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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

H. Rider Haggard (1856–1925)

The Bare Legs, the Movable Teeth, and the Transparent Eye

From “King Solomon’s Mines”

SIR HENRY and Umbopa sat conversing in a mixture of broken English and Kitchin Zulu in a low voice, but earnestly enough, and I lay, with my eyes half-shut, upon that fragrant bed of fern and watched them. Presently I missed Good, and looked to see what had become of him. As I did so I observed him sitting by the bank of the stream, in which he had been bathing. He had nothing on but his flannel shirt, and his natural habits of extreme neatness having reasserted themselves, was actively employed in making a most elaborate toilet. He had washed his gutta-percha collar, thoroughly shaken out his trousers, coat, and waistcoat, and was now folding them up neatly till he was ready to put them on, shaking his head sadly as he did so over the numerous rents and tears in them, which had naturally resulted from our frightful journey. Then he took his boots, scrubbed them with a handful of fern, and finally rubbed them over with a piece of fat, which he had carefully saved from the inco meat, till they looked, comparatively speaking, respectable. Having inspected them judiciously through his eye-glass, he put them on and began a fresh operation. From a little bag he carried he produced a pocket-comb in which was fixed a tiny looking-glass, and in this he surveyed himself. Apparently he was not satisfied, for he proceeded to do his hair with great care. Then came a pause whilst he again contemplated the effect; still it was not satisfactory. He felt his chin, on which was now the accumulated scrub of a ten-days’ beard. “Surely,” thought I, “he is not going to try and shave.” But so it was. Taking the piece of fat with which he had greased his boots he washed it carefully in the stream. Then diving again into the bag he brought out a little pocket-razor with a guard to it, such as are sold to people afraid of cutting themselves, or to those about to undertake a sea voyage. Then he vigorously scrubbed his face and chin with the fat and began. But it was evidently a painful process, for he groaned very much over it, and I was convulsed with inward laughter as I watched him struggling with that stubbly beard. It seemed so very odd that a man should take the trouble to shave himself with a piece of fat in such a place and under such circumstances. At last he succeeded in getting the worst of the scrub off the right side of his face and chin, when suddenly I, who was watching, became aware of a flash of light that passed just by his head.

Good sprung up with a profane exclamation (if it had not been a safety-razor he would certainly have cut his throat), and so did I, without the exclamation, and this was what I saw. Standing there, not more than twenty paces from where I was, and ten from Good, were a group of men. They were very tall and copper-coloured, and some of them wore great plumes of black feathers and short cloaks of leopard-skins; this was all I noticed at the moment. In front of them stood a youth of about seventeen, his hand still raised and his body bent forward in the attitude of a Grecian statue of a spear-thrower. Evidently the flash of light had been a weapon, and he had thrown it.

As I looked, an old soldier-like-looking man stepped forward out of the group, and catching the youth by the arm said something to him. Then they advanced upon us.

Sir Henry, Good, and Umbopa had by this time seized their rifles and lifted them threateningly. The party of natives still came on. It struck me that they could not know what rifles were, or they would not have treated them with such contempt.

“Put down your guns!” I halloed to the others, seeing that our only chance of safety lay in conciliation. They obeyed, and walking to the front I addressed the elderly man who had checked the youth.

“Greeting,” I said in Zulu, not knowing what language to use. To my surprise I was understood.

“Greeting,” answered the man, not, indeed, in the same tongue, but in a dialect so closely allied to it, that neither Umbopa or myself had any difficulty in understanding it. Indeed, as we afterward found out, the language spoken by this people was an old-fashioned form of the Zulu tongue, bearing about the same relationship to it that the English of Chaucer does to the English of the nineteenth century.

“Whence come ye?” he went on. “What are you? And why are the faces of three of ye white, and the face of the fourth as the face of our mother’s sons?” and he pointed to Umbopa’s. I looked at Umbopa as he said it, and it flashed across me that he was right. Umbopa’s was like the faces of the men before me; so was his great form. But I had not time to reflect on this coincidence.

“We are strangers, and come in peace,” I answered, speaking very slow, so that he might understand me, “and this man is our servant.”

“Ye lie,” he answered; “no strangers can cross the mountains where all things die. But what do your lies matter; if ye are strangers then ye must die, for no strangers may live in the land of the Kukuanas. It is the king’s law. Prepare then to die, oh strangers!”

I was slightly staggered at this, more especially as I saw the hands of some of the party of men steal down to their sides, where hung on each what looked to me like a large and heavy knife.

“What does that beggar say?” asked Good.

“He says we are going to be scragged,” I answered grimly.

“Oh, Lord,” groaned Good; and, as was his way when perplexed, put his hand to his false teeth, dragging the top set down and allowing them to fly back to his jaw with a snap. It was a most fortunate move, for next second the dignified crowd of Kukuanas gave a simultaneous yell of horror, and bolted back some yards.

“What’s up?” said I.

“It’s his teeth,” whispered Sir Henry excitedly. “He moved them. Take them out, Good, take them out!”

He obeyed, slipping the set into the sleeve of his flannel shirt.

In another second curiosity had overcome fear, and the men advanced slowly. Apparently they had now forgotten their amiable intentions of doing for us.

“How is it, oh strangers,” asked the old man solemnly, “that the man yonder (pointing to Good, who had nothing on but a flannel shirt, and had only half finished his shaving), whose body is clothed, and whose legs are bare, who grows hair on one side of his sickly face and not on the other, and who has one shining and transparent eye, has teeth that move of themselves, coming away from the jaws and returning of their own will?”

“Open your mouth,” I said to Good, who promptly curled up his lips and grinned at the old gentleman like an angry dog, revealing to their astonished gaze two thin red lines of gum as utterly innocent of ivories as a new-born elephant. His audience gasped.

“Where are his teeth?” they shouted; “with our eyes we saw them.”

Turning his head slowly and with a gesture of ineffable contempt, Good swept his hand across his mouth. Then he grinned again, and lo! there were two rows of lovely teeth.

The young man who had flung the knife threw himself down on the grass and gave vent to a prolonged howl of terror; and as for the old gentleman, his knees knocked together with fear.

“I see that ye are spirits,” he said falteringly; “did ever man born of woman have hair on one side of his face and not on the other, or a round and transparent eye, or teeth which moved and melted away and grew again? Pardon us, oh, my lords.”

Here was luck indeed, and, needless to say, I jumped at the chance.

“It is granted,” I said, with an imperial smile. “Nay, ye shall know the truth. We come from another world, though we are men such as ye; we come,” I went on, “from the biggest star that shines at night.”

“Oh! oh!” groaned the chorus of astonished aborigines.

“Yes,” I went on, “we do indeed;” and I again smiled benignly as I uttered that amazing lie. “We come to stay with you a little while, and bless you by our sojourn. Ye will see, oh friends, that I have prepared myself by learning your language.”

“It is so, it is so,” said the chorus.

“Only, my lord,” put in the old gentleman, “thou hast learned it very badly.”

I cast an indignant glance at him, and he quailed.

“Now, friends,” I continued, “ye might think that after so long a journey we should find it in our hearts to avenge such a reception, mayhap to strike cold in death the impious hand that—that, in short—threw a knife at the head of him whose teeth come and go.”

“Spare him, my lords,” said the old man in supplication; “he is the king’s son, and I am his uncle. If anything befalls him his blood will be required at my hands.”

“Yes, that is certainly so,” put in the young man with great emphasis.

“You may perhaps doubt our power to avenge,” I went on, heedless of this by-play. “Stay, I will show you. Here, you dog and slave” (addressing Umbopa in a savage tone), “give me the magic tube that speaks;” and I tipped a wink toward my express rifle.

Umbopa rose to the occasion, and with something as nearly resembling a grin as I have ever seen on his dignified face, handed me the rifle.

“It is here, oh, lord of lords,” he said, with a deep obeisance.

Now, just before I asked for the rifle I had perceived a little klipspringer antelope standing on a mass of rock about seventy yards away, and determined to risk a shot at it.

“Ye see that buck,” I said, pointing the animal out to the party before me. “Tell me, is it possible for man, born of woman, to kill it from here with a noise?”

“It is not possible, my lord,” answered the old man.

“Yet shall I kill it,” said I quietly.

The old man smiled. “That my lord cannot do,” he said.

I raised the rifle and covered the buck. It was a small animal, and one which one might well be excused for missing, but I knew that it would not do to miss.

I drew a deep breath, and slowly pressed on the trigger. The buck stood still as stone.

“Bang! thud!” The buck sprung into the air and fell on the rock dead as a door-nail.

A groan of terror burst from the group before us.

“If ye want meat,” I remarked coolly, “go fetch that buck.”

The old man made a sign, and one of his followers departed, and presently returned bearing the klipspringer. I noticed, with satisfaction, that I had hit it fairly behind the shoulder. They gathered round the poor creature’s body, gazing at the bullet-hole in consternation.

“Ye see,” I said, “I do not speak empty words.”

There was no answer.

“If ye yet doubt our power,” I went on, “let one of ye go stand upon that rock that I may make him as this buck.”

None of them seemed at all inclined to take the hint, till at last the king’s son spoke.

“It is well said. Do thou, my uncle, go stand upon the rock. It is but a buck that the magic has killed. Surely it cannot kill a man.”

The old gentleman did not take the suggestion in good part. Indeed, he seemed hurt.

“No! no!” he ejaculated hastily, “my old eyes have seen enough. These are wizards indeed. Let us bring them to the king. Yet if any should wish a further proof let him stand upon the rock, that the magic tube may speak with him.”

There was a most general and hasty expression of dissent.

“Let not good magic be wasted on our poor bodies,” said one; “we are satisfied. All the witchcraft of our people cannot show the like of this.”

“It is so,” remarked the old gentleman in a tone of intense relief; “without any doubt it is so. Listen, children of the stars, children of the shining eye and the movable teeth, who roar out in thunder and slay from afar. I am Infadoos, son of Kafa, once King of the Kukuana people. This youth is Scragga.”

“He nearly scragged me,” murmured Good.

“Scragga, son of Twala, the great king—Twala, husband of a thousand wives, chief and lord paramount of the Kukuanas, keeper of the great road, terror of his enemies, student of the Black Arts, leader of an hundred thousand warriors, Twala the One-eyed, the Black, the Terrible.”

“So,” said I superciliously, “lead us then to Twala. We do not talk with low people and underlings.”

“It is well, my lords; we will lead you, but the way is long. We are hunting three days’ journey from the place of the king. But let my lords have patience, and we will lead them.”

“It is well,” I said carelessly, “all time is before us, for we do not die. We are ready; lead on. But Infadoos, and thou, Scragga, beware! Play us no tricks, make for us no snares, for before your brains of mud have thought of them we shall know them and avenge them. The light from the transparent eye of him with the bare legs and the half-haired face” (Good) “shall destroy you, and go through your land; his vanishing teeth shall fix themselves fast in you and eat you up, you and your wives and children; the magic tubes shall talk with you loudly, and make you as sieves. Beware!”

This magnificent address did not fail of its effect; indeed, it was hardly needed, so deeply were our friends already impressed with our powers.

The old man made a deep obeisance, and murmured the word “Koom, Koom,” which I afterward discovered was their royal salute, corresponding to the Bayete of the Zulus, and turning, addressed his followers. These at once proceeded to lay hold of all our goods and chattels, in order to bear them for us, excepting only the guns, which they would on no account touch. They even seized Good’s clothes, which were, as the reader may remember, neatly folded up beside him.

He at once made a dive for them, and a loud altercation ensued.

“Let not my lord of the transparent eye and the melting teeth touch them,” said the old man. “Surely his slaves shall carry the things.”

“But I want to put ’em on!” roared Good, in nervous English.

Umbopa translated.

“Nay, my lord,” put in Infadoos, “would my lord cover up his beautiful white legs” (although he was so dark, Good had a singularly white skin) “from the eyes of his servants? Have we offended my lord that he should do such a thing?”

Here I nearly exploded with laughing; and meanwhile, one of the men started on with the garments.

“Damn it!” roared Good, “that black villain has got my trousers.”

“Look here, Good,” said Sir Henry, “you have appeared in this country in a certain character, and you must live up to it. It will never do for you to put on trousers again. Henceforth you must live in a flannel shirt, a pair of boots, and an eye-glass.”

“Yes,” I said, “and with whiskers on one side of your face and not on the other. If you change any of these things they will think that we are impostors. I am very sorry for you, but, seriously, you must do it. If once they begin to suspect us our lives will not be worth a brass farthing.”

“Do you really think so?” said Good gloomily.

“I do indeed. Your ‘beautiful white legs’ and your eye-glasses are now the feature of our party, and, as Sir Henry says, you must live up to them. Be thankful that you have got your boots on, and that the air is warm.”

Good sighed, and said no more, but it took him a fortnight to get accustomed to his attire.