Chapter 16.

Queen Umnandi's Flight.

Sad was the gloom over Inzwinyani when the news spread that Umnandi, the brightest star in the social circles of the Matebele and pride of their King, had disappeared without leaving a trace. Only two women and a man (Nomenti, Nomsindo and Umpitimpiti) could throw some light on the mystery; but they did not dare open their lips for fear of being accused of her death. At least the two women knew that she had fled, but they also thought that the King was secretly aware of the cause of her flight. But Umpitimpiti, who had been sent to accuse her before the King, was not acquainted with the manner of her disappearance; and when he saw how genuine was the King's distress he felt it was only natural after he had taken the life of one so dear to him. But the strange thing was that no one seemed to have any evidence of the actual facts. Had any execution taken place, surely, thought he, there should have been some final incident or some last message from Umnandi to her people which scarcely could have been suppressed. Someone must surely have witnessed what happened at the execution of so popular a Queen, unless indeed she had been assassinated in her sleep; but by whom? Yes, by whom? He vainly sought for an answer to these questions, and although burning with curiosity, he could not venture to express his anxiety.

One day, the performance of his various duties took him to Nomenti's hut. He lingered about looking for a favourable opportunity, until, finding himself alone with her, he cautiously asked:

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“Mother, did you ever learn what became of Umnandi since the night you told me of her evil deeds?”

“Oh,” said Nomenti snappishly, “she was not the only sorceress put away that day. Did not the King order the execution of a whole company of witches — her companions in evil — so why should you single her out for special enquiry?”

“In that respect, mother, I am in good company,” ventured Umpitimpiti timorously. “No children ever sang a dirge over the slain sorcerers, as they did when the news of Umnandi's disappearance got about. None shouted a wail over them as they did over Umnandi; and the King is consulting nearly every diviner in the country to detect her whereabouts. Indeed no search parties ever issued out of Inzwinyani in such numbers as those sent to scour the woods and hills for his lost wife. Warriors have been threatened with death should they fail to return with her alive. Why should he grieve if he is acquainted with the circumstances of her disappearance?”

“Oh, Umpitimpiti,” said Nomenti, “are you going to ask me to probe the secrets of my lord, whose intentions are hidden as much as the acts of the gods? Cannot you reason for yourself? Would all these diviners and these search parties fail to locate her if my lord desired her return?”

Umpitimpiti remained unconvinced. He said, “I have heard of miracles like those of the mysterious devils who kill our boys on the pasturage, no one can tell how, but I doubt if they are half so startling as the circumstances surrounding Umnandi's death. It was strange enough that one so highly placed as she should become unfaithful.”

“Away with you, you madman,” ejaculated Nomenti in disgust. “What was noble in the actions of that witch?”

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“Perhaps it was natural,” Umpitimpiti proceeded, “in view of the accusation that she would be executed — not that I think the imputation was justified — but it is the subsequent behaviour of those connected with this case that baffles a man's imagination.”

Nomenti suddenly chipped in with the question: “By the way, Umpitimpiti, what did the King say to you that night when you brought him your report of her evil work?”

To this unexpected question Umpitimpiti knew not how to reply. He kept quiet for a time till Nomenti asked again, “What said my lord, Umpitimpiti?” Again there was silence and the lady, losing her temper cried, “Speak, fool! Don't you hear me?”

Umpitimpiti then hazarded this evasive remark, “I have always been wondering, mother, why you have never asked me that question before. I am surprised,” he continued gingerly, “that it should only come to-day — ten nights after the event. Your silence, too, adds to the mystery of the whole thing.”

“What did Mzilikazi say to you, Umpitimpiti?” repeated the lady impatiently. Her reference tot he King by name — (usually forbidden to Zulu wives) — so startled Umpitimpiti that he almost lost his reasoning powers, but after further hesitation he stammered, “I thought perhaps he might have told you himself before now.”

Nomenti, with an effort, just managing to control her fury, she asked again, “Umpitimpiti, do you hear my question or have you forgotten our tongue? Tell me, was the King angry, when you told him, or was he not?”

“Really, mother,” he said, “so many things have happened since then that I am trying to recollect what the King did say that night. But what may his word have been to you, mother?”

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Nomenti burst out, “Idiot, am I asking you or are you asking me?”

Umpitimpiti could not explain that he had been too frightened to deliver the dreadful message, and that he had left the King to find out things for himself; but, as much as he dreaded a charge of dereliction of duty, he also shuddered at the idea that, if the King were really sincere in his grief, it would go ill with him once it were known that for ten days he had held a clue to the mystery and never disclosed it. While Nomenti was boiling with indignation, visions of exaggerated possibilities passed swiftly through Umpitimpiti's mind. He imagined himself a grovelling figure in the presense of his infuriated king, convicted for his long and culpable silence. He tried hard to suppress these fancies, but they shook his mind and body from head to foot. Nomenti on her part, feeling insulted by his obstinacy, grew beside herself with rage; Umpitimpiti, on his part, had almost ceased to be conscious of her presence. He wished himself a hundred miles away. Not only were his knees shaking at the awful possibilities before him, but the frown on Nomenti's face did not ease his nerves in any way.

Suddenly Nomenti forgot her rage and Umpitimpiti suppressed his horrible fancies. The atmosphere was quickly changed, for their ears caught the voices of two men speaking outside the hut, who had stopped almost in front of the door.

This is what they heard: “Did the old people ever relate an occurrence of this kind were a wife vanished like the wind, leaving no trace behind her? The Queen could not have been carried away by a four-footed beast, for there is neither paw-mark nor blood trail to indicate the event. It cannot be a human being that

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ran off with her; or he too would have left some clues. Someone would have noticed a struggle or heard a scream. The only reasonable supposition, therefore, is that Queen Umnandi was caught by some flying creature that snatched her up without giving her time to cry for help.”

“And what might that be?” asked the second voice.

“Impudulu, thunder, lightning-bird or some aerial monster.”

“Did you ever hear of the lightning-bird doing anything of the kind in the early days?”

“In the early days they never related a case where a cloud of smoke caused someone to bleed to death almost a mile away.”

“I feel certain your surmise is correct. These goblins that have been killing our herd boys must have descended from the skies; and they must have had something to do with the abduction of Umnandi. After all, those spirits are sensible; they know a good woman when they see one, for the abducted the best wife in the kingdom.”

If Nomenti was convulsed with jealousy on hearing this complimentary reference to her missing rival, both listeners were soon to receive a thrill of terror as one of the speakers went on.

“I wish that whoever kidnapped this wife, be he man or beast, would bring her back before Mzilikazi lops off the heads of everyone of us. The King wants his wife back, and, not knowing where she is, he demands her from whoever has the misfortune to come across him. Now just think of poor Dlhadlhu.”

“What's the matter with Dlhadlhu?”

“It has leaked out that the poor man's Barolong maid disappeared mysteriously about the same time as the vanished Queen; and she too has not been heard of. Now

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the King is fuming with new rage. He wants to know why Dlhadlhu kept that information to himself until it was forced out of him too late. I would be very much surprised if Dlhadlhu is still alive by sunset,” concluded the speaker.

“Impossible!” ejaculated the other man. “Behold, here comes Umpitimpiti, the one man in this city who has the freedom of the royal harem. Sakubona,  1  Mpitimpiti.”

Umpitimpiti, who had just left Nomenti in the hut, returned the salute, making a supreme effort to appear calm.

“I hope,” continued the first speaker, “that there are no other wives missing, Umpitimpiti, for it seems that the disappearance of one only is going to set this kingdom on fire. How about Queen Umnandi? If she stays away much longer we had better all prepare to die.”

Umpitimpiti laughed aloud, rather with his teeth than with his feelings. At that moment he cared not what became of Nomenti, who stood petrified with fear as she overheard the conversation. He was only anxious to get away from the place before his alarm was noticed; so he left the two men to continue their conversation. Hardly knowing where he was going Umpitimpiti walked through the courtyard into the open space where the assemblies are held and cases were tried. There he found himself in the midst of a large crowd of men. Two of them cowering in front of the King, were closely guarded by four stalwart young soldiers. Umpitimpiti pressed his way into the thick of the crowd until he could hear what was being said. He understood that one was a doctor, who on

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being commanded to divine the whereabouts of Umnandi, had prophesied something which proved hopelessly inaccurate. The second man was Dlhadlhu who had failed to report the disappearance of his missing Rolong maid; he was shaking with fear like a reed at the mercy of the wind. Umpitimpiti also trembled when he remembered how hopelessly implicated he himself was in the same case; presently he heard the angry King raise an imperious voice, saying, “Their ears have heard my anxious inquiries but paid no heed to them. Cut off their ears!” This order was promptly obeyed by the four warders in charge of the unfortunate men.

“Their feet walked out of my way so that useful information might not reach me until too late,” proceeded King Mzilikazi. “Chop off their feet!”

“Their tongues lied to me in my distress. Cut out their tongues!”

“Their eyes have seen the cause of my anguish. Pluck out their eyes!”

All these drastic commands were obeyed as soon as they were uttered, for any hesitation on the part of an unwilling attendant might have increased by one the number of victims.

If Umpitimpiti had been standing alone and not wedged in between a group of other men where the crowd was densest, he would have fallen down through fear, as the mutilated bodies of the former owner of a Rolong slave girl and of a noted soothsayer were carried away; and if there had been some doubt in his mind, he now felt certain that, whatever Nomenti did or said, Mzilikazi knew nothing of the cause and circumstances of Umnandi's disappearance.

How he wished himself equally ignorant! On the

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contrary, he was far from innocent, for Nomenti had entrusted him with a message which he was afraid to deliver. Perhaps, had he done so, the whole tragedy might have had a different climax. Now he had seen and heard the plot that preceded Umnandi's disappearance; further, he had participated in it and failed to apprise the King. Did he deserve to retain his own ears, eyes, and tongue which had failed to testify to the facts? He knew further that his feet carried the secret from the King instead of carrying it to him. And if Mzilikazi came to find out how much he knew about Umnandi's flight, he would surely sentence him also to forfeit his eyes, ears and feet as well as his tongue.

Umpitimpiti spent a very bad night. Repeatedly he resolved to go up and make a clean breast of it before he should be found out, but as promptly changed his mind when he recalled the agony of the victims of Mzilikazi's wrath. Finally he decided to rise and escape from his home under cover of darkness. This he regarded as by far the safest course, for if he were met by any of the tribe he could always say he was in search of the vanished queen; and if, on the other hand he were fortunate enough to come across her (which was at best but a remote possibility) the honour of restoring Umnandi would make him a hero of the first rank. Then there was Nomenti; she could explain her complicity much better in his absence.

But wait, what about the doctor from Zululand, whom Nomenti had accused of seducing Umnandi? Why had she never mentioned him? Surely he could throw some light upon the subject. And why had not the King charged him with the heinous, not to say treasonable crime? The mystery thickened. For even if unconnected with her disappearance, he, as a clever magician,

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ought surely to have been asked to divine her whereabouts. Why had he not been consulted? Of all magicians the Zulu doctor should be able to offer a solution of the unexplained killing of the shepherds — the Queen's disappearance and Nomenti's accusation. Il will find him out, treacherous wretch, and bring him to judgment. I will go right out.

In a short while the midnight silence of a small hut on the outskirts was disturbed by a nocturnal visitor who announced himself as “Umpitimpiti, come to consult the Zulu wizard, privately, on a very urgent case.”

He was admitted. The owner of the hut got up and, by the light of a wood fire which he rekindled on the fireplace, he scanned the countenance of his visitor and after inhaling a pinch of snuff from a ramhorn that was suspended by a string round his neck, the old man said “The doctor is not here, and I am afraid we shall not see him again.”

“What has happened?” asked Umpitimpiti, with a fresh shock of disappointment.

“Well,” replied the old man, rubbing his nose again, “he seemed very much concerned about the judgment on Dlhadlhu this afternoon, and when the other doctor came up for trial beside Dlhadlhu, I could see him shaking like a leaf. I am surprised that other people did not notice his terror, for when the sentence on the other two men was pronounced and executed, his eyes were turning red with terror like one who was a party to the crime. All evening I have been waiting but have not seen him again. His most important medicine bag is missing and so is his best cloak, and no doubt he has left this town and neighbourhood, and will never return until the Queen is found.”

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This information decided Umpitimpiti, and a day later it was noised abroad that two more persons — Umpitimpiti and the Zulu doctor — had vanished like Umnandi.

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Chapter 16.

Queen Umnandi's Flight.

Sad was the gloom over Inzwinyani when the news spread that Umnandi, the brightest star in the social circles of the Matebele and pride of their King, had disappeared without leaving a trace. Only two women and a man (Nomenti, Nomsindo and Umpitimpiti) could throw some light on the mystery; but they did not dare open their lips for fear of being accused of her death. At least the two women knew that she had fled, but they also thought that the King was secretly aware of the cause of her flight. But Umpitimpiti, who had been sent to accuse her before the King, was not acquainted with the manner of her disappearance; and when he saw how genuine was the King's distress he felt it was only natural after he had taken the life of one so dear to him. But the strange thing was that no one seemed to have any evidence of the actual facts. Had any execution taken place, surely, thought he, there should have been some final incident or some last message from Umnandi to her people which scarcely could have been suppressed. Someone must surely have witnessed what happened at the execution of so popular a Queen, unless indeed she had been assassinated in her sleep; but by whom? Yes, by whom? He vainly sought for an answer to these questions, and although burning with curiosity, he could not venture to express his anxiety.

One day, the performance of his various duties took him to Nomenti's hut. He lingered about looking for a favourable opportunity, until, finding himself alone with her, he cautiously asked:

“Mother, did you ever learn what became of Umnandi since the night you told me of her evil deeds?”

“Oh,” said Nomenti snappishly, “she was not the only sorceress put away that day. Did not the King order the execution of a whole company of witches — her companions in evil — so why should you single her out for special enquiry?”

“In that respect, mother, I am in good company,” ventured Umpitimpiti timorously. “No children ever sang a dirge over the slain sorcerers, as they did when the news of Umnandi's disappearance got about. None shouted a wail over them as they did over Umnandi; and the King is consulting nearly every diviner in the country to detect her whereabouts. Indeed no search parties ever issued out of Inzwinyani in such numbers as those sent to scour the woods and hills for his lost wife. Warriors have been threatened with death should they fail to return with her alive. Why should he grieve if he is acquainted with the circumstances of her disappearance?”

“Oh, Umpitimpiti,” said Nomenti, “are you going to ask me to probe the secrets of my lord, whose intentions are hidden as much as the acts of the gods? Cannot you reason for yourself? Would all these diviners and these search parties fail to locate her if my lord desired her return?”

Umpitimpiti remained unconvinced. He said, “I have heard of miracles like those of the mysterious devils who kill our boys on the pasturage, no one can tell how, but I doubt if they are half so startling as the circumstances surrounding Umnandi's death. It was strange enough that one so highly placed as she should become unfaithful.”

“Away with you, you madman,” ejaculated Nomenti in disgust. “What was noble in the actions of that witch?”

“Perhaps it was natural,” Umpitimpiti proceeded, “in view of the accusation that she would be executed — not that I think the imputation was justified — but it is the subsequent behaviour of those connected with this case that baffles a man's imagination.”

Nomenti suddenly chipped in with the question: “By the way, Umpitimpiti, what did the King say to you that night when you brought him your report of her evil work?”

To this unexpected question Umpitimpiti knew not how to reply. He kept quiet for a time till Nomenti asked again, “What said my lord, Umpitimpiti?” Again there was silence and the lady, losing her temper cried, “Speak, fool! Don't you hear me?”

Umpitimpiti then hazarded this evasive remark, “I have always been wondering, mother, why you have never asked me that question before. I am surprised,” he continued gingerly, “that it should only come to-day — ten nights after the event. Your silence, too, adds to the mystery of the whole thing.”

“What did Mzilikazi say to you, Umpitimpiti?” repeated the lady impatiently. Her reference tot he King by name — (usually forbidden to Zulu wives) — so startled Umpitimpiti that he almost lost his reasoning powers, but after further hesitation he stammered, “I thought perhaps he might have told you himself before now.”

Nomenti, with an effort, just managing to control her fury, she asked again, “Umpitimpiti, do you hear my question or have you forgotten our tongue? Tell me, was the King angry, when you told him, or was he not?”

“Really, mother,” he said, “so many things have happened since then that I am trying to recollect what the King did say that night. But what may his word have been to you, mother?”

Nomenti burst out, “Idiot, am I asking you or are you asking me?”

Umpitimpiti could not explain that he had been too frightened to deliver the dreadful message, and that he had left the King to find out things for himself; but, as much as he dreaded a charge of dereliction of duty, he also shuddered at the idea that, if the King were really sincere in his grief, it would go ill with him once it were known that for ten days he had held a clue to the mystery and never disclosed it. While Nomenti was boiling with indignation, visions of exaggerated possibilities passed swiftly through Umpitimpiti's mind. He imagined himself a grovelling figure in the presense of his infuriated king, convicted for his long and culpable silence. He tried hard to suppress these fancies, but they shook his mind and body from head to foot. Nomenti on her part, feeling insulted by his obstinacy, grew beside herself with rage; Umpitimpiti, on his part, had almost ceased to be conscious of her presence. He wished himself a hundred miles away. Not only were his knees shaking at the awful possibilities before him, but the frown on Nomenti's face did not ease his nerves in any way.

Suddenly Nomenti forgot her rage and Umpitimpiti suppressed his horrible fancies. The atmosphere was quickly changed, for their ears caught the voices of two men speaking outside the hut, who had stopped almost in front of the door.

This is what they heard: “Did the old people ever relate an occurrence of this kind were a wife vanished like the wind, leaving no trace behind her? The Queen could not have been carried away by a four-footed beast, for there is neither paw-mark nor blood trail to indicate the event. It cannot be a human being that ran off with her; or he too would have left some clues. Someone would have noticed a struggle or heard a scream. The only reasonable supposition, therefore, is that Queen Umnandi was caught by some flying creature that snatched her up without giving her time to cry for help.”

“And what might that be?” asked the second voice.

“Impudulu, thunder, lightning-bird or some aerial monster.”

“Did you ever hear of the lightning-bird doing anything of the kind in the early days?”

“In the early days they never related a case where a cloud of smoke caused someone to bleed to death almost a mile away.”

“I feel certain your surmise is correct. These goblins that have been killing our herd boys must have descended from the skies; and they must have had something to do with the abduction of Umnandi. After all, those spirits are sensible; they know a good woman when they see one, for the abducted the best wife in the kingdom.”

If Nomenti was convulsed with jealousy on hearing this complimentary reference to her missing rival, both listeners were soon to receive a thrill of terror as one of the speakers went on.

“I wish that whoever kidnapped this wife, be he man or beast, would bring her back before Mzilikazi lops off the heads of everyone of us. The King wants his wife back, and, not knowing where she is, he demands her from whoever has the misfortune to come across him. Now just think of poor Dlhadlhu.”

“What's the matter with Dlhadlhu?”

“It has leaked out that the poor man's Barolong maid disappeared mysteriously about the same time as the vanished Queen; and she too has not been heard of. Now the King is fuming with new rage. He wants to know why Dlhadlhu kept that information to himself until it was forced out of him too late. I would be very much surprised if Dlhadlhu is still alive by sunset,” concluded the speaker.

“Impossible!” ejaculated the other man. “Behold, here comes Umpitimpiti, the one man in this city who has the freedom of the royal harem. Sakubona,  1  Mpitimpiti.”

Umpitimpiti, who had just left Nomenti in the hut, returned the salute, making a supreme effort to appear calm.

“I hope,” continued the first speaker, “that there are no other wives missing, Umpitimpiti, for it seems that the disappearance of one only is going to set this kingdom on fire. How about Queen Umnandi? If she stays away much longer we had better all prepare to die.”

Umpitimpiti laughed aloud, rather with his teeth than with his feelings. At that moment he cared not what became of Nomenti, who stood petrified with fear as she overheard the conversation. He was only anxious to get away from the place before his alarm was noticed; so he left the two men to continue their conversation. Hardly knowing where he was going Umpitimpiti walked through the courtyard into the open space where the assemblies are held and cases were tried. There he found himself in the midst of a large crowd of men. Two of them cowering in front of the King, were closely guarded by four stalwart young soldiers. Umpitimpiti pressed his way into the thick of the crowd until he could hear what was being said. He understood that one was a doctor, who on being commanded to divine the whereabouts of Umnandi, had prophesied something which proved hopelessly inaccurate. The second man was Dlhadlhu who had failed to report the disappearance of his missing Rolong maid; he was shaking with fear like a reed at the mercy of the wind. Umpitimpiti also trembled when he remembered how hopelessly implicated he himself was in the same case; presently he heard the angry King raise an imperious voice, saying, “Their ears have heard my anxious inquiries but paid no heed to them. Cut off their ears!” This order was promptly obeyed by the four warders in charge of the unfortunate men.

“Their feet walked out of my way so that useful information might not reach me until too late,” proceeded King Mzilikazi. “Chop off their feet!”

“Their tongues lied to me in my distress. Cut out their tongues!”

“Their eyes have seen the cause of my anguish. Pluck out their eyes!”

All these drastic commands were obeyed as soon as they were uttered, for any hesitation on the part of an unwilling attendant might have increased by one the number of victims.

If Umpitimpiti had been standing alone and not wedged in between a group of other men where the crowd was densest, he would have fallen down through fear, as the mutilated bodies of the former owner of a Rolong slave girl and of a noted soothsayer were carried away; and if there had been some doubt in his mind, he now felt certain that, whatever Nomenti did or said, Mzilikazi knew nothing of the cause and circumstances of Umnandi's disappearance.

How he wished himself equally ignorant! On the contrary, he was far from innocent, for Nomenti had entrusted him with a message which he was afraid to deliver. Perhaps, had he done so, the whole tragedy might have had a different climax. Now he had seen and heard the plot that preceded Umnandi's disappearance; further, he had participated in it and failed to apprise the King. Did he deserve to retain his own ears, eyes, and tongue which had failed to testify to the facts? He knew further that his feet carried the secret from the King instead of carrying it to him. And if Mzilikazi came to find out how much he knew about Umnandi's flight, he would surely sentence him also to forfeit his eyes, ears and feet as well as his tongue.

Umpitimpiti spent a very bad night. Repeatedly he resolved to go up and make a clean breast of it before he should be found out, but as promptly changed his mind when he recalled the agony of the victims of Mzilikazi's wrath. Finally he decided to rise and escape from his home under cover of darkness. This he regarded as by far the safest course, for if he were met by any of the tribe he could always say he was in search of the vanished queen; and if, on the other hand he were fortunate enough to come across her (which was at best but a remote possibility) the honour of restoring Umnandi would make him a hero of the first rank. Then there was Nomenti; she could explain her complicity much better in his absence.

But wait, what about the doctor from Zululand, whom Nomenti had accused of seducing Umnandi? Why had she never mentioned him? Surely he could throw some light upon the subject. And why had not the King charged him with the heinous, not to say treasonable crime? The mystery thickened. For even if unconnected with her disappearance, he, as a clever magician, ought surely to have been asked to divine her whereabouts. Why had he not been consulted? Of all magicians the Zulu doctor should be able to offer a solution of the unexplained killing of the shepherds — the Queen's disappearance and Nomenti's accusation. Il will find him out, treacherous wretch, and bring him to judgment. I will go right out.

In a short while the midnight silence of a small hut on the outskirts was disturbed by a nocturnal visitor who announced himself as “Umpitimpiti, come to consult the Zulu wizard, privately, on a very urgent case.”

He was admitted. The owner of the hut got up and, by the light of a wood fire which he rekindled on the fireplace, he scanned the countenance of his visitor and after inhaling a pinch of snuff from a ramhorn that was suspended by a string round his neck, the old man said “The doctor is not here, and I am afraid we shall not see him again.”

“What has happened?” asked Umpitimpiti, with a fresh shock of disappointment.

“Well,” replied the old man, rubbing his nose again, “he seemed very much concerned about the judgment on Dlhadlhu this afternoon, and when the other doctor came up for trial beside Dlhadlhu, I could see him shaking like a leaf. I am surprised that other people did not notice his terror, for when the sentence on the other two men was pronounced and executed, his eyes were turning red with terror like one who was a party to the crime. All evening I have been waiting but have not seen him again. His most important medicine bag is missing and so is his best cloak, and no doubt he has left this town and neighbourhood, and will never return until the Queen is found.”

This information decided Umpitimpiti, and a day later it was noised abroad that two more persons — Umpitimpiti and the Zulu doctor — had vanished like Umnandi.


Footnotes & References

#NoteDescription
1SakubonaGood-day