The Grave in the Hills
Denys Finch-Hatton had come in from one of his Safaris, and he had stayed for a little whi le on the farm, but, when i began to break up my house and to pack, and he could stay there no longer, he went away and lived in Hugh Martin’s house in Nairobi. From there he drove out to the farm every day and dined with me, sitting,—towards the end, when I was selling my furniture,—on one packing-case and dining from another. We sat there late into the night.
A few times, Denys and I spoke as if I was really going to leave the country. He himself looked upon Africa as his home, and he understood me very well and grieved with me then, even if he laughed at my distress at parting with my people.
“Do you feel,” he said, “that you cannot live without Sirunga?”
“Yes,” I said.
But most of the time when we were together, we talked and acted as if the future did not exist; it had never been his way to worry about it, for it was as if he knew that he could draw upon forces unknown to us if he wanted to. He fell in naturally with my scheme of leaving things to themselves, and other people to think and say what they liked. When he was there, it seemed to be a normal thing, and in accordance with our own taste, that we should sit upon packing-cases within an empty house. He quoted a poem to me:
“You must turn your mournful ditty
To a merry measure,
I will never come for pity,
I will come for pleasure.”
During those weeks, we used to go up for short flights out over the Ngong Hills or down over the Game Reserve. One morning, Denys came out to the farm to fetch me quite early, just as the sun was up, and then we saw a lion on the plain South of the Hills.
He talked of packing up his books, that had been in my house for many years, but he never got any further with the job.
“You keep them,” he said, “now I have no place to put them.”
He could not make up his mind at all where to go when my house should be closed. Once, upon the persistent advice of a friend, he went so far as to drive in to Nairobi, and to take a look at the bungalows to be let there, but he came back so repelled with what he had seen that he did not even like to talk about it, and at dinner, when he began to give me a description of the houses and the furniture, he stopped himself and sat silent over it, with a dislike and sadness in his face that was unusual to him. He had been in contact with a kind of existence the idea of which was unbearable to him.
It was, however, a completely objective and impersonal disapprobation, he had forgotten that he himself had meant to be a party to this existence, and when I spoke of it, he interrupted me. “Oh, as to me,” he said, “I shall be perfectly happy in a tent in the Masai Reserve, or I shall take a house in the Somali village.”
But on this occasion he, for once, spoke of my future in Europe. I might be happier there than on the farm, he thought, and well out of the sort of civilization that we were going to get in Africa. “You know,” he went on, “this Continent of Africa has a terrible strong sense of sarcasm.”
Denys owned a piece of land down at the coast, thirty miles North of Mombasa on the Creek of Takaunga. Here were the ruins of an old Arab settlement, with a very modest minaret and a well,—a weathered growth of grey stone on the salted soil, and in the midst of it a few old Mango trees. He had built a small house on his land and I had stayed there. The scenery was of a divine, clean, barren Marine greatness, with the blue Indian Ocean before you, the deep creek of Takaunga to the South, and the long steep unbroken coast-line of pale grey and yellow coral-rock as far as the eye reached.
When the tide was out, you could walk miles away Seawards from the house, as on a tremendous, somewhat unevenly paved Piazza, picking up strange long peaked shells and starfish. The Swaheli fishermen came wandering along here, in a loin-cloth and red or blue turbans, like Sindbad the Sailor come to life, to offer for sale multi-coloured spiked fish, some of which were very good to eat. The coast below the house had a row of scooped-out deep caves and grottoes, where you sat in shade and watched the distant glittering blue water. When the tide came in, it filled up the caves to the level of the ground on which the house was built, and in the porous coral-rock the Sea sang and sighed in the strangest way, as if the ground below your feet were alive; the long waves came running up Takaunga Creek like a storming army.
It was full moon while I was down at Takaunga, and the beauty of the radiant, still nights was so perfect that the heart bent under it. You slept with the doors open to the silver Sea; the playing warm breeze in a low whisper swept in a little loose sand, on to the stone floor. One night a row of Arab dhows came along, close to the coast, running noiselessly before the monsoon, a file of brown shadow-sails under the moon.
Denys sometimes talked of making Takaunga his home in Africa, and of starting his Safaris from there. When I began to talk of having to leave the farm, he offered me his house down there, as he had had mine in the highlands. But white people cannot live for a long time at the coast unless they are able to have many comforts, and Takaunga was too low and too hot for me.
In the month of May of the year when I left Africa, Denys went down to Takaunga for a week. He was planning to build a larger house and to plant Mango trees on his land. He went away in his aeroplane and was intending to make his way home round by Voi, to see if there were any Elephants there for his Safaris. The Natives had been talking much of a herd of Elephants which had come on to the land round Voi from the West, and in particular of one big bull, twice the size of any other Elephant, that was wandering in the bush there, all by himself.
Denys, who held himself to be an exceptionally rational person, was subject to a special kind of moods and forebodings, and under their influence at times he became silent for days or for a week, though he did not know of it himself and was surprised when I asked him what was the matter with him. The last days before he started on this journey to the coast, he was in this manner absent-minded, as if sunk in contemplation, but when I spoke of it he laughed at me.
I asked him to let me come with him, for I thought what a lovely thing it would be to see the Sea. First he said yes, and then he changed his mind and said no. He could not take me; the journey round Voi, he told me, was going to be very rough, he might have to land, and to sleep, in the bush, so that it would be necessary for him to take a Native boy with him. I reminded him that he had said that he had taken out the aeroplane to fly me over Africa. Yes, he said, so he had; and if there were Elephants at Voi, he would fly me down there to have a look at them, when he knew the landing-places and camping-grounds. This is the only time that I have asked Denys to take me with him on his aeroplane that he would not do it.
He went off on Friday the eighth: “Look out for me on Thursday,” he said when he went, “I shall be back in time to have luncheon with you.”
When he had started in his car for the aerodrome in Nairobi, and had turned down the drive, he came back to look for a volume of poems that he had given to me, and that he now wanted with him on his journey. He stood with one foot on the running-board of the car, and a finger in the book, reading out to me a poem that we had been discussing.
“Here are your grey geese,” he said:
“I saw grey geese flying over the flatlands Wild geese vibrant in the high air—Unswerving from horizon to horizon With their soul stiffened out in their throats—And the grey whiteness of them ribboning the enormous skies And the spokes of the sun over the crumpled hills.”
Then he drove away for good, waving his arm to me.
While Denys was down in Mombasa, in landing he broke a propeller. He wired back to Nairobi to get the spare parts that he wanted, and the East Africa Airway Company sent a boy to Mombasa with them. When the aeroplane was fixed, and Denys was again going up in it, he told the Airway’s boy to come up with him. But the boy would not come. This boy was used to flying, and had been up with many people, and with Denys himself, before now, and Denys was a fine pilot and had a great name with the Natives in this capacity as in all others. But this time the boy would not go up with him.
A long time after, when he met Farah in Nairobi and they were talking things over, he said to Farah: “Not for a hundred rupees would I, then, have gone up with Bwana Bed^ar.” The shadow of destiny, which Denys himself had felt the last days at Ngong, was seen more strongly now, by the Native.
So Denys took Kamau with him to Voi, his own boy. Poor Kamau was terrified of flying. He had told me, at the farm, that when he got up and away from the ground, he fixed his eyes at his feet and kept them there till he got down to the earth again, so frightened did he feel if ever he cast a glance over the side of the aeroplane, and saw the landscape from its great height.
I looked out for Denys on Thursday, and reckoned that he would fly from Voi at sunrise and be two hours on the way to Ngong. But when he did not come, and I found that I had got things to do in Nairobi, I drove in to town.
Whenever I was ill in Africa, or much worried, I suffered from a special kind of compulsive idea. It seemed to me then that all my surroundings were in danger or distress, and that in the midst of this disaster I myself was somehow on the wrong side, and therefore was regarded with distrust and fear by everybody.
This nightmare was in reality a reminiscence of the time of the war. For then for a couple of years, people in the Colony had believed me to be a pro-German at heart, and had looked at me with mistrust. Their suspiciousness rose from the fact that I had, in the innocence of my heart, a short time before the outbreak of war, been up at Naivasha buying horses for General von Lettow down in German East Africa. He had asked me, when we travelled out to Africa together six months before, to buy him ten Abyssinian breeding-mares, but during my first time in the country I had had other things to think of, and had forgotten about it, so that it was only later, when he kept on writing of the mares to me, that in the end I went up to Naivasha to buy them for him. The war broke out so shortly after, that the mares never got out of the country. Still I could not get away from the fact that I had, at the outbreak of the war, been buying up horses for the German army. The suspicion against me did not, however, last till the end of the war, it passed away when my brother, who had been volunteering with the English, got the V.C. in the Amiens push, north of Roye. That event was even announced in the “East African Standard” under the headline of: An East-African V.C.
At the time, I had taken my isolation lightly, for I was not in the least pro-German, and I thought that I should be able to clear things up if it became necessary. But it must have gone deeper with me than I knew of, and for many years after, when I was very tired or when I had a high temperature, the feeling of it would come back. During my last months in Africa, when everything was going wrong with me, it sometimes suddenly fell upon me like a darkness, and in a way I was frightened of it, as of a sort of derangement.
On this Thursday in Nairobi the nightmare unexpectedly stole upon me, and grew so strong that I wondered if I were beginning to go mad. There was, somehow, a deep sadness over the town, and over the people I met, and in the midst of it everybody was turning away from me. There was nobody who would stop and talk to me, my friends, when they saw me, got into their cars and drove off. Even old Mr. Duncan, the Scotch grocer, from whom I had bought groceries for many years, and with whom I had danced at a big ball at Government House, when I came in looked at me with a kind of fright and left his shop. I began to feel as lonely in Nairobi as on a desert island.
I had left Farah on the farm to receive Denys, so that I had nobody to talk with. The Kikuyus are no good in such a case, for their ideas of reality, and their reality itself, are different from ours. But I was to lunch with Lady McMillan at Chiromo, and I thought that there I should find white people to talk to, and get back my balance of mind.
I drove up to the lovely old Nairobi house of Chiromo, at the end of the long bamboo avenue, and found a luncheon-party there. But it was the same thing at Chiromo as in the streets of Nairobi. Everybody seemed mortally sad, and as I came in the talk stopped. I sat beside my old friend Mr. Bulpett, and he looked down and said only a few words. I tried to throw off the shadow that was by now lying heavily upon me, and to talk to him of his mountain-climbings in Mexico, but he seemed to remember nothing about them.
I thought: These people are no good to me, I will go back to the farm. Denys will be there by now. We will talk and behave sensibly, and I shall be sane again and know and understand everything.
But when we had finished luncheon, Lady McMillan asked me to come with her into her small sitting-room, and there told me that there had been an accident at Voi. Denys had capsized with his machine, and had been killed in the fall.
It was then as I had thought: at the sound of Denys’s name even, truth was revealed, and I knew and understood everything.
Later on, the District Commissioner at Voi wrote to me and gave me the particulars of the accident. Denys had been staying with him over the night, and had left from the aerodrome in the morning, with his boy in the aeroplane with him, for my farm. After he had left he turned and came back quickly, flying low, at two hundred feet. Suddenly the aeroplane swayed, got into a spin, and came down like a bird swooping. As it hit the ground it caught fire, the people who ran to it were stopped by the heat. When they got branches and earth, and had thrown them on the fire, and had got it out, they found that the aeroplane had been all smashed up, and the two people in it had been killed in the fall.
For many years after this day the Colony felt Denys’s death as a loss which could not be recovered. Something fine then came out in the average colonist’s attitude towards him, a reverence for values outside their understanding. When they spoke of him it was most often as an athlete; they would discuss his exploits as a cricketer and a golfer, and of these things I had never heard myself, so that it was only now that I learned of his great fame in all games. Then when the people had been paying tribute to him as a sportsman, they would add that, of course, he had been very brilliant. What they really remembered in him was his absolute lack of self-consciousness, or self-interest, an unconditional truthfulness which outside of him I have only met in idiots. In a colony, these qualities are not generally held up for imitation, but after a man’s death they may be, perhaps, more truly admired than in other places.
The Natives had known Denys better than the white people; to them his death was a bereavement.
When, in Nairobi, I was told of Denys’s death I tried to get down to Voi. The Airway Company was sending down Tom Black to report on the accident, and I drove to the Aerodrome to ask him to take me with him, but as I got into the Aerodrome, his aeroplane lifted and sailed off, towards Voi.
It might still be possible to get through by car, but the long rains were on, and I had to find out what the roads were like. While I sat and waited for the report on the roads, I remembered how Denys had told me that he wished to be buried in the Ngong Hills. It was a strange thing that I had not recollected it before, but it had been so far from my thoughts that they should mean to bury him at all. Now it was as if a picture had been shown to me.
There was a place in the Hills, on the first ridge in the Game Reserve, that I myself at the time when I thought that I was to live and die in Africa, had pointed out to Denys as my future burial-place. In the evening, while we sat and looked at the hills, from my house, he remarked that then he would like to be buried there himself as well. Since then, sometimes when we drove out in the hills, Denys had said: “Let us drive as far as our graves.” Once when we were camped in the hills to look for Buffalo, we had in the afternoon walked over to the slope to have a closer look at it. There was an infinitely great view from there; in the light of the sunset we saw both Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro. Denys had been eating an orange, lying in the grass, and had said that he would like to stay there. My own burial-place was a little higher up. From both places we could see my house in the forest far away to the East. We were going back there the next day, for ever, I thought, in spite of the widespread theory that All must die.
Gustav Mohr had come from his farm to my house, when he heard of Denys’s death, and when he did not find me there he looked me up in Nairobi. A little while after, Hugh Martin came and sat down with us. I told them of Denys’s wish, and of the burial-place in the hills, and they wired to the people at Voi. Before I went back to the farm they informed me that they would bring Denys’s body up by train next morning, so that the funeral could take place in the hills at noon. I must have his grave ready there by then.
Gustav Mohr went with me to the farm, to sleep there, and help me in the morning. We would have to be out in the hills just before sunrise to decide on the place, and to have the grave dug in time.
It rained all night, and there was a fine drizzling rain in the morning when we went away. The waggon-tracks on the road were full of water. Driving up in the hills was like driving into clouds. We could not see the plains below to our left, nor the slopes or peaks of the hills to our right; the boys who came with us in a lorry disappeared behind us at a distance of ten yards, and the mist grew thicker as the road mounted. By the sign-board on the road, we found where we got into the Game Reserve, so we drove on a few hundred yards and then got out of the car. We left the lorry, and the boys, on the high-road, until we should have found the place we wanted. The morning air was so cold that it bit the fingers.
The place of the grave must not be too far away from the road, nor where the ground was too steep to bring up a lorry. We walked together for a little while, talking of the mist, then we parted and went along by different paths, and after a few seconds we could no longer see one another.
The great country of the hills opened up reluctantly round me, and closed again, the day was like a rainy day in a Northern country. Farah was walking with me with a wet rifle; he thought that we might walk into a herd of Buffalo. The things close by, that suddenly appeared just before us, looked fantastically big. The leaves of the grey wild-olive bush, and the long grass, higher than ourselves, were dripping wet and smelled strongly,—I had on a mackintosh and rubber boots, but after a while I was drenched as if I had been wading up a stream. It was very still here in the hills, only at times when the rain came down stronger, there was a whisper to all sides. Once the mist parted, and I saw a stretch of indigo blue land before me and beyond me, like a slate,—it must have been one of the tall peaks far away,—a moment after it was again covered by the drifting grey rain and mist. I walked and walked, and in the end I stood quite still. There was nothing to do here until the weather cleared up.
Gustav Mohr shouted to me three or four times to find out where I was, and came up to me, the rain on his face and hands. He told me that we had been going about in the mist for an hour, and that if we did not settle the place for the grave now, we would not have it ready in time.
“But I cannot see where we are,” I said, “and we cannot lay him where the ridges close up the view. Let us wait a little longer.”
We stood in silence in the long grass, and I smoked a cigarette. Just as I was throwing it away, the mist spread a little, and a pale cold clarity began to fill the world. In ten minutes we could see where we were. The plains lay below us, and I could follow the road by which we had come, as it wound in and out along the slopes, climbed towards us, and, winding, went on. To the South, far away, below the changing clouds, lay the broken, dark blue foot-hills of Kilimanjaro. As we turned to the North the light increased, pale rays for a moment slanted in the sky and a streak of shining silver drew up the shoulder of Mount Kenya. Suddenly, much closer, to the East below us, was a little red spot in the grey and green, the only red there was, the tiled roof of my house on its cleared place in the forest. We did not have to go any further, we were in the right place. A little while after, the rain started again.
About twenty yards higher up than where we stood, there was a narrow natural terrace in the hillside, here we marked out the place for the grave, by the compass, laying it East to West. We called up the boys, and set them to cut the grass with pangas, and to dig the wet soil. Mohr took some of them with him to make a road tor the lorry, from the highroad to the grave, they levelled out the ground, cut off branches from the bush and heaped them on the path, for the ground was slippery. We could not bring the road all the way up to the grave, near it the ground was too steep. It had been silent up here till now, but when the boys began to work, I heard that there was an echo in the hills, it answered to the strokes of the spades, like a little dog barking.
Some cars came out from Nairobi, and we sent down a boy to show them the way, for in the great country they would not notice the small group of people by the grave in the bush. The Somalis of Nairobi came out, they left their mule-traps on the highroad, and walked slowly up, three or four together, mourning in the Somali way, as if wrapping up their heads and withdrawing from life. Some of Denys’s friends from up-country, who had had news of his death, came driving from Naivasha, Gil-Gil, and Elmenteita, their cars all covered with mud from the long fast drive. Now the day grew clearer, and the four tall peaks of the hills showed above us against the sky.
Here in the early afternoon they brought out Denys from Nairobi, following his old Safari-track to Tanganyika, and driving slowly on the wet road. When they came to the last steep slope, they lifted out, and carried the narrow coffin, that was covered with the flag. As it was placed in the grave, the country changed and became the setting for it, as still as itself, the hills stood up gravely, they knew and understood what we were doing in them; after a little while they themselves took charge of the ceremony, it was an action between them and him, and the people present became a party of very small lookers-on in the landscape.
Denys had watched and followed all the ways of the African Highlands, and better than any other white man, he had known their soil and seasons, the vegetation and the wild animals, the winds and smells. He had observed the changes of weather in them, their people, clouds, the stars at night. Here in the hills, I had seen him only a short time ago, standing bare-headed in the afternoon sun, gazing out over the land, and lifting his field-glasses to find out everything about it. He had taken in the country, and in his eyes and his mind it had been changed, marked by his own individuality, and made part of him. Now Africa received him, and would change him, and make him one with herself.
The Bishop of Nairobi, I was told, had not wanted to come out, because there had not been time to have the burial-ground consecrated, but there was another clergyman present, who read out the funeral service, which I had never heard before, and in the great space his voice sounded small and clear, like the voice of a bird in the hills. I thought that Denys would like the whole thing best when it was over. The priest read out a Psalm: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills.”
Gustav Mohr and I sat on for a little while, after the other white people had left. The Mohammedans waited till we had gone, and then went and prayed by the grave.
In the days after Denys’s death, his Safari servants came in, and gathered on the farm. They did not say why they came, and did not ask for anything, but sat down with their backs to the wall of the house, and the backs of their hands, resting upon the pavement, most of the time in silence, contrary to the habits of Natives. Malimu and Sar Sita came there, Denys’s bold, shrewd, fearless gunbearers and trackers, who had been with him on all his Safaris. They had been out with the Prince of Wales, and many years after, the Prince remembered their names, and said that the two of them together had been hard to beat. Here the great trackers had lost the track, and sat immovable. Kanuthia, his motor-driver, came in, who had driven over many thousand miles of rough country, a slim young Kikuyu with the watchful eyes of a monkey, now he sat by the house like a sad and chilly monkey in a cage.
Bilea Isa, Denys’s Somali servant, came down from Naivasha to the farm. Bilea had been to England twice with Denys, had been to school there, and spoke English like a gentleman. Some years ago, Denys and I had attended Bilea’s wedding in Nairobi; it was a magnificent feast that lasted for seven days. On that occasion, the great traveller and scholar had gone back to the ways of his ancestors, he had been dressed in a golden robe, and had bowed down to the ground when he welcomed us, and he danced the sword-dance, all wild with the desperado spirit of the desert. Bilea came down to see his master’s grave, and sit on it; he came back from it and spoke very little, after a little while, he sat with the others with his back to the wall, and the backs of his hands resting on the pavement.
Farah went out and stood and talked with the mourners. He himself was very grave. “It would not have been so bad,” he said to me, “that you were going away from the country, if only Bed^ar had still been here.”
Denys’s boys stayed for about a week, then one after the other they left again.
I often drove out to Denys’s grave. In a bee-line, it was not more than five miles from my house, but round by the road it was fifteen. The grave was a thousand feet higher up than my house, the air was different here, as clear as a glass of water; light sweet winds lifted your hair when you took off your hat; over the peaks of the hills, the clouds came wandering from the East, drew their live shadow over the wide undulating land, and were dissolved and disappeared over the Rift Valley.
I bought at the dhuka a yard of the white cloth which the Natives call Americani, and Farah and I raised three tall poles in the ground behind the grave, and nailed the cloth on to them, then from my house I could distinguish the exact spot of the grave, like a little white point in the green hill.
The long rains had been heavy, and I was afraid that the grass would grow up and cover the grave so that its place would be lost. Therefore one day we took up all the whitewashed stones along my drive, the same that Karomenya had had trouble in pulling up and carrying to the front door; we loaded them into my box-body car and drove them up into the hills. We cut down the grass round the grave, and set the stones in a square to mark it; now the place could always be found.
As I went so often to the grave, and took the children of my household with me, it became a familiar place to them; they could show the way out there to the people who came to see it. They built a small bower in the bush of the hill near it. In the course of the summer, Ali bin Salim, whose friend Denys had been, came from Mombasa to go out and lie on the grave and weep, in the Arab way.
One day I found Hugh Martin by the grave, and we sat in the grass and talked for a long time. Hugh Martin had taken Denys’s death much to heart. If any human being at all had held a place in his queer seclusive existence, it would have been Denys. An ideal is a strange thing, you would never have given Hugh credit for harbouring the idea of one, neither would you have thought that the loss of it would have affected him, like, somehow, the loss of a vital organ. But since Denys’s death he had aged and changed much, his face was blotched and drawn. All the same he preserved his placid, smiling likeness to a Chinese Idol, as if he knew of something exceedingly satisfactory, that was hidden to the general. He told me now that he had, in the night, suddenly struck upon the right epitaph for Denys. I think that he had got it from an ancient Greek author, he quoted it to me in Greek, then translated it in order that I should understand it. It went: “Though in death fire be mixed with my dust yet care I not. For with me now all is well.”
Later on, Denys’s brother, Lord Winchilsea, had an obelisk set on his grave, with an inscription out of “The Ancient Mariner,” which was a poem that Denys had much admired. I myself had never heard it until Denys quoted it to me,—the first time was, I remember, as we were going to Bilea’s wedding. I have not seen the obelisk; it was put up after I had left Africa.
In England there is also a monument to Denys. His old schoolfellows, in memory of him, built a stone bridge over a small stream between two fields at Eton. On one of the balustrades is inscribed his name, and the dates of his stay at Eton, and on the other the words: “Famous in these fields and by his many friends much beloved.”
Between the river in the mellow English landscape and the African mountain ridge, ran the path of his life; it is an optical illusion that it seemed to wind and swerve,—the surroundings swerved. The bow-string was released on the bridge at Eton, the arrow described its orbit, and hit the obelisk in the Ngong Hills.
After I had left Africa, Gustav Mohr wrote to me of a strange thing that had happened by Denys’ grave, the like of which I have never heard. “The Masai,” he wrote, “have reported to the District Commissioner at Ngong, that many times, at sunrise and sunset, they have seen lions on Finch-Hatton’s grave in the Hills. A lion and a lioness have come there, and stood, or lain, on the grave for a long time. Some of the Indians who have passed the place in their lorries on the way to Kajado have also seen them. After you went away, the ground round the grave was levelled out, into a sort of big terrace, I suppose that the level place makes a good site for the lions, from there they can have a view over the plain, and the cattle and game on it.”
It was fit and decorous that the lions should come to Denys’s grave and make him an African monument. “And renowned be thy grave.” Lord Nelson himself, I have reflected, in Trafalgar Square, has his lions made only out of stone.