ONCE long ago there lived a girl named Umnandi, whose mother had died when she was a babe. She was left to the care of the other women of the kraal, but none of these were kind to her except her old grandmother, who loved the child.
Umnandi was as good as she was pretty, and deserved her name, which means 'The Gift of Heaven,' but nevertheless she was harshly treated and kept hard at work. She had to fetch water from the spring, grind the corn and bake the bread, and she got no thanks for her trouble. The task that she liked best was herding the goats, for then she was away from the scolding women; but it was hard to come home at night to be sent to bed hungry because there was no porridge left for her supper. No matter how hard she worked, she was told that she was a lazy good-for-nothing, not worth her salt.
Umnandi often cried herself to sleep, and as years passed her lot did not improve. The other girls of the kraal were sought in marriage by great Chiefs, who paid a rich lobola of cattle for their brides. The kraal prospered on these wedding gifts, which the brides' relatives held in trust for them, but no one asked Umnandi's hand in marriage, though she was far more beautiful and far more lovable than any of the other maidens of the house.
The older women said many unkind things to her, mocking her because she had no lover, and saying that she was not worth her keep.
Umnandi took her troubles to her grandmother, but in spite of all her love the old woman could do little to make her lot easier.
One day when Umnandi had been making the bread, she took the stick with which she had stirred the meal, and scraping off what still clung to it put it to her lips for she was hungry. Seeing this, one of the women snatched the stick from her hands, and struck her a blow on the head, saying, "It is not for a lazy girl like you to eat food which our other children have brought to us."
By this she meant that as Umnandi had not been claimed as a bride and no lobolo had been paid for her, she was a burden to the kraal.
Crying bitterly, Umnandi ran to her grandmother's hut. The old woman gave her some of her own supper and comforted her as best she could, but next day things were even worse. Two of the goats had strayed and everyone blamed Umnandi; while she was looking for the truants the bread was burnt to cinders, and Umnandi was scolded by all for her neglect.
The poor child could bear it no longer, but ran from the kraal, vowing she would never come back.
"A good riddance," cried one of the women, and the others took up the cry and chased the girl, throwing stones after her and striking at her with their sticks.
The children joined in, and if Umnandi had not been swift of foot she would surely have died, for they set the dogs upon her and had no mercy.
But Umnandi ran like the wind, and at last, when she was out of the sight and hearing of her enemies, she lay down to rest. When she woke the sun had set, and overhead hung the great clear dome of heaven lit by countless stars.
Refreshed by her sleep, she rose to continue her journey, dreading lest the cruel folk of the kraal should pursue her. She was hungry, and from close at hand came the savoury smell of cooked meat. There was no hut within sight, and the girl was puzzled, till she saw at her feet a supper such as she had never eaten; but she dared not touch it.
"It must belong to some one else; if I eat it he will surely kill me," she thought, and went hungry on her way. By and by, however, she grew so faint for want of food that she sat down, and behold! in front of her lay dishes as tempting as those she had left untouched. This time she ate, and no one came to reproach her.
When she had eaten, Umnandi lay down again upon the earth, and slept until the sun had climbed high in the heavens.
For three days Umnandi continued her journey, meeting no one and seeing no living thing, save a buck darting from cover and racing across the plain, or a troop of ostriches running swiftly along the horizon. Each day in the same mysterious fashion a meal was spread for her, and now that she was no longer starved or tormented by the cruel women of the kraal, she grew even more beautiful than before. A stranger meeting her would have said, "This must surely be the daughter of a king."
One evening just at sunset Umnandi came to a grand hut standing by itself. She looked inside, and knew that it must be the hut of a great Chief, for on the walls were hanging brightly polished spears, and on the ground lay rich skins, while the water-pots and cooking vessels were of the finest. Umnandi would have taken shelter there, but feared to do so, and being tired after the day's journey, she lay down upon the grass just outside the hut and sank into a deep slumber.
By and by, the Chief to whom the hut belonged returned, and seeing some one sleeping on the ground, went to look who it was who had entered his domain. When he saw the beauty of Umnandi his heart was filled with love, and lifting her in his arms he bore her into the hut.
This Chief was under a spell by which he had been forbidden to make himself known to anyone for two years to come; and so when morning broke Umnandi found herself alone, and knew not how it was that she came to be within the hut. There was no sign of any inhabitant, but a meal was spread before her, as on her journey, and for many months she lived happy and secure, seeing and conversing with no one.
At last one day a son was born to her, and Umnandi was very happy playing with her baby boy and watching him grow big and bonny. When he began to toddle she thought she would like to take him to show her grandmother, and to ask her leave to bring back a young girl from the kraal to keep her company.
Now, though Umnandi had never seen her husband, he heard all her thoughts and knew her wishes; so that night while she slept, he had everything she needed put into the hut. When she awoke she found not only a basket of food, but a parasol of reeds to shelter her from the heat of the noonday sun, and a stout staff to help her over the rough ground. She set out with a light heart in the cool morning air, her babe strapped on her back.
When Umnandi reached the kraal, the people who had used her so ill now received her with honour, for she was no longer the hungry drudge of former days. She bore herself like a queen, and she was adorned with rich ornaments of brass.
"Umnandi must be the wife of a great Chief," said they, and forgetting their past unkindness, came forward to welcome her. But Umnandi's memory was longer, and she had not forgotten how they had driven her forth with sticks and stones, So instead of entering the huts of the other women, she went straight to her grandmother, who was overjoyed at her return, and at the sight of the beautiful boy.
Umnandi spent many happy days with the old woman; and when the time came for her to return to her unseen husband, she said: "Grandmother, let me take back with me Lielie, the little girl who draws water for you."
"Let it be so," answered her grandmother, and Lielie was happy to go with Umnandi and the babe.
They set out upon their journey, and Umnandi warned Lielie that strange things would happen.
At night an unseen hand spread a supper for them, and Lielie cried out in astonishment.
"Ask no questions," said Umnandi, "but let us eat." In this way they were fed from day to day till they reached their journey's end, and when they entered the hut all was ready for their coming.
Lielie was full of wonder at seeing no husband, but Umnandi would tell her nothing. One day the child ran out of the hut, and Lielie would have followed him, fearing he would fall into the stream.
But the mother said: "Let him go, Lielie; he has gone to see his father and will come back to us soon." The child did this every day, but never once did Umnandi or Lielie catch sight of his father.
Umnandi was an industrious girl, and now that she had some one to help her take care of the child, she said to Lielie: "Let us plant mealies. Up there on the mountain-side is a patch of land which will serve nicely for a mealie field."
Lielie agreed, and just at that moment a bag of seed and a hoe appeared outside the hut, lying ready for their use.
"Put Baby on your back and come with me," said Umnandi, picking up the bag of seed and the hoe, and away they went chattering gaily. When they came back at night supper was waiting for them, and tired with the day's work they ate heartily, and then slept soundly till the morning. There was still more land to hoe and plant next day, and as before they found the seed waiting for them. They set out again, but at noon they discovered they had used up all the seed.
"Go back to the hut, and fetch more," said Umnandi, and Lielie set off on her errand.
When she drew near the hut she saw a crowd of people with herds of cattle moving in the same direction, and so frightened was she that she fell upon her face, and would not look up until one of the women, speaking kindly to her, and bidding her not be afraid, took her by the hand and led her into the hut where sat a man of kingly bearing.
"Go back to the field," he said when he saw her, and tell my wife Umnandi that there is no more seed. But be sure you do not say that I am here, or that a feast is being made ready."
Lielie ran back as fast as she could. "There is no more seed," said she to Umnandi, and picking up the child, the two set out on their homeward way.
As they drew near, Umnandi saw the crowd and asked Lielie what it meant; but the girl, remembering the command of the Chief, made no answer. At last they reached the hut and the Chief came out. The child knew his father and ran to greet him, and lifting him in his arms the man greeted Umnandi, saying to her, "Know me, Umnandi, as your husband. These are my people. They have come to build a village round my hut and to dwell with me."
Then a great feast was prepared, and the Chief told Umnandi how he had been laid under a spell, but that now it was broken. And henceforth they lived together in love and happiness.