Chapter II


MY brother at this time was managing an agricultural farm in the highlands leading to Laikipia. He lived in a small stone house which had been built by an Indian mason. The veranda in front overlooked two hundred acres of ploughed land which grew peas, potatoes, flax, and barley. This diminutive farm was enclosed on one side by the rough scrub-country of the ordinary veldt and on the other by a forest which stretched away at the foot of a tall escarpment as far as eye could see. It was a surprise to come suddenly upon this oasis of cultivation in the midst of a country which still remained virginal.
       Towards evening when the mists of the light rains drove across the peas and potatoes, or hung about the brown cone-shaped flax-stacks, the prospect would take upon itself a strangely familiar appearance; but coincident with such reassuring impressions would come others, impressions curiously disturbing in their suggestion of forces inimical to man's purpose. One had but to step out of the little garden of geraniums, which my brother had arranged and planted round the house, to find oneself in the actual jungle, in dark, overgrown places which for thousands of years had remained undisturbed. It was this abrupt juxtaposition of the tamed with the untamed, at one's very door-step, so to speak, which affected the nerves with an ever-present feeling of insecurity. One felt that oneself and one's handful of black servants were permitted a foothold here on sufferance only -- that in a moment of time, for a mere whim, these stately, wicked, bearded cedar-trees might conspire with their long-clawed parasitical creepers to obliterate one's handiwork and reassert their ancient domination. Indeed, 1 was conscious of this feeling every single hour of my stay on that upland farm. I came to realize what it was to live in a place where nature was in the ascendancy.
       I would sit in a shaded corner of the veranda watching the humming-birds flitting about the petals of the coloured flowers which in all directions expanded so passionately in the hard tropical sunlight and then 1 would suddenly become aware that 1 was being looked at, that from behind the trellis, or from behind the bloom of a mammoth nasturtium, a haggard and very old chameleon was peering at me intelligently, cynically. At night it would be even worse. Then, when the flat equatorial moon would blandly illuminate this unregenerate section of the earth's surface the soul of Africa would become articulate. Hyænas would moan as they slunk along the darkened banks of the forest streams nosing for death with heavy obtuse jowls. Leopards would cause the pale trunks of the forest trees to echo and reëcho with the sound of their calling. Jackals in an ecstasy of crafty expectation would go yelping across the open veldt. From every festooned branch of the forest the hyraxes would cry and croon to one another, while from tiny crevices in the bark of each piece of ancient timber the African crickets would grow strangely vocal. Often at night when we went out to draw water from the rain-tank at the back of the house we could hardly hear each other speak so audible had the great continent become, that continent which all day long lies in a dull sleep under the hypnotic rays of an evil sun, only to grow in the high noon of midnight so wild, so merciless, so alarmingly voluble.
       Every morning I used to spend an hour or two learning the Swahili language from my Kikuyu servant, Kamoha. He was an extremely intelligent boy and till the day I left Africa was my constant companion. In the afternoons I would accompany my brother on shooting expeditions. We would cross the mountain stream which separated us from the forest, a stream which harboured no fish, but whose waters ran eddying through black sunken pools over a bed of iron volcanic rock. At regular intervals along its edge the density of the forest was broken by narrow, well-trodden game-paths leading down to this or that water-hole-waterholes that by day and night received a hundred thirsty jowls, a hundred thirsty muzzles, a hundred thirsty snouts. At each of these places, if one looked for them, one could see silver-white bones, witnessing to the innumerable animal tragedies that had been enacted at these terrible death traps. Sometimes the damp mud near the water would be marked with pointed hoofs, sometimes with the long toed footprints of monkeys, and sometimes with the round heavy spoors of a carnivore. We would follow one of these paths into the depths of the forest. On each side of us the soft leaf-mould would be cloaked with masses of maiden-hair fern. My brother would be on the look-out for bush-buck and when one of these tough lusty little animals fell after the report of his rifle what a clamour would arise! The green parrots would scream, the colobus monkeys would leap with chattering expostulations from branch to branch, and great white-winged turkey-birds would circle above the tops of the trees.
       And then we would begin to scale the escarpment, mounting higher and ever higher up the slippery root-covered path to find ourselves at last once more in daylight.. Standing there on the summit of the escarpment what a view would be presented to our eyes-miles upon miles of open, rolling country, broken by green-bordered rivers, by the demon-haunted rush-grown stretches of Lake El Bordossat stretching away to the distant slopes of the Aberdare Mountains lying swart in the afternoon sun.
       Often and often I have sat there on the cliff's edge and seen zebra, kongoni, ostriches moving across the yellow plains below. Occasionally I would make out the black unmistakable tub-like form of a rhinoceros advancing slowly, soberly towards some verdant refuge. I found a sheltered ledge where I would sit for hour.s surveying that stupendous scene. I marked the place by a dead olive tree whose naked, crooked arms held on their topmost branches three round ant-nests which had the appearance and size of human skulls. I could see this gibbet-tree from a distance of several hundred yards and when once safely ensconced the wild life of the place would continue as though I was not there. The klipspringers would bound from rock to rock or, with delicate legs rigid, stand poised and expectant. The rock-rabbits would scuttle from fissure to fissure. The eagles and white-breasted hawks would sweep fiercely through the clear air uttering strange intractable cries. And as I viewed these unfamiliar aspects of life, so different from the sheep-meadows, the cattle-pastures, the thatched grange-scenery of my home, over which in autumn the ragged-winged rooks would circle, it would seem to me as though I had been permitted by the intervention of some extraordinary magic to contemplate the round earth as it must have appeared when first it was moulded and set spinning.
       And then as the round sun dropped towards the horizon I would hurry back, anxious to be through the belt of forest before dark. It was on one of these occasions as my brother and I hastened through some tall red grass that I tripped and fell. I had put my foot into a round hole sunk some six inches into the ground. An elephant had passed this way on its yearly migration to the bamboo forests during the wet season, and at each step the enormous animal had taken, there had been left in the soggy drenched ground a diminutive pit. Presently we came upon other similar tracks, with large heaps of dry dung scattered here and there, dung dropped doubtless six months before when some of these bulky, placid, sage creatures had passed over the escarpment on their familiar journey.
       Once through the forest and across the river we felt ourselves, with a feeling of relief, back once more in an environment upon which human beings had at least made some impression. There was a stir of human life. The black women were carrying water up from the river. There was the sound of native talk, of native laughter, and the air was tainted with the smoke of fires filtering up through the thatch of the round huts and rising like dedicated incense into the hollow firmament above, already tremulous and quivering with the indefinable murmurs of the oncoming night.