FOR many moons no rain had fallen, and the parched brown earth had ceased to yield its fruit. All the fountains were dried up, and on the barren veld the lean cattle sought pasture in vain; the sight of them with drooping heads, their bones showing beneath the shrunk hides, filled with grief the hearts of the herd-boys.
Not a cloud hung in the bare blue dome overhead; at evening the sun dipped below the horizon in hot and sullen splendour, and the wind of dawn brought no refreshment to the parched and weary earth.
The men no longer walked with head erect and swift of foot; while, hard pressed by thirst and famine, the maidens drooped like flowers in the heat of noon.
It was the sunset hour, and within the village the mothers whose breasts had run dry tried in vain to soothe the little ones whose fretful wailing disturbed the still air and reached the ears of the Chief Rasenkepeng, who sat brooding over the sorrows of his people, not knowing how he might help them.
Day after day the Rain-maker had climbed the hill that rose behind the village, and had stood through the long hot hours with rod lifted toward heaven, praying that the rain might fall and save the people, but not a drop had descended upon the earth. Day by day Rasenkepeng, the Chief, had waited at the base of the mountain, joining with his people in their prayers, and still the heavens were as brass.
The time had come when the people must seek a new country or die, and Rasenkepeng sat alone communing with his heart.
"Lo, my people die of thirst," said he, "and Bulane, the Water God, hears not our prayers. I will therefore send forth my son Maphapho to seek a land watered by streams, and thither will I lead my people."
So he summoned Maphapho to his presence, and bade him go next day in search of a land through which ran rivers and where the mountain pools were filled with water.
And Maphapho, the tall, limber youth who drew to himself the eyes of all the maidens, obeyed gladly, and chose from the young men of his father's people those who were to accompany him on his quest.
At sunrise the next day he set forth with his comrades equipped as if for a hunting expedition, and wistfully the famine-stricken people watched them make their way across the veld toward the distant mountains.
The whole day they journeyed, but everywhere the land was parched and the river-beds dry, while beneath their feet crackled the withered grass.
At the end of the long day Maphapho withdrew from his comrades and, gazing round him, saw gleaming in the light of the setting sun a pool of water. He hastened thither and stooped to quench his thirst, but as his lips touched the surface of the pool, all unseen, Bulane, the Water God, struck him in the face, and would not let him drink.
Then Maphapho filled the hollow of his hand with water and raised it to his lips, but Bulane again struck him, and the water was dashed from his hand.
Wondering, Maphapho rose to his feet and said: "Why, O Lord of the Water, may I not quench my thirst at this fountain?"
And the voice of Bulane made answer: "Tell Rasenkepeng, your father, that unless he send me his daughter Senkenpeng, all his people shall die of thirst, and they and their cattle shall be wiped off from the face of the earth."
Maphapho loved his sister dearly, and knew her to be the darling of her father's heart, so when he heard these words he bowed his head in grief, but he answered Bulane, saying, "I will obey the command of my Lord, but know that Senkenpeng is more precious to my father than all his lands and his herds of cattle."
Then because he was faint from thirst and wearied with the long march, he stooped and drank his fill from the cool spring. And when he was refreshed he filled the water-pots which he had brought with him and returned to his companions.
The young men, without seeking repose, retraced their steps and journeyed through the night until at dawn they reached the village where Rasenkepeng and the headmen awaited their return. Maphapho told his father how that Bulane, the Lord of the Water, had demanded that Senkenpeng should be sent to him, and the Chief's look was overcast, for this daughter was dearer to him than life. He would have withheld her from going, but the first among his warriors said: "Lo, thy people die of hunger and thirst. Send for thy daughter and let her choose."
And when Senkenpeng stood in their midst and heard that Bulane, the Lord of the Water, had summoned her, she said: "Surely my people shall not perish. I will go to Bulane that they may live."
And so next day, when the wind of dawn blew from the mountains, Maphapho led forth his sister, and the young men and maidens of the village made ready to accompany her, as if she were setting forth as a bride.
Her mother wept bitterly at the parting, and her father, blessing her, said: "May you go softly all your days, and may your face be as the morning sun!"
But Senkenpeng shed no tears; she went forth with Maphapho and her companions, until at sunset they reached the pool whence had come the voice of Bulane.
Here they left her, and Senkenpeng stood solitary in the silence amid the hills.
The sun sank in red and golden splendour behind clouds of sullen darkness. The glory of the day gave place to the sweet coolness of night; the stars shone in the vast dome overhead, and from behind the hills the moon rose to sail in majesty across the heavens.
Wearied with her long march, Senkenpeng longed for rest.
"Where shall I sleep?" she asked.
obediently she spread her mantle of skins on the ground.
She slept till she was awakened by the falling rain and the scent of the earth refreshed by the welcome moisture. Then her heart rejoiced, for she knew that salvation had come to her people.
The sky was dark with heavy rain-clouds and the moon and stars were hidden. The air was chill, and Senkenpeng rose to seek shelter, saying, "It is raining. Where shall I sleep?" Again the voice replied: "Here, just here." She lay down again, and drawing her mantle round her once more she slept.
When she woke it was to find herself in a hut more magnificent than that in which her father dwelt. It was furnished with rich skins, and on the walls hung shields and weapons of war. Near her stood meat and drink, but she was alone, nor was there any sign of human life around her.
The rain was still falling, and Senkenpeng rejoiced; she knew that the watercourses in her father's land were now filled, and that the earth would once more yield its increase.
The days passed, the earth grew green again, and Senkenpeng lived in her solitude with heart untroubled. In the ninth month a child came to her and to the unseen husband upon whose face she had never looked. It was a man-child, whose strength and beauty surpassed that of all other children, and Senkenpeng loved her son exceedingly.
Her solitary days were ended; for two happy years the hut was filled with the sound of happy laughter and the soft crooning of lullabies.
Then one day Senkenpeng felt a great longing to see her people again and to show them her son.
"May I go home again?" she asked of her unseen husband, and a voice made answer: "Go."
The next day accordingly she set out with her boy and journeyed till she came to her father's village, in which since the coming of the rain there had been joy and prosperity.
Senkenpeng was received with great joy, and her father's heart was full to overflowing at the sight of his daughter. He rejoiced also in her beautiful child, but when he asked her about her husband she would give no answer.
At last the time came to return, and when Senkenpeng had made ready, her young sister asked that she might accompany her, and Senkenpeng said: "Come with me, for I live alone."
So the sisters journeyed to the hut together, and took up their abode there; but with the coming of the younger sister peace left the home. The girl did not love Senkenpeng's son, but chid him and was fretted by his childish ways. And it happened that one day when his mother had gone to draw water from the spring, she used him ill, striking him and saying, "Nobody knows who your father is, or where he lives," and she continued to scold him.
But Bulane heard her reproaching his son, and when, shortly after, she left the hut, he entered it and, taking the boy between his knees, sat down and played with him.
Presently the girl returned, and when she saw the great Chief, clad in a scaly mantle shining like silver, seated in the hut, she trembled. Then, when he spoke, saying, "It is I who am the father of the child whom you abuse," she was so smitten with fear that she fled from the hut and returned to her own people.
Meanwhile Senkenpeng had come back from the spring, and seeing a strange warrior playing with her child, her heart was filled with fear; she shook like a leaf when he spoke to her, asking, "Who is your husband, Senkenpeng?"
"Nay, my lord, I know not," was her reply.
"I am he," he answered—"Bulane, Lord of the Water, who demanded you from your people. This is my son, whom your sister reproached because none had seen his father. Now you and he shall know me, and I will leave you no more."
And Senkenpeng rejoiced to have Bulane at her side, for he was true to his word, and never left her. He brought his people and their cattle to live near, and a village grew up round the hut which once had been so solitary.