Hendrik had no doubt it was they, and that the herd was the same that used to frequent the vley, but that on account of the ill-treatment they had met with, had never since shown themselves in the neighbourhood.
Now these circumstances coming into Hendrik's mind at the moment, led him to regard the quaggas with a certain feeling of curiosity. The sudden fright which the animals took on seeing him, and the comic appearance of the four with the stumped tails, rather inclined Hendrik towards merriment, and he laughed as he galloped along.
As the quaggas went off in the same direction which the eland had taken, of course Hendrik's road and theirs lay so far together; and on galloped he at their heels. He was curious to try the point—much disputed in regard to horses—how far a mounted quagga would be able to cope with an unmounted one. He was curious moreover, to find out whether his own quagga was quite equal to any of its old companions. So on swept the chase, the eland leading, the quaggas after, and Hendrik bringing up the rear.
Hendrik had no need to ply the spur. His gallant steed flew like the wind. He seemed to feel that his character was staked upon the race. He gained upon the drove at every spring.
The heavy-going eland was soon overtaken, and as it trotted to one side, was passed. It halted, but the quaggas kept on.
Not only the drove kept on, but Hendrik's quagga following close at their heels; and in less than five minutes they had left the eland a full mile in their rear, and were still scouring onward over the wide plain.
What was Hendrik about? Was he going to forsake the eland, and let it escape? Had he grown so interested in the race? Was he jealous about his quagga's speed, and determined it should beat all the others?
So it would have appeared to any one witnessing the race from a distance. But one who could have had a nearer view of it, would have given a different explanation of Hendrik's conduct.
The fact was, that as soon as the eland halted, Hendrik intended to halt also; and for that purpose pulled strongly upon his bridle. But, to his astonishment, he found that his quagga did not share his intention. Instead of obeying the bit, the animal caught the steel in his teeth, and laying his ears back, galloped straight on!
Hendrik then endeavoured to turn the quagga to one side, and for this purpose wrenched his right rein; but with such fierceness, that the old bit-ring gave way—the bit slipped through the animal's jaws—the head-stall came off with the jerk—and the quagga was completely unbridled!
Of course the animal was now free to go just as he liked; and it was plain that he liked to go with his old comrades. His old comrades he well knew them to be, as his snorting and occasional neigh of recognition testified.
At first Hendrik was disposed to look upon the breaking of his bit as only a slight misfortune. For a boy he was one of the best riders in South Africa, and needed no rein to steady him. He could keep his seat without one. The quagga would soon stop, and he could then repair the bit, and re-adjust the bridle which he still held in his hands. Such were his reflections at first.
But their spirit began to alter, when he found that the quagga, instead of lessening his pace, kept on as hard as ever, and the herd still ran wildly before him without showing the slightest signs of coming to a halt.
In fact, the quaggas were running through fear. They saw the mounted hunter behind them in hot pursuit; and although their old comrade knew who they were, how were they to tell what he was, with such a tall hunch upon his back? No quagga he, but some terrible monster, they imagined, thirsting for their lives, and eager to devour one and all of them!
No wonder they showed their heels in the best style they knew how; and so well did they show them, that Hendrik's quagga—notwithstanding his keen desire to get forward among them, and explain away the awkward business upon his back—was not able to come an inch closer.
He did not lose ground, however. His eagerness to regain his old associates—to partake once more of their wild freedom—for he was desperately tired of civilised society, and sick of elephant-hunting—all these ideas crowded into his mind at the moment, and nerved him to the utmost exertion. Could he only get up into the body of the crowd—for the herd now ran in a crowd—a few whimpers would suffice to explain—they would come to a halt at once,—they would gather around him, and assist both with hoofs and teeth to get "shed" of the ugly two-legged thing that clung so tightly to his dorsal vertebrae.
It was "no go," however. Although he was so close to their heels, that they flung dust in his face, and small pebbles in the face of his rider, to the no slight inconvenience of the latter; although he "whighered" whenever he could spare breath, and uttered his "couag,—couag!" in reality calling them by name, it was "no go." They would not stay. They would not hear.
And what did Hendrik during all this time? Nothing—he could do nothing. He could not stay the impetuous flight of his steed. He dared not dismount. He would have been hurled among sharp rocks, had he attempted such a thing. His neck would have been broken. He could do nothing—nothing but keep his seat.
What thought he? At first, not much. At first he regarded the adventure lightly. When he was about completing his third mile, he began to deem it more serious; and as he entered upon the fifth, he became convinced that he was neither more nor less than in a very awkward scrape.
But the fifth mile was left behind, and then a sixth, and a seventh; and still the quaggas galloped wildly on—the drove actuated by the fear of losing their liberty, and their old comrade by the desire of regaining his.
Hendrik now felt real uneasiness. Where were they going? Where was the brute carrying him? Perhaps off to the desert, where he might be lost and perish of hunger or thirst! Already he was many miles from the cliffs, and he could no longer tell their direction. Even had he halted then and there, he could not tell which way to turn himself. He would be lost!
He grew more than anxious. He became frightened in earnest.
What was he to do? Leap down, and risk his neck in the fall? He would lose his quagga and his saddle as well—he regarded the eland as already lost—he would have to walk back to camp, and get laughed at on his return.
No matter for all that; his life was in danger if he kept on. The quaggas might gallop twenty,—aye, fifty miles before halting. They showed no symptoms of being blown—no signs of giving out. He must fling himself to the ground, and let quagga and saddle go.
He had formed this resolution, and was actually about to put it in practice. He was just considering how he might best escape an ugly fall—looking for a soft spot—when, all at once, a grand idea rushed into his mind.
He remembered that in taming this same quagga and breaking him to the saddle, he had been vastly aided by a very simple contrivance—that was a "blind." The blind was nothing more than a piece of soft leather tied over the animal's eyes; but so complete had been its effect, that it had transformed the quagga at once from a kicking screaming creature into a docile animal.
Hendrik now thought of the blind.
True, he had none. Was there nothing about him that would serve as one? His handkerchief? No, it would be too thin. Hurrah! His jacket would do!
His rifle was in the way. It must be got rid of. It must be dropped to the ground. He could return for it.
It was let down as gently as possible, and soon left far behind.
In a twinkling Hendrik stripped off his jacket. How was it to be arranged so as to blind the quagga? It would not do to drop it.
A moment's consideration served the ready boy to mature his plan. After a moment he bent down, passed a sleeve upon each side under the quagga's throat, and then knotted them together. The jacket thus rested over the animal's mane, with the collar near its withers, and the peak or skirt upon the small of its neck.
Hendrik next leaned as far forward as he could, and with his extended arms pushed the jacket up the animal's neck, until the skirt passed over its ears, and fell down it front of its face.
It was with some difficulty that the rider, bent down as he was, could retain his seat; for as soon as the thick flap of cloth came down over the eyes of the quagga, the latter halted as if he had been shot dead in his tracks. He did not fall, however, but only stood still, quivering with terror. His gallop was at an end!
Hendrik leaped to the ground. He was no longer afraid that the quagga, blinded as he now was, would make any attempt to get off; nor did he.
In a few minutes the broken bit-ring was replaced by a strong rheim of raw leather; the bit inserted between the quagga's teeth, the head-stall safely buckled, and Hendrik once more in the saddle, with his jacket upon his back.
The quagga felt that he was conquered. His old associates were no longer in sight to tempt him from his allegiance; and with these considerations, aided by a slight dose of bit and spur, he turned his head, and moved sullenly upon the back track.
Hendrik knew nothing about the route he should take. He followed back the spoor of the quaggas to the place where he had dropped his gun, which after riding a mile or two he recovered.
As there was no sun in the sky, nor other object to guide him, he thought he could not do better than trace back the spoor; and although it led him by many a devious route, and he saw nothing more of his eland, before night he reached the pass in the cliff, and was soon after sitting under the shadow of the nwana-tree, regaling a most interested audience with the narrative of his day's adventures.
It was about this time that the field-cornet and his people were very much annoyed by beasts of prey. The savoury smell which their camp daily sent forth, as well as the remains of antelopes, killed for their venison, attracted these visitors. Hyenas and jackals were constantly skulking in the neighbourhood, and at night came around the great nwana-tree in scores, keeping up their horrid chorus for hours together. It is true that nobody feared these animals, as the children at night were safe in their aerial home, where the hyenas could not get at them. But for all that, the presence of the brutes was very offensive, as not a bit of meat—not a hide, nor rheim, nor any article of leather—could be left below without their getting their teeth upon it, and chewing it up. Quarters of venison they had frequently stolen, and they had eaten up the leathern part of Swartboy's saddle, and rendered it quite useless for a while. In short, so great a pest had the hyenas grown to be, that it became necessary to adopt some mode of destroying them.
It was not easy to get a shot at them. During the day they were wary, and either hid themselves in caves of the cliff or in the burrows of the ant-eater. At night they were bold enough, and came into the very camp; but then the darkness hindered a good aim, and the hunters knew too well the value of powder and lead to waste it on a chance shot, though now and then, when provoked by the brutes, they ventured one.
But some way must be thought of to thin the numbers of these animals, or get rid of them altogether. This was the opinion of everybody.
Two or three kinds of traps were tried, but without much success. A pit they could leap out of, and from a noose they could free themselves by cutting the rope by their sharp teeth!
At length the field-cornet resorted to a plan—much practised by the boers of Southern Africa for ridding their farms of these and similar "vermin." It was the "gun-trap."
Now there are several ways of constructing a gun-trap. Of course a gun is the principal part of the mechanism, and the trigger pulled by a string is the main point of the contrivance. In some countries the bait is tied to the string, and the animal on seizing the bait tightens the string, draws the trigger, and shoots itself. In this way, however, there is always some uncertainty as to the result. The animal may not place its body in the proper position with regard to the muzzle, and may either escape the shot altogether, or may be only "creased," and of course get off.
The mode of setting the "gun-trap" in South Africa is a superior plan; and the creature that is so unfortunate as to draw the trigger rarely escapes, but is either killed upon the spot, or so badly wounded as to prevent its getting away.
Von Bloom constructed his trap after the approved fashion, as follows:—Near the camp he selected a spot where three saplings or young trees grew, standing in a line, and about a yard between each two of them. Had he not found these trees so disposed, stakes firmly driven into the ground would have answered his purpose equally well.
Thorn-bushes were now cut, and a kraal built in the usual manner—that is with the tops of the bushes turned outwards. The size of the kraal was a matter of no consequence; and, of course, to save labour, a small one was constructed.
One point, however, was observed in making the kraal. Its door of opening was placed so that two of the three saplings stood like posts, one on each side of it; and an animal going into the enclosure must needs pass these two trees.
Now for the part the gun had to play.
The weapon was placed in a horizontal position against two of the saplings,—that is, the stock against the one outside the kraal, and the barrel against one of the door-posts, and there firmly lashed. In this position the muzzle was close to the edge of the entrance, and pointing directly to the sapling on the opposite side. It was at such a height as to have ranged with the heart of a hyena standing in the opening.
The next move was to adjust the string. Already a piece of stick, several inches in length, had been fixed to the small of the stock, and, of course, behind the trigger. This was fastened transversely, but not so as to preclude all motion. A certain looseness in its adjustment gave it the freedom required to be worked as a lever—for that was its design.
To each end of this little stick was fastened a string. One of these strings was attached to the trigger; the other, after being carried through the thimbles of the ramrod, traversed across the entrance of the kraal, and was knotted upon the opposite side to the sapling that stood there. This string followed the horizontal direction of the barrel, and was just "taut;" so that any farther strain upon it would act upon the little lever, and by that means pull the trigger; and then of course "bang" would go the roer.
When this string was adjusted, and the gun loaded and cocked, the trap was set.
Nothing remained to be done but bait it. This was not a difficult task. It consisted simply in placing a piece of meat or carcass within the enclosure, and there leaving it to attract the prowling beasts to the spot.
When the gun had been set, Swartboy carried up the bait—the offal of an antelope killed that day—and flung it into the kraal; and then the party went quietly to their beds, without thinking more of the matter.
They had not slept a wink, however, before they were startled by the loud "crack" of the roer, followed by a short stifled cry that told them the gun-trap had done its work.
A torch was procured, and the four hunters proceeded to the spot. There they found the dead body of a huge "tiger-wolf" lying doubled up in the entrance, and right under the muzzle of the gun. He had not gone a step after receiving the shot—in fact, had hardly kicked before dying—as the bullet, wad, and all, had gone quite through his ribs and entered his heart, after making a large ugly hole in his side. Of course he must have been within a few inches of the muzzle, when his breast, pressing against the string, caused the gun to go off.
Having again loaded the roer, the hunters returned to their beds. One might suppose they would have dragged the suicidal hyena away from the spot, lest his carcass should serve as a warning to his comrades, and keep them away from the trap. But Swartboy knew better than that. Instead of being scared by the dead body of one of their kind, the hyenas only regard it as proper prey, and will devour it as they would the remains of a tender antelope!
Knowing this, Swartboy did not take the dead hyena away, but only drew it within the kraal to serve as a farther inducement for the others to attempt an entrance there.
Before morning they were once more awakened by the "bang" of the great gun. This time they lay still; but when day broke they visited their trap, and found that a second hyena had too rashly pressed his bosom against the fatal string.
Night after night they continued their warfare against the hyenas, changing the trap-kraal to different localities in the surrounding neighbourhood.
At length these creatures were nearly exterminated, or, at all events, became so rare and shy, that their presence by the camp was no longer an annoyance one way or the other.
About this time, however, there appeared another set of visitors, whose presence was far more to be dreaded, and whose destruction the hunters were more anxious to accomplish. That was a family of lions.
The spoor of these had been often seen in the neighbourhood; but it was some time before they began to frequent the camp. However, about the time the hyenas had been fairly got rid of, the lions took their place, and came every night, roaring about the camp in a most terrific manner. Dreadful as these sounds were, the people were not so much afraid of them as one might imagine. They well knew that the lions could not get at them in the tree. Had it been leopards they might have felt less secure, as the latter are true tree-climbers; but they had seen no leopards in that country, and did not think of them.
They were not altogether without fear of the lions, however. They were annoyed, moreover, that they could not with safety descend from the tree after nightfall, but were every night besieged from sunset till morning. Besides, although the cow and the quaggas were shut in strong kraals, they dreaded each night that the lions would make a seizure of one or other of these animals; and the loss of any one of them, but especially their valuable friend "old Graaf," would have been a very serious misfortune.
It was resolved, therefore, to try the gun-trap upon the lions, as it had succeeded so well with the hyenas.
There was no difference in the construction or contrivance of the trap. The gun only had to be placed upon a higher level, so that its muzzle might be opposite the lion's heart, and the proper range was easily obtained. The bait, however, was not carcass, but an animal freshly killed; and for this purpose an antelope was procured.
The result was as desired. On the first night the old male lion "breasted" the fatal string and bit the dust. Next night the lioness was destroyed in a similar way: and shortly after a full-grown young male.
The trap then lay idle for a while; but about a week after a half-grown "cub" was shot near the camp by Hendrik, no doubt the last of that family, as no lions were seen for a long time after.
A great enemy to night plunderers was that same gun-trap.
Now that the beasts of prey had been destroyed, or driven from about the camp, there was no longer any danger in that quarter, and the children could be left by themselves. Totty of course always stayed with them; while the four hunters went forth upon the chase of the elephant—each mounted upon his quagga.
They had done so many a time, and as no harm had happened to the children in their absence, such a course became habitual with them. Jan and Trueey were cautioned not to stray far from the nwana, and always to climb to the tree, should they perceive any animal that might be dangerous. Before the destruction of the hyenas and lions, they had been used to remain altogether in the tree, while the hunters were absent. But this had been quite an imprisonment to them; and now that the danger was not considered much, they were allowed to come down and play upon the grassy plain, or wander along the shore of the little lake.
On one occasion when the hunters were abroad, Trueey had strayed down to the edge of the water. She was alone, if we except the company of the gazelle, which followed at her heels wherever she went. This pretty creature had grown to full size, and had turned out a great beauty, with large round eyes that had a lovely melting expression, like the eyes of Trueey herself.
Well, as I have said, Trueey was alone. Jan was busy near the bottom of the tree, working a new rod into his bird-cage, and Totty was out upon the plain herding "old Graaf"—so Trueey and the pet springbok went strolling along by themselves.
Now Trueey had not gone down to the water without an object. She had one. She had gone to give her pet a drink, and collect some blue lilies for a bouquet. All this she had done, and still continued to walk along the shore.
On one side of the lake, and that the farthest from the nwana-tree, a low spit of land projected into the water. It had once been but a sand-bar, but grass had grown upon it, until a green turf was formed. There was not over a square perch of it altogether, but it was not square in shape. On the contrary, it was of oval form, and much narrower nearest the land, where it formed a neck, or isthmus, not more than three feet in width. It was, in short, a miniature peninsula, which by a very little work with the spade could have been converted into a miniature island—had that been desired.
Now there is nothing very remarkable about a little peninsula projecting into a lake. In nearly every lake such a thing may be seen. But about this one there was something remarkable.
Upon its extreme end grew a tree of singular form and foliage. It was not a large tree, and its branches drooped downwards until their tips almost touched the water. The pendulous boughs, and long lanceolate silvery leaves, rendered it easy to tell what sort of tree it was. It was the weeping or Babylonian willow—so called, because it was upon trees of this species that the captive Jews hung their harps when they "sat and wept by the streams of Babel." This beautiful tree casts its waving shadow over the streams of South Africa, as well as those of Assyria; and often is the eye of the traveller gladdened by the sight of its silvery leaves, as he beholds them—sure indications of water—shining afar over the parched and thirsty desert. If a Christian, he fails not to remember that highly poetical passage of sacred writing, that speaks of the willow of Babylon.
Now the one which grew upon the little peninsula had all these points of interest for little Trueey—but it had others as well. Upon its branches that overhung the water a very singular appearance presented itself. Upon these was suspended—one upon the end of each branch—a number of odd shaped objects, that hung drooping down until their lower ends nearly rested upon the surface of the water. These objects, as stated, were of a peculiar shape. At the upper ends—where they were attached to the branches—they were globe-shaped, but the lower part consisted of a long cylinder of much smaller diameter, and at the bottom of this cylinder was the entrance. They bore some resemblance to salad-oil bottles inverted, with their necks considerably lengthened; or they might be compared to the glass retorts seen in the laboratory of the chemist.
They were each twelve or fifteen inches in length, and of a greenish colour—nearly as green as the leaves of the tree itself. Were they its fruit?
No. The weeping willow bears no fruit of that size. They were not fruit. They were nests of birds!
Yes; they were the nests of a colony of harmless finches of the genus Ploceus,—better known to you under the appellation of "weaver-birds."
I am sure you have heard of weaver-birds before this; and you know that these creatures are so called on account of the skill which they exhibit in the construction of their nests. They do not build nests, as other birds, but actually weave them, in a most ingenious manner.
You are not to suppose that there is but one species of weaver-bird—one kind alone that forms these curious nests. In Africa—which is the principal home of these birds—there are many different kinds, forming different genera, whose hard names I shall not trouble you with. Each of these different kinds builds a nest of peculiar shape, and each chooses a material different from the others. Some, as the Ploceus icterocephalus, make their nests of a kidney shape, with the entrance upon the sides, and the latter not circular, but like an arched doorway. Others of the genus Plocepasser weave their nests in such a manner, that the thick ends of the stalks stick out all around the outside, giving them the appearance of suspended hedgehogs; while the birds of another genus closely allied to the latter, construct their nests of slender twigs, leaving the ends of these to project in a similar manner. The "social grosbeak" fabricates a republic of nests in one clump, and all under one roof. The entrances are in the under-surface of this mass, which, occupying the whole top of a tree, has the appearance of a haystack, or a dense piece of thatch.
All these weaver-birds, though of different genera, bear a considerable resemblance to each other in their habits. They are usually granivorous, though some are insectivorous; and one species, the "red-billed weaver bird" is a parasite of the wild buffaloes.
It is a mistake to suppose that weaver-birds are only found in Africa and the Old World, as stated in the works of many naturalists. In tropical America, birds of this character are found in many species of the genera Cassicus and Icterus, who weave pensile nests of a similar kind upon the trees of the Amazon and Orinoco. But the true weaver-birds—that is to say, those which are considered the type of the class,—are those of the genus Ploceus; and it was a species of this genus that had hung their pendulous habitations upon the weeping willow. They were of the species known as the "pensile weaver-bird."
There were full twenty of their nests in all, shaped as already described, and of green colour—for the tough "Bushman's grass," out of which they had been woven, had not yet lost its verdant hue, nor would it for a long time. Being of this colour, they actually looked like something that grew upon the tree,—like great pear-shaped fruits. No doubt from this source have been derived the tales of ancient travellers, who represented that in Africa were trees with fruits upon them, which, upon being broken open, disclosed to view either living birds or their eggs! Now the sight of the weaver-birds, and their nests, was nothing new to Trueey. It was some time since the colony had established itself upon the willow-tree, and she and they had grown well acquainted. She had often visited the birds, had collected seeds, and carried them down to the tree; and there was not one of the whole colony that would not have perched upon her wrist or her pretty white shoulders, or hopped about over her fair locks, without fear. It was nothing unusual to her to see the pretty creatures playing about the branches, or entering the long vertical tunnels that led upward to their nests—nothing unusual for Trueey to listen for hours to their sweet twittering, or watch their love-gambols around the borders of the vley.
She was not thinking of them at the moment, but of something else, perhaps of the blue water-lilies—perhaps of the springbok—but certainly not of them, as she tripped gaily along the edge of the lake.
Her attention, however, was suddenly attracted to the birds.
All at once, and without any apparent cause, they commenced screaming and fluttering around the tree, their cries and gestures betokening a high state of excitement or alarm.
"What can be the matter with my pretty birds?" asked Trueey of herself. "Something wrong surely! I see no hawk. Perhaps they are fighting among themselves. I shall go round and see. I shall soon pacify them."
And so saying she mended her pace; and passing round the end of the lake, walked out upon the peninsula until she stood under the willow.
There was no underwood. The tree stood alone upon the very end of the spit of land, and Trueey went close in to its trunk. Here she stopped and looked up among the branches, to ascertain what was causing so much excitement among the birds.
As she approached, several of the little creatures had flown towards her, and alighted upon her arms and shoulders; but not as was their wont when desiring to be fed. They appeared to be in a state of alarm, and had come to her for protection.
Some enemy certainly must be near, thought Trueey, though she could see none.
She looked around and above. There were no hawks in the air, nor on the neighbouring trees,—no birds of prey of any kind. Had there been one in the willow, she could easily have seen it, as the foliage was light and thin; besides a hawk would not have remained in the tree with her standing so near. What, then, caused the trouble among the birds? what was still causing it—for they were as noisy and terrified as ever? Ha! At last the enemy appears—at last Trueey's eyes have fallen upon the monster who has disturbed the peaceful colony of weavers, and roused them to such a pitch of excitement.
Slowly gliding along a horizontal branch, grasping the limb in its many spiral folds, appeared the body of a large serpent. Its scales glittered as it moved, and it was the shining of these that had caught Trueey's eyes, and directed them upon the hideous reptile.
When she first saw it, it was gliding spirally along one of the horizontal branches of the willow, and coming, as it were, from the nests of the birds. Her eyes, however, had scarce rested upon it, before its long slippery body passed from the branch, and the next moment it was crawling head-foremost down the main trunk of the tree.
Trueey had scarce time to start back, before its head was opposite the spot where she had stood. No doubt, had she kept her place she would have been bitten by the serpent at once; for the reptile, on reaching that point, detached its head from the tree, spread its jaws wide open, projected its forked tongue, and hissed horribly. It was evidently enraged—partly because it had failed in its plundering intentions, not having been able to reach the nests of the birds,—and partly that the latter had repeatedly struck it with their beaks—no doubt causing it considerable pain. It was further provoked by the arrival of Trueey, in whom it recognised the rescuer of its intended victims.
Whatever were its thoughts at that moment, it was evidently in a rage—as the motion of its head and the flashing of its eyes testified; and it would have sprung upon any creature that had unfortunately come its way.
Trueey, however, had no intention of getting in its way if she could avoid it. It might be a harmless serpent for all she knew; but a snake, nearly six feet in length, whether it be harmless or venomous, is a terrible object to be near; and Trueey had instinctively glided to one side, and stood off from it as far as the water would allow her.
She would have run back over the narrow isthmus; but something told her that the snake was about to take that direction, and might overtake her; and this thought induced her to pass to one side of the peninsula, in hopes the reptile would follow the path that led out to the mainland.
Having got close to the water's edge, she stood gazing upon the hideous form, and trembled as she gazed.
Had Trueey known the character of that reptile, she would have trembled all the more. She saw before her one of the most venomous of serpents, the black naja, or "spitting-snake"—the cobra of Africa—far more dangerous than its congener the cobra de capello of India, because far more active in its movements, and equally fatal in its bite.
Trueey knew not this. She only knew that there was a great ugly snake, nearly twice her own length, with a large open mouth, and glistening tongue, apparently ready to eat her up. That was fearful enough for her, poor thing! and she gazed and trembled, and trembled and gazed again.
Angry as the cobra appeared, it did not turn aside to attack her. Neither did it remain by the tree. After uttering its long loud hiss, it descended to the ground, and glided rapidly off.
It made directly for the isthmus, as if intending to pass it, and retreat to some bushes that grew at a distance off on the mainland.
Trueey was in hopes that such was its design, and was just beginning to feel safe again, when, all at once, the snake coiled itself upon the narrow neck of land, as if it intended to stay there.
It had executed this manoeuvre so suddenly, and so apparently without premeditation, that Trueey looked to discover the cause. The moment before, it was gliding along in rapid retreat, its glistening form stretched to its full length along the earth. The next instant it had assumed the appearance of a coiled cable, over the edge of which projected its fierce head, with the scaly skin of its neck broadly extended, into that hood-like form which characterises the cobra.
Trueey, we have said, looked for the cause of this sudden change in the tactics of the reptile. She learnt it at the first glance.
There stretched a piece of smooth sloping ground from the edge of the lake back into the plain. By this the little peninsula was approached. As she glanced outward, she saw the springbok advancing down this slope. It was the approach of the antelope that had interrupted the retreat of the serpent!
Trueey, on first discovering the snake, had uttered a cry of alarm. This cry had summoned her pet—that had lingered behind browsing upon the grass—and it was now bounding forward, with its white tail erect, and its large brown eyes glistening with an expression of inquiry.
It saw its mistress out upon the peninsula. Had she called it? Why had she uttered that strange cry? They were not sounds of joyful import it had heard. Was anything amiss? Yonder she stood. It would gallop to her and see what was wanted; and with such thoughts passing through its brain, the bright little creature bounded down the bank towards the edge of the lake.
Trueey trembled for her pet. Another spring, and it would be upon the lurking serpent—another——"Ha! it is safe!"
These words escaped from the lips of the young girl, as she saw the springbok rise high in the air, and leap far and clear over the coiled reptile. The antelope had observed the snake in time, and saved itself by one of those tremendous bounds, such as only a springbok can make. The fond creature, having passed the danger, now ran on to its mistress, and stood with its big shining eyes bent upon her inquiringly.
But the cry that Trueey had uttered had summoned another individual. To her horror, she now saw little Jan running down the slope, and coming directly upon the path where the cobra lay coiled!
Jan's danger was imminent. He was rushing impetuously forward upon the coiled serpent. He knew not that it was before him. No warning would reach him in time to stay his haste. In another moment he would be on the narrow path, and then no power could save him from the deadly bite. It would be impossible for him to leap aside or over the reptile, as the antelope had done; for even then Trueey had noticed that the cobra had darted its long neck several feet upwards. It would be certain to reach little Jan, perhaps coil itself around him. Jan would be lost.
For some moments Trueey was speechless. Terror had robbed her of the power of speech. She could only scream, and fling her arms wildly about.
But these demonstrations, instead of warning Jan of the danger, only rendered it the more certain. He connected the cries which Trueey now uttered with that which had first summoned him. She was in some trouble—he knew not what; but as she continued to scream, he believed that something had attacked her. A snake he thought it might be; but whatever it was, his first impulse was to hurry up to her rescue. He could do no good until close to her; and, therefore, he did not think of halting until he should reach the spot where she stood.
Her screams, therefore, and the wild gestures that accompanied them, only caused him to run the faster; and as his eyes were bent anxiously on Trueey, there was not the slightest hope that he would perceive the serpent until he had either trodden upon it, or felt its fatal bite.
Trueey uttered one last cry of warning, pronouncing at the same time the words:—
"O, brother! back! The snake! the snake!"
The words were uttered in vain. Jan heard them, but did not comprehend their meaning. He heard the word "snake." He was expecting as much. It had attacked Trueey; and although he did not see it, it was no doubt wound about her body. He hurried on.
Already he was within six paces of the dread reptile, that had erected its long spread neck to receive him. Another moment, and its envenomed fangs would pierce deep into his flesh.
With a despairing scream Trueey rushed forward. She hoped to attract the monster upon herself. She would risk her own life to save that of her brother!
She had got within six feet of the threatening reptile. Jan was about the same distance from it on the opposite side. They were equally in peril; and one or the other—perhaps both—would have fallen a sacrifice to the deadly cobra; but at that moment their saviour was nigh. A dark shadow passed under their eyes—in their ears was a rushing sound like the "whish" of a falling body—and at the same instant a large bird darted down between them!
It did not stay to alight. For a moment its strong broad wings agitated the air in their faces; but the next moment the bird made a sudden effort, and rose vertically upwards.
Trueey's eyes fell upon the ground. The cobra was no longer there.
With an exclamation of joy she sprang forward, and, throwing her arms around Jan, cried out,—
"We are saved, brother!—we are saved!"
Jan was somewhat bewildered. As yet he had seen no snake. He had seen the bird dart down between them; but so adroitly had it seized the cobra and carried it off, that Jan, looking only at Trueey, had not perceived the serpent in its beak. He was bewildered and terrified, for he still fancied that Trueey was in danger.
When he heard her exclaim, "We are saved!" he was bewildered all the more.
"But the snake!" he cried out. "Where is the snake?"
As he put these questions, he kept examining Trueey from head to foot, as if expecting to see a reptile twined around some part of her body.
"The snake, Jan! Did you not see it? It was just there, at our feet; but now—see! yonder it is. The secretary has got it. See! They are fighting! Good bird! I hope it will punish the villain for trying to rob my pretty weavers. That's it, good bird! Give it to him! See, Jan! What a fight!"
"Oh, ah!" said Jan, now comprehending the situation. "Oh, ah! Sure enough, yonder is a snake, and a wopper, too. Ne'er fear, Trueey! Trust my secretary. He'll give the rascal a taste of his claws. There's a lick well put in! Another touch like that, and there won't be much life left in the scaly villain. There again,—wop!"
With these and similar exclamations the two children stood watching the fierce conflict that raged between the bird and the reptile.
Now this bird was a very peculiar one—so much so, that in all the world there is no other of the same kind. In form it resembled a crane, having very long legs, and being about the height and size of a crane. Its head and beak, however, were more like those of an eagle or vulture. It had well-developed wings, armed with spurs, and a very long tail, with the two middle feathers longer than the rest. Its general colour was bluish grey, with a white throat and breast, and a reddish tinge upon the wing-feathers. But, perhaps, the most remarkable thing about the bird was its "crest." This consisted of a number of long, blackish plumes growing out of its occiput, and extending down the back of its neck nearly to the shoulders. These gave the bird a very peculiar appearance; and the fancied resemblance to a secretary of the olden time with his long quill behind his ear—before steel pens came into fashion—is the reason why the bird has received the very inappropriate name of the "Secretary-bird."
It is more properly named the "serpent-eater," and naturalists have given it the title Gypogeranus, or "crane-vulture." It is sometimes also called "the messenger," from the staid solemn manner of its walk, as it stalks over the plain.
Of all its names that of "serpent-eater" is the best adapted to the character of the bird. It is true there are other birds that kill and eat serpents,—as the "guaco" bird of South America, and many hawks and kites,—but the secretary is the only winged creature that makes reptiles of this class exclusively its prey, and carries on a constant war against them. It is not strictly correct to say that it feeds exclusively upon snakes. It will also eat lizards, tortoises, and even locusts; but snakes are certainly its favourite food, and to obtain these it risks its life in many a deadly encounter with those of a very large kind.
The serpent-eater is an African bird, and is not peculiar to South Africa alone, as it is found in the Gambia country. It is also a native of the Philippine Isles. There is some doubt whether the species of the Philippine Isles is identical with that of Africa. A difference is noted in the plumage, though very slight. The disposition of the crest-plumes differs in the two, and the tail-feathers are differently arranged. In the African species the two middle ones are the longest, while in the serpent-eater of the Philippines it is the two outside feathers that project—giving the bird the appearance of having a "fork" or "swallow" tail. Some points of distinction have also been observed between the South African bird and that of the Gambia.
The serpent-eater is, however, a very unique bird; and naturalists, failing to class it with either hawks, eagles, vultures, gallinae, or cranes, have elevated it, so as to form a distinct tribe, family, genus, and species, of itself.
In South Africa it frequents the great plains and dry karoos, stalking about in search of its prey. It is not gregarious, but lives solitary or in pairs, making its nest in trees,—usually those of a thick thorny species, which renders the nest most difficult of approach. The whole edifice is about three feet in diameter, and resembles the nests of the tree-building eagles. It is usually lined with feathers and down, and two or three eggs are the number deposited for a single hatching.
The serpent-eater is an excellent runner, and spends more time on foot than on the wing. It is a shy wary bird, yet, notwithstanding, it is most easily domesticated; and it is not uncommon to see them about the houses of the Cape farmers, where they are kept as pets, on account of their usefulness in destroying snakes, lizards, and other vermin. They have been long ago introduced into the French West India Islands, and naturalised there—in order that they should make war upon the dangerous "yellow serpent," the plague of the plantations in those parts.
Now the bird which had so opportunely appeared between Jan and Trueey, and had no doubt saved one or the other, or both, from the deadly bite of the spuugh-slang, was a serpent-eater,—one that had been tamed, and that made its home among the branches of the great nwana-tree. The hunters had found it upon the plain, wounded by some animal,—perhaps a very large snake,—and had brought it home as a curiosity. In time it quite recovered from its wounds; but the kindness it had received, during the period when it was an invalid, was not thrown away upon it. When it recovered the use of its wings, it refused to leave the society of its protectors, but remained habitually in the camp—although it made frequent excursions into the surrounding plains in search of its favourite food. It always, however, returned at night, and roosted among the branches of the great nwana-tree. Of course it was Jan's pet, and Jan was very good to it; but it now repaid all his kindness in saving him from the fangs of the deadly cobra.
The children, having recovered from their alarm, stood watching the singular conflict between serpent and serpent-eater.
On first seizing the reptile, the bird had caught it by the neck in its beak. It might not have accomplished this so readily, had not the attention of the snake been occupied by the children, thus throwing it off its guard.
Having succeeded in seizing the reptile, the bird rose nearly in a vertical direction to a height of many yards, and then opening his beak permitted the serpent to fall to the ground. His object was to stun the latter by the fall; and the more effectually to do this, he would have carried the cobra still higher, had not the latter prevented it by attempting to coil itself around his wings.
Upon letting fall his prey the serpent-eater did not remain in the air. On the contrary, he darted after the falling reptile, and the moment the latter touched the ground, and before it could put itself in an attitude of defence, the bird "pounced" upon it with spread foot, striking it a violent blow near the neck. The snake was still but slightly damaged, and throwing itself into a coil stood upon its defence. Its mouth was open to its widest extent, its tongue protruded, its fangs were erect, and its eyes flashing with rage and poison. A terrible antagonist it appeared, and for a moment the secretary seemed to think so, as he stood on the ground confronting it.
But the bird soon began to advance upon it for a renewal of the attack, though this advance was made in a cautious manner. With the pinions of one of his strong wings spread broadly out for a shield, he approached the reptile sideways, and, when near enough, suddenly wheeled, turning upon his leg as on a pivot, and struck sharply out with his other wing. The blow was delivered with good effect. It reached the head of the snake, and seemed to stun it. Its neck dropped, the coils became loosened. Before it could recover itself it was once more in the beak of the serpent-eater, and trailing through the air.
This time the bird rose to a much greater height than before—as he was not hampered by the writhing of the serpent—and as before suffered the reptile to fall, and then darted suddenly after.
When the snake came to the ground a second time it lay for a moment stretched at full length, as if stunned or dead. It was not dead, however, and would once more have coiled itself; but, before it could do so, the bird had repeatedly pounced upon its neck with his spread and horny feet; and at length, watching his opportunity when the head of the serpent lay flat, he struck a blow with his sharp beak so violent, that it split the skull of the reptile in twain! Life was now extinct, and the hideous form, extended to its full length, lay lithe and motionless upon the grass.
Jan and Trueey clapped their hands, and uttered exclamations of joy.
The serpent-eater took no heed of their demonstrations, but, approaching the dead cobra, bent over it, and coolly set about making his dinner.
TOTTY AND THE CHACMAS.
Von Bloom and his family had now been months without bread. They were not without a substitute, however, as various roots and nuts supplied them with a change of food. Of the latter, they had the ground or pig-nut, which grows in all parts of Southern Africa, and which forms a staple food of the native inhabitants. For vegetables they had the bulbs of many species of Ixias and Mesembryanthemums, among others the "Hottentot fig." They had the "Caffir bread"—the inside pith of the stems of a species of Zamia; and the "Caffir chestnut," the fruit of the Brabeium stellatum; and last, not least, the enormous roots of the "elephant's foot." They had wild onions and garlic too; and in the white flower-tops of a beautiful floating plant, they found a substitute for asparagus.
All these roots and fruits were to be obtained in the neighbourhood, and no man knew better how to find them, and "crow" them up when found, than did Swartboy the Bushman. Well might he, for in Swartboy's early days he had often been compelled to subsist for weeks, and even months, on roots alone!
But although they could procure a constant supply of these natural productions, they considered them but a poor substitute for bread; and all of them longed to eat once more what is usually termed the "staff of life"—though in South Africa, where so many people live exclusively upon the flesh of animals, bread is hardly entitled to that appellation.
Bread they were likely to have, and soon. When treking from the old kraal, they had brought with them a small bag of maize. It was the last of their previous year's stock; and there was not in all over a bushel of it. But that was enough for seed, and would produce many bushels if properly planted, and carefully tended.
This had been done shortly after their arrival at their present home. A fertile spot of ground had been selected, only a few hundred yards from the nwana-tree. It had been turned up with the spade, for want of a plough, and the seeds planted at proper distances.
Many an hour had been given to the weeding and hoeing of it, and around every plant a little hill of soft mould had been raised, to nourish the roots, and protect them from the heat of the sun. The plants were even watered now and then.
Partly on account of this attention, and partly from the richness of the virgin soil, a splendid growth was the result; and the stalks stood full twelve feet high, with ears nearly a foot long. They had almost ripened; and the field-cornet intended in about a week or ten days to gather in the crop.
Both he and all his people were anticipating pleasant feasts of maize-bread, and "hominy," with "mash and milk," and various other dishes, that with Totty's skill could be manufactured out of the Indian corn.
About this time an incident occurred that nearly deprived them, not only of their whole plot of maize-plants, but also of their valuable housekeeper, Totty. It was as follows:—
Totty was on the platform in the great nwana-tree, which commanded a view of the corn-patch, and also of the plain beyond, as far as the bottom of the cliffs. She was busied about "house" affairs, when her attention was called off, by some singular noises that came from that direction. She parted the branches and looked through. A singular scene was before her eyes—a spectacle of no common kind.
A body of odd-looking animals, to the number of two hundred or more, was coming from the direction of the cliffs. They were creatures of ungainly forms—in make and size not unlike large ill-shaped dogs—and of a greenish-brown colour. Their faces and ears only were black, and these were naked, while their bodies were covered with harsh coarse hair. They had long tails, which some of them carried high in the air, and flourished about in a very eccentric manner.
Totty was by no means alarmed. She knew what sort of animals they were. She knew they were baboons. They were of the species known as the "pig-faced" baboon or "chacma" (Cynocephalus porcarius), which is found in nearly every part of South Africa where there are high cliffs with caves and crevices—the favourite dwelling-places of the baboon.
Of all the monkey tribe the baboons, or dog-headed monkeys (cynocephali), are the most disgusting in form and features. Who does not feel disgust when regarding the hideous mandrill—the drill—the hamadryas—or even the chacma? And all these are baboons. The baboons are peculiar to Africa, and there are six well-known species of them:—the common baboon of North Africa, the "papion" of the south and western coast, the "hamadryas or tartarin" of Abyssinia, the "mandrill" and "drill" of Guinea, and the "chacma" of the Cape Colony.
The habits of these animals are as disgusting as their appearance. They may be tamed, and made "pets" of; but dangerous pets they are, as they will, upon, the slightest provocation, bite the hand that feeds them.
Their great strength of body and jaw, and their long canine teeth, give them a dangerous power, which they often make use of. No dog is a match for one, and the hyena and leopard often come off second best in an encounter with a baboon.
They are not carnivorous, however, and only tear their enemy to pieces without eating it. Their food consists of fruits and bulbous roots, which they well understand to dig out of the ground with the sharp nails of their hands.
Although they will not attack man if left alone, they become dangerous assailants when hunted and brought to bay.
Many odd stories are told of the chacma baboon among the settlers of Southern Africa, such as their robbing the traveller of his food, and then going off to some distance, and mocking him, while they devour it. The natives also say that they sometimes use a stick in walking, "crowing" for roots, and in self-defence. Also, when a young one has succeeded in finding a choice root, and is observed by an older and stronger one, that the latter takes it away; but, should the young one have already swallowed it, then the bully picks him up, turns him head downward, and shakes him until he is forced to "disgorge!" Many such tales are current in the country of the boers, and they are not all without foundation, for these animals most certainly possess the power of reflection in a high degree.
Totty from her perch saw enough to convince her of this, had she been herself inclined to philosophise. But she was not. She was only a little curious about the manoeuvres of the animals, and she called Trueey and little Jan up into the tree, in order that they might share the spectacle with her. All the others were off hunting.
Jan was delighted, and ran up the ladder at once. So did Trueey and all three stood watching the odd movements of the four-handed creatures.
They perceived that the troop was actually marching in order; not in line, but with some understood arrangement. There were scouts upon the wings, and leaders in front. These were baboons of greater age and size than the others. There were calls and signals, and the change of accent and tone would have convinced any one that a regular conversation was going on. The females and younger ones marched in the middle for better security. The mothers carried their infants upon their backs, or over their shoulders. Now a mother would stop to suckle her little offspring—dressing its hair at the same time—and then gallop forward to make up for the loss. Now one would be seen beating her child, that had in some way given offence. Now two young females would quarrel, from jealousy or some other cause, and then a terrible chattering would ensue, to be silenced by the loud threatening bark of one of the chiefs!
Thus proceeded they across the plain, chattering, and screaming, and barking, as only monkeys can.
What were they after?
That question was answered very soon. Trueey and Jan, and Totty saw, to their dismay, that the baboons were not out upon an idle errand. They were after the maize-plants!
In a few minutes most of the troop had entered the corn-field, and were hidden from view by the tall stems and broad leaves of the plants. A few only could be seen,—large old fellows, that stationed themselves outside as sentinels, and were keeping up a constant interchange of signals. The main body was already stripping the plants of their precious fruit.
But a singular appearance presented itself beyond the corn-field, where a line of baboons, stationed at equal distance from one another, extended away to the very bottom of the cliff. These had been left by a regular manoeuvre,—a deployment—as the troop traversed the plain in coming to the field. For what purpose?
That was soon apparent. In less than two minutes after the crowd disappeared under the shelter of the maize-plants, the long heads in their husks were seen showering out towards the line, as if flung by the hand of man! Those placed at the near end of the line immediately took them up, pitched them to the next, and these to the next, and so on, until, in a very short while from the time a head was plucked from the stalk, it was delivered to the storehouse of the baboons far off among the cliffs!
Had this work gone on much longer the field-cornet would have had but a poor gathering in harvest time. The baboons thought the corn ripe enough, and would soon have made a crop of it, but at this moment their operations were interrupted.
Totty knew but little of the danger she underwent, when she ran forth with nothing but that long broom-handle to drive off a troop of chacmas. She only thought of the loss her kind master was sustaining; and down the ladder she hurried, and ran straight out to the corn-field.
Several sentinels met her by its edge, grinned, chattered, screamed, barked, and showed their long canine teeth; but they only received a blow over their ugly snouts from the broom-handle. Their cries summoned the others; and in a few moments the poor Hottentot was standing in the midst of an angry circle of chacmas, that were only prevented from springing in upon her by the expert manner in which she continued to ply the broom-stick.
But this slight weapon would not have served much longer, and Totty's fate—that of being torn to pieces—would soon have been sealed, had not four horsemen, or rather "quagga-men," at that moment galloped up to her rescue.
These were the hunters returning from the chase; and a volley from their guns at once scattered the ugly chacmas, and sent them howling back to their caves.
After that the field-cornet looked well to his maize, until it was ready for gathering; when it was all brought home, and deposited in safety out of the reach of either birds, reptiles, quadrupeds, or quadrumana.
THE WILD HOUNDS AND THE HARTEBEEST.
Since the taming of the quaggas the hunting had been attended with tolerable success. Not a week passed without adding a pair of tusks—sometimes two or three pairs—to the collection, which now began to assume the form of a little pyramid of ivory standing near the bottom of the nwana.
Von Bloom, however, was not quite satisfied with his progress. He thought they might do far better if they had only a few dogs.
Though the quaggas were of great service to them, and with these they were often able to overtake the elephant, yet they as often lost their great game, and it is more easy to do so than most persons imagine.
But with dogs to join in the hunt, the result would be quite different. It is true these animals cannot pull down an elephant, nor do him the slightest injury; but they can follow him whithersoever he may go, and by their barking bring him to a stand.
Another valuable service which the dogs perform, is in drawing the attention of the elephant away from the hunters. The huge quadruped when enraged is, as we have already seen, exceedingly dangerous. On such occasions he will charge upon the noisy dogs, mistaking them for his real assailants. This, of course, gives the hunter a good opportunity of delivering his fire, and avoiding the deadly encounter of the elephant.
Now in several elephant-hunts which they had lately made, our hunters had run some very narrow risks. Their quaggas were neither so manageable nor so quick in their movements as horses would have been, and this rendered the hazard still greater. Some of them might one day fall a victim. So feared Von Bloom; and he would gladly have given for a number of dogs an elephant's tusk a-piece—even though they were the most worthless of curs. Indeed, their quality is but of slight importance. Any dogs that can trace the elephant and pester him with their barking would do.
Von Bloom even thought of taming some hyenas, and training them to the hunt. This idea was by no means quixotic. The hyena is often used for such a purpose, and performs even better than many kinds of dogs.
One day Von Bloom was pondering over this subject. He was seated on a little platform that had been constructed very high up—near the top of the nwana-tree—from which a view could be had of the whole country around. It was a favourite resort of the field-cornet—his smoking-room, in fact—where he went every evening to enjoy a quiet pull out of his great meerschaum. His face was turned upon the plain that stretched from the border of the bosch as far as the eye could reach.
While quietly puffing away, his attention was attracted by some animals standing at a distance off upon the plain. The brilliant colour of their bodies had caught his eye.
They were of a lively sienna colour over the back and sides, and white underneath, with a list of black upon the outside of the legs, and some black stripes upon the face, as regularly defined as if laid on by the brush of a painter. They had horns of very irregular shape, roughly knotted—each curved into something of the shape of a reaping-hook, and rising directly from the top of one of the straightest and longest heads ever carried by an animal. These animals were far from being gracefully formed. They had drooping hind-quarters like the giraffe, though in a much less degree, shoulders greatly elevated, and long narrow heads. For the rest their forms were bony and angular. Each stood five feet high, from the fore-hoof to the shoulder, and full nine feet in length.
They were antelopes of course—that species known among Cape colonists as the "hartebeest." There were in all about fifty of them in the herd.
When first observed by Von Bloom, they were quietly browsing upon the plain. The next moment, however, they were seen to run to and fro, as if suddenly alarmed by the approach of an enemy.
And an enemy there certainly was; for in a moment more the herd had taken to flight; and Von Bloom now saw that they were followed by a pack of hounds! I say a "pack of hounds," for the creatures in the distance exactly resembled hounds more than anything in the world. Nay, more than resembled, for it actually was a pack of hounds—of wild hounds!
Of course Von Bloom knew what they were. He knew they were the "wilde-honden," very absurdly named by sapient naturalists Hyena venatica or "hunting hyena," and by others, with equal absurdity the "hunting dog." I pronounce these names "absurd," first because the animal in question bears no more resemblance to a hyena than it does to a hedgehog; and, secondly, because "hunting dog" is a very ridiculous appellation, since any dog may merit a similar title.
Now I would ask, why could these naturalists not let the nomenclature of the boers alone? If a better name than "wilde-honden" (wild hounds) can be given to these animals, I should like to hear it. Why, it is the very perfection of a name, and exactly expresses the character of the animal to which they apply it—that character, which coming under their everyday observation, suggested the name.
It is quite a libel to call this beautiful creature a hyena. He has neither the ugly form, the harsh pelage, the dull colour, nor the filthy habits of one. Call him a "wolf," or "wild dog," if you please, but he is at the same time the handsomest wolf or wild dog in creation. But we shall name him, as the boers have done, a "wild hound." That is his true title, let naturalists class him as they may.
His size, shape, his smooth clean coat, as well as his colour, approximate him more to the hound than to any other animal. In the last—which is a ground of "tan" blotched and mottled with large spots of black and grey—he bears a striking resemblance to the common hound; and the superior size of his ears would seem to assimilate him still more to this animal. The ears, however, as in all the wild species of Canis, are of course not hanging, but erect.
His habits, however, crown the resemblance. In his natural state the wild hound never prowls alone; but boldly runs down his game, following it in large organised packs, just as hounds do; and in his hunting he exhibits as much skill as if he had Tom Moody riding at his heels, to guide with whip and horn.
It was the field-cornet's good fortune to witness an exhibition of this skill.
The hounds had come unexpectedly upon the hartebeest herd; and almost at the first dash, one of the antelopes became separated from the rest, and ran in an opposite direction. This was just what the cunning dogs wanted; and the whole pack, instead of following the herd, turned after the single one, and ran "tail on end."
Now this hartebeest, although an ill-shaped antelope, is one of the very swiftest of the tribe; and the wild hound does not capture it without a severe chase. In fact, he could not capture it at all, if speed were the only point between the two animals. But it is not. The hartebeest has a weakness in its character, opposite to which the wild hound possesses a cunning.
The former when chased, although it runs in a straight line, does not keep long in a direct course. Now and then it diverges to one side or the other, led perhaps by the form of the ground, or some other circumstance. In this habit lies its weakness. The wild hound is well aware of it, and takes advantage of it by a manoeuvre, which certainly savours strongly of reflection on his part.
Our field-cornet had a proof of this as he watched the chase. His elevated position gave him a view of the whole ground, and he could note every movement both of pursuer and pursued.
On breaking off, the hartebeest ran in a right line, and the hounds followed straight after. They had not gone far, however, when Von Bloom perceived that one hound was forging ahead of the rest, and running much faster than any of them. He might have been a swifter dog than the others, but the hunter did not think it was that. He appeared rather to be running harder that they, as if sent forward to push the hartebeest, while the rest saved their wind.
This proved to be really the case; for the dog, by a desperate effort, having gained upon the antelope, caused the latter to turn slightly from it original course; and the pack, perceiving this, changed their direction at the same time, and held along a diagonal line, as if to head the game. By this means they avoided the detour which both the antelope and their companion had made.
The hartebeest was now running upon a new line; and as before, one of the hounds was soon seen to head the pack, and press forward at the top of his speed. The one that first led, as soon as the antelope turned from its original course, fell back, rejoined the pack, and was now lagging among the hindmost! His "turn" of duty was over.
Again the hartebeest verged from its course. Again the pack ran obliquely, and made a second "cut" upon him—again a fresh dog took the lead, and on swept the chase as before—the wild hounds uttering their yelping notes as they ran.
Several times was this manoeuvre executed by the cunning dogs—until the desired result was accomplished, and the antelope was completely "blown."
Then, as if they felt that it was in their power, and that further strategy was not needed, the whole pack rushed forward simultaneously, and closed rapidly upon the game.
The hartebeest made one last despairing effort to escape, but, finding that speed would no longer avail, the creature wheeled suddenly round, and placed itself in an attitude of defiance—the foam falling from its lips, while its red eyes sparkled like coals of fire.
In another moment the dogs were around it.
"What a splendid pack!" exclaimed Von Bloom. "Oh! that I had such an one!
"Ha!" he continued, as a new thought struck him, "and why not, just such an one?—why not?"
Now the train of reflections that passed through the mind of the field-cornet was as follows:—
That the wild hounds might be tamed, and trained to hunting,—easiest of all, to the chase of the elephant. He knew that this could be done, for boer-hunters had often done it. True, the dogs must be taken young, but where were young ones to be obtained? It is not so easy to capture the pups of the wild hound. Until they are able to run well, their mothers do not permit them to stray far from the caves in which they are littered; and these are usually crevices among rocks quite inaccessible to man. How could he obtain a set of them? He had already formed such an intention. Where could be their breeding place?
His reflections were interrupted at this point, by very singular behaviour on the part of the wild hounds, and which gave him a new idea of their intelligence that quite electrified him.
When the hartebeest stood to bay, and the hounds came up, Von Bloom very naturally expected to see the latter run in upon their game, and at once pull it to the ground. This he knew was their usual habit. What was his astonishment at seeing the whole pack standing off to one side, as if they intended to leave the antelope alone! Some of them even lay down to rest themselves, while the others stood with open jaws and lolling tongues, but without showing any signs that they intended further to molest the panting quarry!
The field-cornet could observe the situation well, for the antelope was on his side—that is, towards the cliffs—while the dogs were farther out upon the plain. Another circumstance that astonished him was, that the dogs, after running up and around the hartebeest, had actually drawn off to their present position!
What could it mean? Were they afraid of its ugly horns? Were they resting themselves before they should make their bloody onslaught!
The hunter kept his gaze intently fixed upon the interesting group.
After a while the antelope, having recovered its wind a little, and seeing the pack so distant, made a fresh start.
This time it ran in a side direction, apparently with the intention of gaining a hill that lay in that way, and up the sides of which it no doubt calculated upon gaining some advantage. But the creature had hardly stretched itself, when the hounds struck out after it; and in five hundred yards running, once more brought it to a stand. Again the pack took station at a distance, and the hartebeest stood upon the plain alone!
Once more it essayed to escape, and started off with all the speed that was left in its legs—the hounds as before trooping after.
This time the antelope headed in a new direction, making for a point in the cliffs; and as the chase now passed very near to the nwana-tree, everybody had a fine view of it.
The hartebeest seemed to be going faster than ever, or, at all events, the dogs did not now appear to gain upon it; and the field-cornet, as well as all the young people, were in hopes the poor creature would escape from its tireless pursuers.
They watched the chase, until they could just see the bright body of the hartebeest afar off, appearing like a yellow spot upon the face of the rocks, but the dogs were no longer visible. Then the yellow spot suddenly disappeared like the going out of a candle, and they could see it no more.
No doubt the antelope was pulled down!
A strange suspicion entered the mind of Von Bloom, and, calling upon them to saddle the quaggas, he, with Hans and Hendrik, rode off towards the place where the hartebeests had been last seen.
They approached the ground with caution; and under the shelter of some bushes were enabled to get within two hundred yards of the spot without being observed. A singular spectacle rewarded their pains.
Within a dozen yards of the cliff lay the body of the hartebeest, where it had been "pulled down" by the dogs. It was already half eaten, not by the hounds that had hunted it, but by their puppies of all ages, that to the number of more than threescore were now standing around the carcass, tugging away at its flesh and snarling at one another! Some of the grown dogs that had taken part in the chase could be seen lying upon the ground, still panting after their hard run; but most of them had disappeared, no doubt into the numerous small caves and crevices that opened along the bottom of the cliffs.
There was no room left to doubt the singular fact—that the wild hounds had regularly driven the hartebeest up to their breeding-place to feed their young, and that they had abstained from killing it out upon the plain to save themselves the labour of dragging it from a distance!
Indeed these animals—unlike the Felidae—have not the power of transporting a large mass to any considerable distance; hence the wonderful instinct which led them to guide the antelope to the very spot where its flesh was wanted!
That they were in the constant practice of this singular habit was attested, by the numerous bones and horns of large antelopes of different kinds, that lay strewed around the place.
Von Bloom had his eye upon the young puppies, and all three made a rush towards them. But it was to no purpose. Cunning as their fathers and mothers, the little fellows forsook their meal at first sight of the intruders, and darted off into their caves!
But they were not cunning enough to escape the snares, which were laid for them every day for a week after; and, before the end of that time, more than a dozen of them were safely domiciled in a little kennel built especially for their use, under the shadow of the great nwana-tree.
In less that six months from that time, several of them were in the field, and trained to the chase of the elephant, which duty they performed with all the courage and skill that could have been shown by hounds of the purest breed!
For several years Von Bloom led the life of an elephant-hunter. For several years the great nwana-tree was his home, and his only companions his children and domestics. But, perhaps, these were not the least happy years of his existence, since, during all the time both he and his family had enjoyed the most estimable of earthly blessings,—health.
He had not allowed his children to grow up without instruction. He had not permitted them to lapse into the character of mere "Bush-boys." He had taught them many things from the book of nature,—many arts that can be acquired as well on the karoo as in the college. He had taught them to love God, and to love one another. He had planted in their minds the seeds of the virtuous principles,—honour and morality,—without which all education is worthless. He had imbued them with habits of industry and self-reliance, and had initiated them into many of the accomplishments of civilised life—so that upon their return to society they might be quite equal to its claims. Upon the whole, those years of the exile's life, spent in his wilderness home, formed no blank in his existence. He might look back upon them with feelings of satisfaction and pleasure.
Man, however, is formed for society. The human heart, properly organised, seeks communion with the human heart; and the mind, especially when refined and polished by education, loves the intercourse of social life, and, when deprived of it, will always yearn to obtain it.
So was it with the field-cornet. He desired to return once more within the pale of civilised society. He desired once more to revisit the scenes where he had so long dwelt in peaceful happiness; he desired once more to establish himself among his friends and acquaintances of former days, in the picturesque district in the Graaf Reinet. Indeed, to have remained any longer in his wilderness home could have served no purpose. It is true he had grown very much attached to his wild hunter-life, but it was no longer likely to be profitable. The elephants had completely forsaken the neighbourhood of the camp, and not one was to be found within twenty miles of the spot. They had become well-acquainted with the report of the long roer, and knew the dangerous character of that weapon; they had learnt that of all their enemies man was the one to be especially dreaded and shunned; and they had grown so shy of his presence, that the hunters frequently passed whole weeks without setting their eyes upon a single elephant.
But this was no longer an object of solicitude with Von Bloom. Other considerations now occupied his mind, and he did not care much if he should never spoor another of these huge quadrupeds. To return to the Graaf Reinet, and settle there, was now the ultimatum of his wishes.
The time had at length arrived when he would be able to carry out that design; and nothing seemed any longer to stand in the way of its full and complete accomplishment.
The proscription against him had been long since taken off. A general amnesty had been passed by the government, and he had been pardoned among the rest.
It is true his property was not restored to him; but that mattered little now. He had created a new property, as was testified by the vast pyramid of ivory that stood under the shadow of the great nwana-tree!
Nothing remained but to transport this shining pile to a market, and a splendid fortune would be the result.
And Von Bloom's ingenuity found the means for bringing it to market.
About this time there was dug another huge pit-trap near the pass in the cliffs, in which many quaggas were trapped; and then, there were stirring scenes, while these wild creatures were being broken to harness, and trained to "trek" in a wagon.
They were trained, however, after a good deal of trouble—the old wheels, still in prime condition, serving as the "break;" and then the body of the wagon was let down from the tree, and once more renewed its acquaintance with its old companions the wheels; and the cap-tent spread its protecting shadow over all; and the white and yellow crescents were stowed; and the quaggas were "inspanned;" and Swartboy, mounting the "voor-kist," once more cracked his long bamboo whip; and the wheels, well oiled with elephants' grease, again whirled gaily along!
How surprised were the good people of Graaf Beinet, when one morning a cap-tent wagon, drawn by twelve quaggas, and followed by four riders mounted upon animals of the same kind, pulled up in the public square of their little town! How astonished they were on seeing that this wagon was "chuck" full of elephants' teeth, all except a little corner occupied by a beautiful girl with cherry cheeks and fair flaxen hair; and how joyed were they, in fine, on learning that the owner of both the ivory and the beautiful girl was no other than their old friend, and much-esteemed fellow-citizen, the field-cornet, Von Bloom!
A warm welcome met the elephant-hunter in the square of Graaf Reinet, and, what was also of some importance, a ready market for his ivory.
It chanced just at that time that ivory was selling at a very high rate. Some article—I do not remember what—the principal part of which required to be constructed of pure ivory, had come into fashion and general use in European countries, and the consequence was an increased demand for this valuable commodity. It was a fortunate circumstance for the returned hunter, who was at once enabled to dispose of his stock, not only for ready money, but at such a fine price as to yield him nearly twice the amount he had calculated on receiving!
He had not brought it all with him, as there was more than would have loaded any one wagon. A second load had remained, hidden near the nwana-tree, and this required a journey to be made for it.
It was made in due time, and the remainder arrived safely at Graaf Reinet, and was there delivered to the ivory-dealers, who had already purchased it.
The result was a splendid fortune in ready money. The field-cornet was once more a rich man!
For the present we can follow his history no farther than to say, that the proceeds of his great hunt enabled him to buy back his old estate, and to stock it in splendid style, with the best breeds of horses, horned cattle, and sheep; that he rose rapidly in wealth and worldly esteem; that the government gave him its confidence; and, having first restored him to his old office of field-cornet, soon afterwards promoted him to that of "landdrost," or chief magistrate of the district.
Hans returned to his college studies; while the dashing Hendrik was enabled to enter the profession for which he was most fit, and the very one that fitted him, by obtaining a cornetcy in the "Cape Mounted Rifles."
Little Jan was packed off to school to study grammar and geography; while the beautiful Trueey remained at home to grace the mansion of her honoured father, and look after his household affairs.
Totty still ruled the kitchen; and, of course, Swartboy was the important man about the house, and for many a long year after cracked his great whip, and flourished his jambok among the long-horned oxen of the wealthy landdrost.
But enough for the present,—enough of adventure for one year. Let us hope, boy readers, that before you and I have circled once more around the sun, we shall make a fresh trip to the land of the boers, and again encounter the worthy Von Bloom, his Bushman, and—