' should not be made public property; but she would
not let me go far, peremptorily stopping me within five yards or so, saying
that she feared surprise. So it came to pass that, however unwillingly, I
heard all that passed.
'Thou knowest, Nyleptha,' said Sir Henry, 'that it was
for none of these things that I asked thee to meet me at this lonely place.
Nyleptha, waste not the time in pleasantry, but listen to me, for -- I love
As he said the words I saw her face break up, as it
were, and change. The coquetry went out of it, and in its place there
shone a great light of love which seemed to glorify it, and make it like
that of the marble angel overhead. I could not help thinking that it must
have been a touch of prophetic instinct which made the long dead Rademas
limn, in the features of the angel of his inspiring vision, so strange a
likeness of his own descendant. Sir Henry, also, must have observed and
been struck by the likeness, for, catching the look upon Nyleptha's face,
he glanced quickly from it to the moonlit statue, and then back again at
'Thou sayest thou dost love me,' she said in a low
voice, 'and thy voice rings true, but how am I to know that thou dost speak
'Though,' she went on with proud humility, and in the
stately third person which is so largely used by the Zu-Vendi, 'I be as
nothing in the eyes of my lord,' and she curtseyed towards him, 'who comes
from among a wonderful people, to whom my people are but children, yet here
am I a queen and a leader of men, and if I would go to battle a hundred
thousand spears shall sparkle in my train like stars glimmering down the
path of the bent moon. And although my beauty be a little thing in the eyes
of my lord,' and she lifted her broidered skirt and curtseyed again, 'yet
here among my own people am I held right fair, and ever since I was a woman
the great lords of my kingdom have made quarrel concerning me, as though
forsooth,' she added with a flash of passion, 'I were a deer to be pulled
down by the hungriest wolf, or a horse to be sold to the highest bidder.
Let my lord pardon me if I weary my lord, but it hath pleased my lord to
say that he loves me, Nyleptha, a Queen of the Zu-Vendi, and therefore
would I say that though my love and my hand be not much to my lord, yet to
me are they all.'
'Oh!' she cried, with a sudden and thrilling change of
voice, and modifying her dignified mode of address. 'Oh, how can I know
that thou lovest but me? How can I know that thou wilt not weary of me and
seek thine own place again, leaving me desolate? Who is there to tell me
but that thou lovest some other woman, some fair woman unknown to me, but
who yet draws breath beneath this same moon that shines on me tonight?
Tell me how am I to know?' And she clasped her hands and stretched
them out towards him and looked appealingly into his face.
'Nyleptha,' answered Sir Henry, adopting the Zu-Vendi
way of speech; 'I have told thee that I love thee; how am I to tell thee
how much I love thee? Is there then a measure for love? Yet will I try. I
say not that I have never looked upon another woman with favour, but this I
say that I love thee with all my life and with all my strength; that I love
thee now and shall love thee till I grow cold in death, ay, and as I
believe beyond my death, and on and on for ever: I say that thy voice is
music to my ear, and thy touch as water to a thirsty land, that when thou
art there the world is beautiful, and when I see thee not it is as though
the light was dead. Oh, Nyleptha, I will never leave thee; here and now
for thy dear sake I will forget my people and my father's house, yea, I
renounce them all. By thy side will I live, Nyleptha, and at thy side will
He paused and gazed at her earnestly, but she hung her
head like a lily, and said never a word.
'Look!' he went on, pointing to the statue on which the
moonlight played so brightly. 'Thou seest that angel woman who rests her
hand upon the forehead of the sleeping man, and thou seest how at her touch
his soul flames up and shines out through his flesh, even as a lamp at the
touch of the fire, so is it with me and thee, Nyleptha. Thou hast awakened
my soul and called it forth, and now, Nyleptha, it is not mine, not mine,
but thine and thine only. There is no more for me to say; in thy
hands is my life.' And he leaned back against the pedestal of the statue,
looking very pale, and his eyes shining, but proud and handsome as a
Slowly, slowly she raised her head, and fixed her
wonderful eyes, all alight with the greatness of her passion, full upon his
face, as though to read his very soul. Then at last she spoke, low indeed,
but clearly as a silver bell.
'Of a truth, weak woman that I am, I do believe thee.
Ill will be the day for thee and for me also if it be my fate to learn that
I have believed a lie. And now hearken to me, oh man, who hath wandered
here from far to steal my heart and make me all thine own. I put my hand
upon thy hand thus, and thus I, whose lips have never kissed before, do
kiss thee on the brow; and now by my hand and by that first and holy kiss,
ay, by my people's weal and by my throne that like enough I shall lose for
thee -- by the name of my high House, by the sacred Stone and by the
eternal majesty of the Sun, I swear that for thee will I live and die. And
I swear that I will love thee and thee only till death, ay, and beyond, if
as thou sayest there be a beyond, and that thy will shall be my will, and
thy ways my ways.
'Oh see, see, my lord! thou knowest not how humble is
she who loves; I, who am a Queen, I kneel before thee, even at thy feet I
do my homage;' and the lovely impassioned creature flung herself down on
her knees on the cold marble before him. And after that I really do not
know, for I could stand it no longer, and cleared off to refresh myself
with a little of old Umslopogaas' society, leaving them to settle it their
own way, and a very long time they were about it.
I found the old warrior leaning on Inkosi-kaas as usual,
and surveying the scene in the patch of moonlight with a grim smile of
'Ah, Macumazahn,' he said, 'I suppose it is because I am
getting old, but I don't think that I shall ever learn to understand the
ways of you white people. Look there now, I pray thee, they are a pretty
pair of doves, but what is all the fuss about, Macumazahn? He wants a wife,
and she wants a husband, then why does he not pay his cows down
like a man and have done with it? It would
save a deal of trouble, and we should have had our night's sleep. But
there they go, talk, talk, talk, and kiss, kiss, kiss, like mad things.
Some three-quarters of an hour afterwards the 'pair of
doves' came strolling towards us, Curtis looking slightly silly, and
Nyleptha remarking calmly that the moonlight made very pretty effects on
the marble. Then, for she was in a most gracious mood, she took my hand
and said that I was 'her Lord's' dear friend, and therefore most dear to
her -- not a word for my own sake, you see. Next she lifted Umslopogaas'
axe, and examined it curiously, saying significantly as she did so that he
might soon have cause to use it in defence of her.
After that she nodded prettily to us all, and casting a
tender glance at her lover, glided off into the darkness like a beautiful
When we got back to our quarters, which we did without
accident, Curtis asked me jocularly what I was thinking about.
'I am wondering,' I answered, 'on what principle it is
arranged that some people should find beautiful queens to fall in love with
them, while others find nobody at all, or worse than nobody; and I am also
wondering how many brave men's lives this night's work will cost.' It was
rather nasty of me, perhaps, but somehow all the feelings do not evaporate
with age, and I could not help being a little jealous of my old friend's
luck. Vanity, my sons; vanity of vanities!
On the following morning, Good was informed of the happy
occurrence, and positively rippled with smiles that, originating somewhere
about the mouth, slowly travelled up his face like the rings in a duckpond,
till they flowed over the brim of his eyeglass and went where sweet smiles
go. The fact of the matter, however, was that not only was Good rejoiced
about the thing on its own merits but also for personal reasons. He adored
Sorais quite as earnestly as Sir Henry adored Nyleptha, and his adoration
had not altogether prospered. Indeed, it had seemed to him and to me also
that the dark Cleopatra-like queen favoured Curtis in her own curious
inscrutable way much more than Good. Therefore it was a relief to him to
learn that his unconscious rival was permanently and satisfactorily
attached in another direction. His face fell a little, however, when he was
told that the whole thing was to be kept as secret as the dead, above all
from Sorais for the present, inasmuch as the political convulsion which
would follow such an announcement at the moment would be altogether too
great to face and would very possibly, if prematurely made, shake Nyleptha
from her throne.
That morning we again attended in the Throne Hall, and I
could not help smiling to myself when I compared the visit to our last, and
reflecting that, if walls could speak, they would have strange tales to
What actresses women are! There, high upon her golden
throne, draped in her blazoned 'kaf' or robe of state, sat the fair
Nyleptha, and when Sir Henry came in a little late, dressed in the full
uniform of an officer of her guard and humbly bent himself before her, she
merely acknowledged his salute with a careless nod and turned her head
coldly aside. It was a very large Court, for not only did the signing of
the laws attract many outside of those whose duty it was to attend, but
also the rumour that Nasta was going to publicly ask the hand of Nyleptha
in marriage had gone abroad, with the result that the great hall was
crowded to its utmost capacity. There were our friends the priests in
force, headed by Agon, who regarded us with a vindictive eye; and a most
imposing band they were, with their long white embroidered robes girt with
a golden chain from which hung the fish-like scales. There, too, were a
number of the lords, each with a band of brilliantly attired attendants,
and prominent among them was Nasta, stroking his black beard meditatively
and looking unusually pleasant. It was a splendid and impressive sight,
especially when the officer after having read out each law handed them to
the Queens to sign, whereon the trumpets blared out and the Queens' guard
grounded their spears with a crash in salute. This reading and signing of
the laws took a long time, but at length it came to an end, the last one
reciting that 'whereas distinguished strangers, etc.', and proceeding to
confer on the three of us the rank of 'lords', together with certain
military commands and large estates bestowed by the Queen. When it was
read the trumpets blared and the spears clashed down as usual, but I saw
some of the lords turn and whisper to each other, while Nasta ground his
teeth. They did not like the favour that was shown to us, which under all
the circumstances was not perhaps unnatural.
Then there came a pause, and Nasta stepped forward and
bowing humbly, though with no humility in his eye, craved a boon at the
hands of the Queen Nyleptha.
Nyleptha turned a little pale, but bowed graciously, and
prayed the 'well-beloved lord' to speak on, whereon in a few
straightforward soldier-like words he asked her hand in marriage.
Then, before she could find words to answer, the High
Priest Agon took up the tale, and in a speech of real eloquence and power
pointed out the many advantages of the proposed alliance; how it would
consolidate the kingdom, for Nasta's dominions, of which he was virtually
king, were to Zu-Vendis much what Scotland used to be to England; how it
would gratify the wild mountaineers and be popular among the soldiery, for
Nasta was a famous general; how it would set her dynasty firmly on the
throne, and would gain the blessing and approval of the 'Sun', i.e. of the
office of the High Priest, and so on. Many of his arguments were
undoubtedly valid, and there was, looking at it from a political point of
view, everything to be said for the marriage. But unfortunately it is
difficult to play the game of politics with the persons of young and lovely
queens as though they were ivory effigies of themselves on a chessboard.
Nyleptha's face, while Agon spouted away, was a perfect study; she smiled
indeed, but beneath the smile it set like a stone, and her eyes began to
At last he stopped, and she prepared herself to answer.
Before she did so, however, Sorais leant towards her and said in a voice
sufficiently loud for me to catch what she said, 'Bethink thee well, my
sister, ere thou dost speak, for methinks that our thrones may hang upon
Nyleptha made no answer, and with a shrug and a smile
Sorais leant back again and listened.
'Of a truth a great honour has been done to me,' she
said, 'that my poor hand should not only have been asked in marriage, but
that Agon here should be so swift to pronounce the blessing of the Sun upon
my union. Methinks that in another minute he would have wed us fast ere
the bride had said her say. Nasta, I thank thee, and I will bethink me of
thy words, but now as yet I have no mind for marriage, that is a cup of
which none know the taste until they begin to drink it. Again I thank
thee, Nasta,' and she made as though she would rise.
The great lord's face turned almost as black as his
beard with fury, for he knew that the words amounted to a final refusal of
'Thanks be to the Queen for her gracious words,' he
said, restraining himself with difficulty and looking anything but
grateful, 'my heart shall surely treasure them. And now I crave another
boon, namely, the royal leave to withdraw myself to my own poor cities in
the north till such time as the Queen shall say my suit nay or yea.
Mayhap,' he added, with a sneer, 'the Queen will be pleased to visit me
there, and to bring with her these stranger lords,' and he scowled darkly
towards us. 'It is but a poor country and a rough, but we are a hardy race
of mountaineers, and there shall be gathered thirty thousand swordsmen to
shout a welcome to her.'
This speech, which was almost a declaration of
rebellion, was received in complete silence, but Nyleptha flushed up and
answered it with spirit.
'Oh, surely, Nasta, I will come, and the strange lords
in my train, and for every man of thy mountaineers who calls thee Prince,
will I bring two from the lowlands who call me Queen, and we will see which
is the staunchest breed. Till then farewell.'
The trumpets blared out, the Queens rose, and the great
assembly broke up in murmuring confusion, and for myself I went home with a
heavy heart foreseeing civil war.
After this there was quiet for a few weeks. Curtis and
the Queen did not often meet, and exercised the utmost caution not to allow
the true relation in which they stood to each other to leak out; but do
what they would, rumours as hard to trace as a buzzing fly in a dark room,
and yet quite as audible, began to hum round and round, and at last to
settle on her throne.