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The Follower by Frederick Cornell

 

In a desolate and lonely spot near the wide expanse of mud-flats which form the mouth of the Orange River there stands the roofless ruin of an old farm-house. Its stone walls, of huge thickness, and the high stone kraal with huge iron hinges only remaining where once swung a formidable door, speak eloquently of the time when this remote part of Klein Namaqualand, in common with the islands and lower reaches of the Orange River, was infested with bands of Hottentot outlaws and robbers, and when the daring white man who had ventured among them kept his scant flocks and herds under lock and key, and guarded them with a strong hand.

To the south, towards Port Nolloth, stretches seventy-odd miles of desolate, waterless sand-scrub; eastward lie vast expanses of similarly dreary, featureless, undulating scrub, beyond which rise the unknown and mysterious mountains of the Richtersfeld and hundreds of miles of uninhabited country; westward is the wide lonely ocean; and to the north, across the Orange River, lie the dreaded sand-dunes of German South-West Africa.

It was in the direction of the dunes, gleaming vague and silver-white in the clear moonlight, that the eyes of the three white men prospectors who had forgathered in this lonely spot were turned as they sat, finishing their evening meal, beside a bright fire that lit up the broken and roofless walls. They had met after months of lonely wanderings: Sidney and Ransford amongst the mountains of the Richtersfeld, Jason from long and arduous expeditions along the Great Fish River and amongst the trackless sands across the river. The talk had been of the dunes; of men lost and dying of thirst a few miles from camp; of terrific storms that lifted the sand in huge masses, and whirled it across the land, overwhelming all it encountered; of whole dunes that were shifted by the wind, leaving gruesome things disclosed in the hollows where once they had stood; of diamonds, danger and death.

“Yes!” said Jason, “there's many a man been lost since the diamond rush first started: gone away from camp and never turned up again died of thirst most of them, of course, though I daresay the Bushmen accounted for some. Sometimes the sand has overwhelmed them and buried their bodies for ever. Sometimes after a big storm it gives up its dead as the sea does. I've seen some queer things there myself. Once near Easter Cliffs, after a terrific storm had shifted all the dunes, I came across the bodies of a dozen white men, all together and mummified and wonderfully preserved. God knows how they died and how long they'd been there!

“But the weirdest thing that ever happened to me up there was when Carfax disappeared. You remember Carfax? A tall, bony, powerful chap he was, quiet and dour, and with a strong vein of superstition in him. Anyhow, he was a good prospector and a reliable man, and when the rush for the northern fields took place about two years ago. He was one of a party of four of us who had been landed with a few kegs of water and bare necessities on the waterless coast opposite Hollams Bird Island. Here we searched in vain for diamonds, the dunes being exceptionally difficult and the wind that came up every afternoon converting the whole country into a whirling chaos that it was impossible to see in, or work in next to impossible to exist in.

“On the third evening, after an exceptionally strong gale had nearly choked, blinded, and overwhelmed us, Carfax did not turn up in camp, and though we searched all the following day we found no trace of him not a vestige; for one of the worst things about the dunes is that when the wind is blowing the spoor is filled up almost immediately with drifting sand; though peculiarly enough a day or two later the spoor will show again, when the light sand has again been blown out. He had only a small water-bottle with him, the heat was like Hades itself, and we all thought he was dead.

“But on the second night of his absence I shall never forget it the wind had gone down completely, and the long stretches of white dunes lay clear and bright in the white moonlight. The other fellows lay asleep on the sand, exhausted, for we had had a terrible day, but I couldn't sleep I never can in bright moonlight.' And after tossing around for some time I got up, lit a pipe, and walked over to the water-barrel to get a drink. Poor Carfax was still in my mind, and I stood thinking of him and gazing out in the direction in which he had gone, straining my eyes in the forlorn hope of seeing something moving; but the dead silver-white of the sand dunes was unbroken by a single speck.

“I stood thus for some time, and was turning once more towards the others when a faint movement in the vague distance caught my eye. Yes! something or some one was crossing the ridge of a big dune in my direction! A jackal maybe! No, it was too big for that; the faint form was certainly that of a man or were there two? I didn't wait longer, but, running back and grabbing a water bottle, I started off at a run towards whoever it was.

“Moonlight is puzzling sometimes, and I could scarcely make out if there was one figure or two: one seemed to follow the other at a little distance. But as I got nearer I could see it was Carfax alone. 'Carfax! Carfax!' I called out, 'thank God you're alive we'd given you up!' He made no answer, but came on slowly and falteringly, turning repeatedly as though to gaze behind. Now I saw that he was in the last stage of exhaustion: his face was drawn and ghastly, and his cracked and swollen lips were moving rapidly in broken, incoherent words; his sufferings had plainly driven him out of his mind. He snatched at the water bottle and drained it at a draught; then, clutching me by the arm, he pointed back across the dunes.

“'There! there! see! he follows me always, since I found the diamonds! Look! look!'

“As he pointed his face was ghastly with fear, and I too looked back, expecting to see I knew not what. Was he followed, and by whom? I had thought at first there had been one following; but no, there was nothing to be seen. Who could be following him in this desolate place? But still he clutched my arm, and gibbered, and pointed back, and now my eyes were playing tricks again: surely there was a shadow! No, there was nothing there no human being at any rate. Possibly it had been a jackal. So, soothing him as best I could, I helped the poor demented fellow back to camp, he with many a backward look of fear, and I myself with an uncanny feeling that we were being followed.

“Well, he was delirious for days; and when the cutter came back to pick us up and take us to another spot farther up the coast he was too ill to be moved, so we rigged up a bit of a tent and I was left to nurse him till the boat returned again. It was a weird experience, alone in that desolate spot with a madman for company; for though he quieted down after the others had gone he still had the hallucination of being followed and watched; and especially in the night, when I wanted to sleep, he would seize me by the arm and point through the tent door to the bright moonlight outside. 'There! there!' he would mutter, 'don't you see him? look at his square-toed boots and brass buckles. See how his ghastly dead eyes glare! Keep him from me, Jason; keep him from me; he shall not have them back; he has been dead hundreds of years; keep him from me they are mine!' And in my overstrung, nervous state I could have sworn on one or two occasions that I too saw such a figure.

“He gradually got calmer and more himself, and then he told me a strange tale of what had happened to him in the dunes.

“He had been overtaken by a sandstorm many miles from the camp, and had struggled on till absolutely exhausted, not daring to lie down to rest lest the fast whirling sand should overwhelm him; and when late at night the wind had fallen he was hopelessly and utterly lost, and had thrown himself down in a sheltered spot deep hollowed out by the wind between two gigantic dunes, and had at once fallen into the deep sleep of exhaustion.

“Then he had dreamed a startling and vivid dream that had seemed half reality. He saw three men come down over the big dune to close beside where he lay rough-looking men in a costume of long ago, with cocked hats, broad breeches, and buckled shoes; and the moonlight shone on the brass hilts of their cutlasses and pistols. They took no notice of him, but, stooping, began to pick up the bright diamonds that Carfax now saw covered the sand before them. Soon the bag they held was full and a quarrel arose; for he saw two of the men draw their swords and fight fiercely, whilst the other, a tall hawk-faced man, stood by and watched, holding the bag. At length one fell, pierced through by the other's broad blade; and as the victor stood over him the hawk-faced man cut him down from behind, and stood, laughing horribly and holding the bag of diamonds before their dying eyes. And as he laughed one of them, with a last effort, drew a pistol from his belt and shot him dead.

“At the report the scene vanished, and Carfax awoke with a start. The dream had been so vivid that the pistol-shot seemed still to be ringing in his ears, and he sprang to his feet, scarcely knowing what he should see. The air was clear of dust now, and the moon shone brightly; and by its light he saw a few paces from him a prostrate form partly covered in sand. He bent over it: it was the body of a man, a man dressed in a strange old-world costume a dead man, dead hundreds of years, and mummified and wonderfully preserved by the sands that had covered him deep through the centuries, until the big gale of yesterday had lifted the heavy pall. Huddled near by lay two other indistinct forms; and Carfax, his dream still vividly before him, knew well what they were.

“Yes! there too lay the leather bag at his feet! And trembling with excitement he knelt and plunged his hand into it, and drew out a handful of big, dully gleaming diamonds. And as he gazed at the treasure his wrist was clutched in an icy grasp, and turning in terror he found the horrible eyes of the dead man glaring close into his own.

“With a scream of horror he wrenched away his wrist, and, still clutching the stones, fled madly across the dunes, pursued by the fearful figure of the long-dead man. Stumbling, falling, on and on he fled, till the moon paled and the stars faded and the bright sun rose and gave the hunted man a gleam of courage; but his fearful glance behind him still showed the grim figure of he who followed.

“He could not tell what instinct had guided him back to camp; but all through that awful day he had stumbled on through the roasting heat of the dunes, till late at night when I had seen him and gone to meet him as I described.

“All this he told me that night in the tent, now and again starting and glancing fearfully out and across the sands to point out the dread watcher he believed hovered near him. I tried to soothe him, to laugh away his fears, to tell him it was all a dream. And then? Well, he fumbled in his shirt and drew forth a little package tied up in a rag, and with many a fearful glance his trembling fingers undid it, and there poured forth a little cascade of magnificent diamonds far finer than anything I had ever seen before or since in German West: a fortune in fact! I sat astounded, for I had not dreamed of this. Where they came from there must be more a fortune for us all! Then I found my tongue. 'Carfax, man,' I said, 'this is wonderful! Can you find your way back? It will make us all rich.' He shuddered. 'No! no!' he said, his hand pressed to his eyes as though to shut out a scene of horror; 'he is there! No, he cannot be; he is watching here for me he will follow me always! Oh! Jason, don't leave me alone, old man; don't leave me; we'll get away together when the boat comes! there's enough for us both! don't leave me!'

“After a time he sank into a troubled sleep; but to me sleep was now out of the question. Where on earth had he found the diamonds? They, at least, were real. Had he really found a spot where the terrific gale had shifted the sand and laid bare a treasure and tragedy of long ago? Such things might be. I had seen dead men in the dunes myself, and the overwrought state of Carfax, due to his sufferings, would account for the rest. If only he could find his way back when he came to his proper senses again.

“Thus musing I paced up and down outside the tent in the bright moonlight. Carfax was still sleeping, but uneasily, and muttering a lot in his sleep. There across the dunes the diamonds must be there somewhere. He had come from yonder towards the big dune. And almost mechanically my footsteps wandered away from the tent towards where I had met Carfax. Here was the spot, here was the place where he had half scared me with his weird story of being followed, and where I had half believed myself that I had seen the follower. Here, for the wind had once more blown the sand from out the filled-in footprints, were our spoors mine meeting his; here we turned back; but what was this? Whose spoor was this, that followed upon our own, back towards where the tent stood!

“My hair rose on my head as I looked. The ghastly white moonlight showed the other spoor quite plainly the print of a broad, square-toed, low-heeled shoe.

“Every man of us wore veldtschoens: there was not a heel among the four of us, and as I marveled and superstitious fear crept upon me there came scream after scream of terror from the direction of the tent; and as I looked, Carfax, barefoot as he had slept, came flying from the tent, his ghastly face contorted with horror, glancing behind him as he ran, and holding out his arms as though to ward off a pursuer.

“Past me he flew, straight across the sand towards the dunes from which he had lately come, his shrieks getting fainter and fainter as he sped until they ceased, and the faint breeze that heralded the dawn brought back the sound of mocking laughter.

“Fear held possession of me, for something had passed me in pursuit of the haunted man, and with terror gripping my faculties, I scarce dared turn my eyes to where the fresh spoor of Carfax's naked feet showed in the sand. Yes! It was there: a heavy, broad, square-toed print following and treading over Carfax's own and showing the signs of a mad pursuit.

“Did I follow them? No! I'm not ashamed to say I did not at any rate not then. Instead, I walked down to the shore, where the solemn breakers offered some sort of companionship, and prayed for morning to come and blot out the ghastly moon and all it had shown me, and save my reason.

“The sun came at last, and with it an awful hurricane that equaled that of the previous week, and I was hard put to it to save our few belongings from being swept away and from being myself overwhelmed. In the evening came the calm, and with it the boat; and, thank God! I had not to face the moonlight again alone.

“Yes, we searched; but the storm had changed the whole aspect of the dunes, and the spoors lay buried under many feet of sand, and well, Carfax was never seen again!”

Jason ended his narrative abruptly, and, rising, lit his pipe with an ember from the dying fire and stood gazing across the river to where the vague mysterious dunes of German West showed silver-white beyond the farther bank. “Good country to be out of!” he said with a shiver. “Come, boys, you'd better turn in. I can't sleep when there's a moon.”