WITHIN an hour of our finally deciding to start five litters were brought up to the door of the cave, each accompanied by four regular bearers and two spare hands, also a band of about fifty armed Amahagger, who were to form the escort and carry the baggage. Three of these litters, of course, were for us, and one for Billali, who, I was immensely relieved to hear, was to be our companion, while the fifth I presumed was for the use of Ustane.
`Does the lady go with us, my father?' I asked of Billali, as he stood superintending things generally.
He shrugged his shoulders as he answered--
`If she wills. In this country the women do what they please. We worship them, and give them their way, because without them the world could not go on; they are the source of life.'
`Ah,' I said, the matter never having struck me quite in that light before.
`We worship them,' he went on, `up to a certain point, till at last they get unbearable, which,' he added, `they do about every second generation.'
`And then what do you do?' I asked, with curiosity.
`Then,' he answered, with a faint smile, `we rise, and kill the old ones as an example to the young ones, and to show them that we are the strongest. My poor wife was killed in that way three years ago. It was very sad, but to tell thee the truth, my son, life has been happier since, for my age protects me from the young ones.'
`In short,' I replied, quoting the saying of a great man whose wisdom has not yet lightened the darkness of the Amahagger, `thou hast found thy position one of greater freedom and less responsibility.'
This phrase puzzled him a little at first from its vagueness, though I think my translation hit off its sense very well, but at last he saw it, and appreciated it.
`Yes, yes, my Baboon,' he said, `I see it now, but all the "responsibilities" are killed, at least some of them are, and that is why there are so few old women about just now. Well, they brought it on themselves. As for this girl,' he went on, in a graver tone, `I know not what to say. She is a brave girl, and she loves the Lion (Leo); thou sawest how she clung to him, and saved his life. Also, she is, according to our custom, wed to him, and has a right to go where he goes, unless,' he added significantly, `She would say her no, for her word overrides all rights.'
`And if She bade her leave him, and the girl refused? What then?'
`If,' he said, with a shrug, `the hurricane bide the tree to bend, and it will not; what happens?'
And then, without waiting for an answer, he turned and walked to his litter, and in ten minutes from that time we were all well under weigh.
It took us an hour and more to cross the cup of the volcanic plain, and another half-hour or so to climb the edge on the farther side. Once there, however, the view was a very fine one. Before us was a long steep slope of grassy plain, broken here and there by clumps of trees mostly of the thorn tribe. At the bottom of this gentle slope, some nine or ten miles away, we could make out a dim sea of marsh, over which the foul vapours hung like smoke about a city. It was easy going for the bearers down the slopes, and by midday we had reached the borders of the dismal swamp. Here we halted to eat our midday meal, and then, following a winding and devious path, plunged into the morass. Presently the path, at any rate to our unaccustomed eyes, grew so faint as to be almost indistinguishable from those made by the aquatic beasts and birds, and it is to this day a mystery to me how our bearers found their way across the marshes. Ahead of the cavalcade marched two men with long poles, which they now and again plunged into the ground before them, the reason of this being that the nature of the soil frequently
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