UNCOUNTED years ago there lived a girl, the daughter of a Chief, whose beauty was like that of the young grass after rain. There were many suitors for the hand of this fair maid, but she refused all who sought her in marriage, saying that she preferred to remain within her father's kraal. The girl's name was Modisa, but most often men spoke of her as the Girl with the Lute. She was always to be seen with a lute in her hand, and she played upon it so sweetly that no feast was fitly celebrated without her presence. She sang as beautifully as she played, and indeed, so wonderful was Modisa's music, that when the day's work was done the women would cease their chatter, and the men their grumbling, to listen in silence to her songs as they floated out across the veld under the star-lit heaven.
One day Modisa and her brother Masilo were invited to a feast in a village far from their own home. The giver of it was a powerful Chief named Maraka, and not only did he rule over broad lands and own many thousand head of cattle, but it was said that he could cause thunder and lightning to come forth at will, and that rain would descend from the heavens at his bidding.
He received Masilo and Modisa with great honour for the fame of Modisa's beauty and of her sweet singing had reached his ears. When the feast was over he asked her to sing and play upon her lute. Such singing had never been heard before, and with heart aflame the great Chief asked the beautiful girl to be his wife. She answered him as she had done all her suitors, saying that she did not wish to leave her father's kraal.
The Chief's eyes blazed with wrath. Was he who commanded the storm to be denied by a girl, no matter how fair she might be, and even though her voice was like the plash of water in a mountain stream? The proud maiden should suffer for her insolence! So, when the feast was ended, Maraka caused the rain to fall in black torrents; and the women of the village, knowing that Modisa had offended him, refused her shelter. From hut to hut she went asking for hospitality, but no one would let her in. Masilo knew nothing of his sister's plight, for he had taken refuge in a hut belonging to a young man.
The rain fell still more heavily; and at last Modisa, wet and shivering, came to the hut of Maraka's grandmother, and demanded a lodging.
"My hut is full," said the old woman crossly, for she did not wish to incur the wrath of her grandson.
"If you do not give me shelter," said Modisa desperately, "I will kill you."
This frightened the old woman, and she said sulkily: "Well, then, come in, if you must."
Next morning the rain had ceased, and Modisa rejoined her brother and his companions and they set off home again. But the way was difficult, for all the rivers were swollen with the rains, and each little rill had become a roaring torrent. They journeyed on till at last they came to a stream which was so full that it had overflowed its banks; it was running so swiftly that it seemed as if they could not pass the flood.
"You cannot cross this alone, little sister," said Masilo, "but put yourself between me and this tall youth and we will carry you over." Modisa let them take her arms, but so strong was the flood that she was swept from their grasp and flung back upon the shore. A second and a third time they tried to bear her across, but the current was too powerful and they had to leave her on the bank.
Taking her lute, Modisa touched the strings and sang a song of farewell, bidding her brother tell her father and mother how the power of Maraka had caused the floods, and that it was he who would not let her cross the stream.
Masilo answered her song from the opposite shore, bidding her follow the river bank, and not attempt to cross the torrent.
Modisa watched him out of sight; then, tired from the struggle against the rushing stream, she made for herself a resting-place among the reeds, where she might sleep without fear of being disturbed. She lay down and soon sank into a deep slumber; but she had forgotten to hide her lute, and a woman who passed by saw it peeping out from among the tops of the rushes.
"What can that be, I wonder?" she said, and, pushing aside the reeds, she found Modisa sleeping with her head pillowed upon her arm.
"Ah!" she exclaimed. "What a pretty maiden Just the wife for my son!"
Then, touching Modisa on the shoulder, she said, "Come with me, my child." And Modisa, not knowing where else she might find shelter, picked up her lute and went with her to the kraal in which she lived. When they entered the woman's hut, Modisa saw lying within it a large quantity of freshly killed meat, which the woman said was for her son.
"You are to be his wife," she added, "and you must cook this meat and lay it at the threshold of his hut out yonder. You will not see him, for he never comes out, but each day you must carry him food."
Modisa trembled at the thought of this strange, secret bridegroom, but there was no escape, and when the meat was cooked she placed it in a basket and at the woman's bidding carried it to the hut and laid it on the threshold. Then she brought a calabash of milk, and in obedience to her orders withdrew. An hour later she was sent to bring back the basket and the calabash, and of the great repast there was left not so much as a morsel of flesh nor a drop of milk.
On her return her mother-in-law said, "Take this corn, my daughter; grind it and bake bread."
Modisa did as she was told; and when the bread was baked there was water to draw, and more meat to be laid at the door of this unseen ravenous husband for whom, it seemed, she must slave all day.
Weeks passed in unending toil, and Modisa's step was no longer light as it had been when the grass scarce bent beneath her footfall. No longer did she sing as she went about her work, and her lute lay idle in a corner of the hut.
As she passed through the village carrying baskets of food, the women looked at her with pitying eyes, and one old grandmother laid her hand upon her arm, and said: "Why, my poor child, do you stay here? I who am old have seen many a bright young girl like you sacrificed to this devouring monster. Go hence, before your beauty is faded and your strength departed."
"Alas! Where shall I go, Mother?" she made reply. "I am far from my home, and Maraka is angry with me. He will not let me cross the river which divides me from my father's land."
With a sigh the old woman turned away, and Modisa lifted the heavy basket and went on.
But at last her patience came to an end, and one night she left the kraal. As she fled across the veld, she feared to look over her shoulder lest she should see some one in pursuit.
For several hours no one noticed her flight, but finding that no meat was brought to his door at sunrise, the monster she had served came bellowing from the hut where he had been hidden so long, and rushed in anger through the village. At his approach the women caught their children to their breasts and shut themselves within their houses.
Modisa heard him coming, for the earth trembled as he drew near. Although her heart stood still with fear, she summoned up her courage, and began to sing. The voice which had so long been silent rang out pure and clear as the notes of a mountain bird, and all at once the monster stopped in his onward rush. Lying upon the ground, he began to coil and uncoil his great body, fascinated by the sweetness of the girl's voice. Seeing him thus at rest Modisa ran once more, for in the distance she had caught sight of her mother-in-law hastening across the veld. In her hand the woman carried the skin of an ox, and as she approached, her monstrous son roused himself to continue the pursuit of Modisa.
To gain time, she once more began to sing, and at the sound of her voice the monster again lay down. But the respite was short, for no sooner did she begin to run than he gave chase, and meanwhile, too, his mother was gaining on her.
At last Modisa entered into her father's pastures, and when he saw her one of the little herd-boys called out in greeting, "Whence come you, Modisa?"
"Look! Look!" cried the frightened girl. "Do you not see the column of dust which is rising over there. It is raised by a great snake which will devour me if you do not run quickly to the village and call my father and my brothers."
With one swift glance at the monster, the boy turned and ran to the village, and the Chief and all his men came up in haste, armed with darts and spears which they flung at the monster, now close upon the trembling Modisa's heels. Spears pierced its scales, and, maddened by pain, it moved still more swiftly toward its prey. Modisa felt its hot breath upon her face, and with the courage of despair she began to sing once more. The huge snake's rage died suddenly away, and stretched on the ground, it began once more to coil and uncoil its scaly length in lazy enjoyment of the music. While it lay prone the Chief and his men beat it to death with their sticks.
By this time its mother had reached the scene. At the sight of the dead monster she wept, saying, "Alas, my son! Alas! He is dead, and how shall I bring him back to life again?"
"Go," said she, turning to the men, "go to the village and slay a black ox, and bring it here to me."
She spoke like a queen, and the men obeyed without question. When they had brought the slaughtered beast, she took its flesh and bones and laid them with the body of her son in the skin which she carried with her. Then she kindled a fire and let them burn till nothing was left but a few blackened ashes. These she gathered together and put into a clay pot, which she sealed and gave to Modisa, bidding her guard them carefully till the corn was ripe.
"Obey me," she said, "and you will be rewarded."
Modisa placed the pot in a corner of her hut, and guarded it carefully, letting no one touch it but herself, and wondering what might be the promised reward.
Back again among her own people, she forgot her troubles, and her beauty renewed itself from day to day. Her lute, so long silent, sent forth tones even sweeter than of old, and songs more mellow and golden poured from her lips. The summer passed, and through the long hot days Modisa was the joy and wonder of her father's household. Within her hut she still cherished the ashes of her strange and terrible husband, pondering what might be the meaning of the old woman's charge to her. One day when the corn was ripe and the harvesters were busy on the land, she broke the seal of the pot, and from the ashes there rose up a young Chief, tall and straight as a poplar. He bore himself proudly, but as he looked at Modisa there was the light of a great love in his eye, and he claimed her for his wife.
Long ago, he told her, he had been laid beneath an evil spell, but now the power of the enchanter was broken. During the tedious weeks that he had lain shut up within the clay vessel, the sound of her lute had cheered him and filled his heart with dreams of a fair and loving wife. And when Modisa gazed upon this husband, who had once been so cruel a task-master, and was now so tender, her heart sang in gladness, and without fear she left her father's kraal and followed her husband to his own land.