Chapter 23. Gurta

{256} IN the bosom of the woods which stretched for many miles from the immediate environs of Sicca, and placed on a gravel slope reaching down to a brook, which ran in a bottom close by, was a small, rude hut, of a kind peculiar to Africa, and commonly ascribed to the wandering tribes, who neither cared, nor had leisure for a more stable habitation. Some might have called it a tent, from the goat's-hair cloth with which it was covered; but it looked, as to shape, like nothing else than an inverted boat, or the roof of a house set upon the ground. Inside it was seen to be constructed of the branches of trees, twisted together or wattled, the interstices, or rather the whole surface, being covered with clay. Being thus stoutly built, lined, and covered, it was proof against the tremendous rains, to which the climate, for which it was made, was subject. Along the centre ridge or backbone, which varied in height from six to ten feet from the ground, it was supported by three posts or pillars; at one end it rose conically to an open aperture, which served for chimney, for sky-light, and for ventilator. Hooks were suspended from the roof for {257} baskets, articles of clothing, weapons, and implements of various kinds; and a second cone, excavated in the ground with the vertex downward, served as a storehouse for grain. The door was so low, that an ordinary person must bend double to pass through it.

However, it was in the winter months only, when the rains were profuse, that the owner of this respectable mansion condescended to creep into it. In summer she had a drawing-room, as it may be called, of nature's own creation, in which she lived, and in one quarter of which she had her lair. Close above the hut was a high plot of level turf, surrounded by old oaks, and fringed beneath with thick underwood. In the centre of this green rose a yew-tree of primeval character. Indeed, the whole forest spoke of the very beginnings of the world, as if it had been the immediate creation of that Voice which bade the earth clothe itself with green life. But the place no longer spoke exclusively of its Maker. Upon the trees hung the emblems and objects of idolatry, and the turf was traced with magical characters. Littered about were human bones, horns of wild animals, wax figures, spermaceti taken from vaults, large nails, to which portions of flesh adhered, as if they had had to do with malefactors, metal plates engraved with strange characters, bottled blood, hair of young persons, and old rags. The reader must not suppose any incantation is about to follow, or that the place we are describing will have a prominent place in what remains of our tale; but even if it be the scene of only {258} one conversation, and one event, there is no harm in describing it, as it appeared on that occasion.

The old crone, who was seated in this bower of delight, had an expression of countenance in keeping, not with the place, but with the furniture with which it was adorned; that furniture told her trade. Whether the root of superstition might be traced deeper still, and the woman and her traps were really and directly connected with the powers beneath the earth, it is impossible to determine; it is certain she had the will, it is certain that that will was from their inspiration; nay, it is certain that she thought she really possessed the communications which she desired; it is certain, too, she so far deceived herself as to fancy that what she learned by mere natural means came to her from a diabolical source. She kept up an active correspondence with Sicca. She was consulted by numbers; she was up with the public news, the social gossip, and the private and secret transactions of the hour; and had, before now, even interfered in matters of state, and had been courted by rival political parties. But in the high cares and occupations of this interesting person, we are not here concerned; but with a conversation which took place between her and Juba, about the same hour of the evening as that of Cęcilius's escape, but on the day after it, while the sun was gleaming almost horizontally through the tall trunks of the trees of the forest.

"Well, my precious boy," said the old woman, {259} "the choicest gifts of great Cham be your portion! You had excellent sport yesterday, I'll warrant. The rats squeaked, oh? and you beat the life out of them. That scoundrel sacristan, I suppose, has taken up his quarters below."

"You may say it," answered Juba. "The reptile! he turned right about, and would have made himself an honest fellow, when it couldn't be helped."

"Good, good!" returned Gurta, as if she had got something very pleasant in her mouth; "ah! that is good! but he did not escape on that score, I do trust."

"They pulled him to pieces all the more cheerfully," said Juba.

Pulled him to pieces, limb by limb, joint by joint, eh?" answered Gurta. "Did they skin him?—did they do anything to his eyes, or his tongue? Anyhow, it was too quickly, Juba. Slowly, leisurely, gradually. Yes, it's like a glutton to be quick about it. Taste him, handle him, play with him,—that's luxury! but to bolt him,—faugh!"

"Cęso's slave made a good end," said Juba: "he stood up for his views, and died like a man."

"The gods smite him! but he has gone up—up:" and she laughed. "Up to what they call bliss and glory;—such glory! but he's out of our domain, you know. But he did not die easy?"

"The boys worried him a good deal," answered Juba: "but it's not quite in my line, mother, all this. I think you drink a pint of blood morning and evening, {260} and thrive on it, old woman. It makes you merry; but it's too much for my stomach."

"Ha, ha, my boy!" cried Gurta; "you'll improve in time, though you make wry faces, now that you're young. Well, and have you brought me any news from the capitol? Is any one getting a rise in the world, or a downfall? How blows the wind? Are there changes in the camp? This Decius, I suspect, will not last long."

"They all seem desperately frightened," said Juba, "lest they should not smite your friends hard enough, Gurta. Root and branch is the word. They'll have to make a few Christians for the occasion, in order to kill them: and I almost think they're about it," he added, thoughtfully. "They have to show that they are not surpassed by the rabble. 'Tis a pity Christians are so few, isn't it, mother?"

"Yes, yes," she said, "but we must crush them, grind them, many or few: and we shall, we shall! Callista's to come."

"I don't see they are worse than other people," said Juba; "not at all, except that they are commonly sneaks. If Callista turns, why should not I turn too, mother, to keep her company, and keep your hand in?"

"No, no, my boy," returned the witch, "you must serve my master. You are having your fling just now, but you will buckle to in good time. You must one day take some work with my merry men. Come here, child," said the fond mother, "and let me kiss you." {261}

"Keep your kisses for your monkeys and goats and cats," answered Juba; "they're not to my taste, old dame. Master! my master! I won't have a master! I'll be nobody's servant. I'll never stand to be hired, nor cringe to a bully, nor quake before a rod. Please yourself, Gurta; I am a free man. You're my mother by courtesy only."

Gurta looked at him savagely. "Why, you're not going to be pious and virtuous, Juba? A choice saint you'll make! You shall be drawn for a picture."

"Why shouldn't I, if I choose?" said Juba. "If I must take service, willy nilly, I'd any day prefer the other's to that of your friend. I've not left the master to take the man."

"Blaspheme not the great gods," she answered, "or they'll do you a mischief yet."

"I say again," insisted Juba, "if I must lick the earth, it shall not be where your friend has trod. It shall be in my brother's fashion, rather than in yours, Gurta."

"Agellius!" she shrieked out with such disgust, that it is wonderful she uttered the name at all. "Ah! you have not told me about him, boy. Well, is he safe in the pit, or in the stomach of an hyena?"

"He's alive," said Juba; "but he has not got it in him to be a Christian. Yes, he's safe with his uncle."

"Ah! Jucundus must ruin him, debauch him, and then we must make away with him. We must not be in a hurry," said Gurta, "it must be body and soul." {262}

"No one shall touch him, craven as he is," answered Juba. "I despise him, but let him alone."

"Don't come across me," said Gurta, sullenly; "I'll have my way. Why, you know I could smite you to the dust, as well as him, if I chose."

"But you have not asked me about Callista," answered Juba. "It is really a capital joke, but she has got into prison for certain, for being a Christian. Fancy it! they caught her in the streets, and put her in the guard-house, and have had her up for examination. You see they want a Christian for the nonce: it would not do to have none such in prison; so they will flourish with her till Decius bolts from the scene."

"The Furies have her!" cried Gurta: "she is a Christian, my boy: I told you so, long ago!"

"Callista a Christian!" answered Juba, "ha! ha! She and Agellius are going to make a match of it, of some sort or other. They're thinking of other things than paradise."

"She and the old priest, more likely, more likely," said Gurta. "He's in prison with her—in the pit, as I trust."

"Your master has cheated you for once, old woman," said Juba.

Gurta looked at him fiercely, and seemed waiting for his explanation. He began singing,—

"She wheedled and coaxed, but he was no fool;
He'd be his own master, he'd not be her tool;
Not the little black moor should send him to school.

"She foamed and she cursed—'twas the same thing to him;
She laid well her trap; but he carried his whim;—
The priest scuffled off, safe in life and in limb."

Gurta was almost suffocated with passion. "Cyprianus has not escaped, boy?" she asked at length.

"I got him off," said Juba, undauntedly.

A shade, as of Erebus, passed over the witch's face; but she remained quite silent.

"Mother, I am my own master," he continued, "I must break your assumption of superiority. I'm not a boy, though you call me so. I'll have my own way. Yes, I saved Cyprianus. You're a bloodthirsty old hag! Yes, I've seen your secret doings. Did not I catch you the other day, practising on that little child? You had nailed him up by hands and feet against the tree, and were cutting him to pieces at your leisure, as he quivered and shrieked the while. You were examining or using his liver for some of your black purposes. It's not in my line; but you gloated over it; and when he wailed, you wailed in mimicry. You were panting with pleasure."

Gurta was still silent, and had an expression on her face, awful from the intensity of its malignity. She had uttered a low piercing whistle.

"Yes!" continued Juba, "you revelled in it. You chattered to the poor babe when it screamed, as a nurse to an infant. You called it pretty names, and squeaked out your satisfaction each time you stuck it. You old hag! I'm not of your breed, though they call us of kin. I don't fear you," he said, {264} observing the expression of her countenance, I don't fear the immortal devil!" And he continued his song—

"She beckoned the moon, and the moon came down;
The green earth shrivelled beneath her frown;
But a man's strong will can keep his own."

While he was talking and singing, her call had been answered from the hut. An animal of some wonderful species had crept out of it, and proceeded to creep and crawl, moeing and twisting as it went, along the trees and shrubs which rounded the grass plot. When it came up to the old woman, it crouched at her feet, and then rose up upon its hind legs and begged. She took hold of the uncouth beast and began to fondle it in her arms, muttering something in its ear. At length, when Juba stopped for a moment in his song, she suddenly flung it right at him, with great force, saying, "Take that!" She then gave utterance to a low inward laugh, and leaned herself back against the trunk of the tree upon which she was sitting, with her knees drawn up almost to her chin.

The blow seemed to act on Juba as a shock on his nervous system, both from its violence and its strangeness. He stood still for a moment, and then, without saying a word, he turned away, and walked slowly down the hill, as if in a maze. Then he sat down ...

In an instant up he started again with a great cry, and began running at the top of his speed. He thought he heard a voice speaking in him; and, however {265} fast he ran, the voice, or whatever it was, kept up with him. He rushed through the underwood, trampling and crushing it under his feet, and scaring the birds and small game which lodged there. At last, exhausted, he stood still for breath, when he heard it say loudly and deeply, as if speaking with his own organs, "You cannot escape from yourself !" Then a terror seized him; he fell down and fainted away.

Chapter 24

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