From steaming lowlands down by the equator, where monstrous orchidsblow, where beetles big as mice sit on the tent-ropes, and firefliesglide about by night like little moving stars, the travelers wentthree days through forests of cactus till they came to the open plainswhere the oryx are.
And glad they were when they came to the water-hole, where only onewhite man had gone before, which the natives know as the camp of BwonaKhubla, and found the water there.
It lies three days from the nearest other water, and when Bwona Khublahad gone there three years ago, what with malaria with which he wasshaking all over, and what with disgust at finding the water-hole dry,he had decided to die there, and in that part of the world suchdecisions are always fatal. In any case he was overdue to die, buthitherto his amazing resolution, and that terrible strength ofcharacter that so astounded his porters, had kept him alive and movedhis safari on.
He had had a name no doubt, some common name such as hangs as likelyas not over scores of shops in London; but that had gone long ago, andnothing identified his memory now to distinguish it from the memoriesof all the other dead but "Bwona Khubla," the name the Kikuyus gavehim.
There is not doubt that he was a fearful man, a man that was dreadedstill for his personal force when his arm was no longer able to liftthe kiboko, when all his men knew he was dying, and to this day thoughhe is dead.
Though his temper was embittered by malaria and the equatorial sun,nothing impaired his will, which remained a compulsive force to thevery last, impressing itself upon all, and after the last, from whatthe Kikuyus say. The country must have had powerful laws that droveBwona Khubla out, whatever country it was.
On the morning of the day that they were to come to the camp of BwonaKhubla all the porters came to the travelers' tents asking for dow.Dow is the white man's medicine, that cures all evils; the nastier ittastes, the better it is. They wanted down this morning to keep awaydevils, for they were near the place where Bwona Khubla died.
The travelers gave them quinine.
By sunset the came to Campini Bwona Khubla and found water there. Hadthey not found water many of them must have died, yet none felt anygratitude to the place, it seemed too ominous, too full of doom, toomuch harassed almost by unseen, irresistible things.
And all the natives came again for dow as soon as the tents werepitched, to protect them from the last dreams of Bwona Khubla, whichthey say had stayed behind when the last safari left taking BwonaKhubla's body back to the edge of civilization to show to the whitemen there that they had not killed him, for the white men might notknow that they durst not kill Bwona Khubla.
And the travelers gave them more quinine, so much being bad for thenerves, and that night by the camp-fires there was no pleasant talk;all talking at once of meat they had eaten and cattle that each oneowned, but a gloomy silence hung by every fire and the little canvasshelters. They told the white men that Bwona Khubla's city, of whichhe had thought at the last
and where the natives believed he was oncea king
, of which he had raved till the loneliness rang with hisraving, had settled down all about them; and they were afraid, for itwas so strange a city, and wanted more dow. And the two travelersgave them more quinine, for they saw real fear in their faces, andknew they might run away and leave them alone in that place, thatthey, too, had come to fear with an almost equal dread, though theyknew not why. And as the night wore on their feeling of bodingdeepened, although they had shared three bottles or so of champagnethat they meant to keep for days when they killed a lion.
This is the story that each of those two men tell, and which theirporters corroborate, but then a Kikuyu will always say whatever hethinks is expected of him.
The travelers were both in bed and trying to sleep but not able to doso because of an ominous feeling. That mournfullest of all the criesof the wild, the hyæna like a damned soul lamenting, strangely enoughhad ceased. The night wore on to the hour when Bwona Khubla had diedthree or four years ago, dreaming and raving of "his city"; and in thehush a sound softly arose, like a wind at first, then like the roar ofbeasts, then unmistakably the sound of motors--motors and motorbusses.
And then they saw, clearly and unmistakably they say, in that lonelydesolation where the equator comes up out of the forest and climbsover jagged hills,--they say they saw London.
There could have been no moon that night, but they say there was amultitude of stars. Mists had come rolling up at evening about thepinnacles of unexplored red peaks that clustered round the camp. Butthey say the mist must have cleared later on; at any rate they swearthey could see London, see it and hear the roar of it. Both say theysaw it not as they knew it at all, not debased by hundreds ofthousands of lying advertisements, but transfigured, all its housesmagnificent, its chimneys rising grandly into pinnacles, its vastsquares full of the most gorgeous trees, transfigured and yet London.
Its windows were warm and happy, shining at night, the lamps in theirlong rows welcomed you, the public-houses were gracious jovial places;yet it was London.
They could smell the smells of London, hear London songs, and yet itwas never the London that they knew; it was as though they had lookedon some strange woman's face with the eyes of her lover. For of allthe towns of the earth or cities of song; of all the spots there be,unhallowed or hallowed, it seemed to those two men then that the citythey saw was of all places the most to be desired by far. They say abarrel organ played quite near them, they say a coster was singing,they admit that he was singing out of tune, they admit a cockneyaccent, and yet they say that that song had in it something that noearthly song had ever had before, and both men say that they wouldhave wept but that there was a feeling about their heartstrings thatwas far too deep for tears. They believe that the longing of thismasterful man, that was able to rule a safari by raising a hand, hadbeen so strong at the last that it had impressed itself deeply uponnature and had caused a mirage that may not fade wholly away, perhapsfor several years.
I tried to establish by questions the truth or reverse of this story,but the two men's tempers had been so spoiled by Africa that they werenot up to cross-examination. They would not even say if theircamp-fires were still burning. They say that they saw the Londonlights all round them from eleven o'clock till midnight, they couldhear London voices and the sound of the traffic clearly, and overall, a little misty perhaps, but unmistakably London, arose the greatmetropolis.
After midnight London quivered a little and grew more indistinct, thesound of the traffic began to dwindle away, voices seemed farther off,ceased altogether, and all was quiet once more where the mirageshimmered and faded, and a bull rhinoceros coming down through thestillness snorted, and watered at the Carlton Club.