Perils in the Transvaal and Zululand
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The sound of horses’ feet was now heard, and Matamo came up. “Well, Matamo,” cried Redgy, “what was it then? was it a tiger, or a hyena, or a wild dog, or what?”
“I am not sure,” said Matamo, “but I think it was a bush thief?”
“A bush thief?” repeated Hardy; “do you mean a native or a white man?”
“A white thief, Mr Hardy,” answered the Bechuana, – “the same who attacked us before.”
“What! on the banks of the Blood river, you mean – before Isandhlwana, eh?” said George.
“Yes, Mr Rivers, – the man you rode after and did not catch.”
“What makes you suppose that? Colonel Wood is believed to have cleared the country of the gang by whom we were attacked,” observed Margetts.
“The colonel did not drive him off,” said Matamo. “I remember him quite well; I saw him in Luneberg the day before we left. He was looking at the waggons and asking questions. He thought I did not know him, but I did.”
“Then you think he is dogging us?” suggested Rivers.
“He is certainly after us, and means us harm,” rejoined the Bechuana. “I saw him long way off to-day. I knew his horse.”
“Horse! was he on horseback when you saw him just now – that is, if you did see him?”
“He was creeping through the bush on his hands and knees when I first saw him,” was the answer. “When I first got on my horse and rode after him, I saw him a long way off, on the edge of the wood, he and one or two more. They got on their horses and rode off before I could come up.”
“Well, they won’t come back to-night, anyhow,” observed Rivers; “and to-morrow we must devise some means of circumventing them.”
No more was said, and presently the party turned in to their sleeping-places for the night.
Rivers tapped Vander Heyden on the shoulder, and the two moved off a short distance out of hearing.
“What do you think of this, Mr Vander Heyden?” inquired George when they were out of hearing distance.
“I am afraid Matamo is right,” answered the Dutchman. “I know more of this man Cargill, or, as he chooses to call himself, Bostock, than I have cared to say. He was once in the Dutch service, and was received in society as a gentleman. At the Hague he fell in with my sister, to whom he offered very marked attentions – indeed, once made her an offer of marriage.”
“But she repelled him?” said George.
“Yes, so decidedly that he had no pretext for intruding further on her. But he would not desist, and my sister appealed to me for protection. I called at his quarters, and the result was a quarrel and a challenge, which I accepted. But the same night, at the burgomaster’s ball, he was so insolent in his demeanour to Annchen, that I insisted on his leaving the ballroom. A fracas with the police ensued, and he was lodged in prison, from which he made his escape. I never heard what had become of him until I saw him on board the Zulu Queen. But he had sent a notice to me, while in prison, that the defiance which had been exchanged between us still held good, if I dared to meet him.I answered that I stood prepared to do so when and where he might demand it. I could not then foresee that he would fall to his present level. He reminded me of my words when we met that day near the Blood river. I daresay you wondered that I should condescend to a duel with such a fellow. But my word had been given, though at that time I did not like to tell you all.”
“I see,” said George; “but you are not bound to meet him again.”
“No, nor have I any intention of doing so. Indeed, I told him so. But you heard what he said, – ‘he would find his opportunity of returning my fire,’ or some such words. He is quite ruffian enough to shoot at me without further warning.”
“If I thought that,” exclaimed George, “I declare I would fire upon him without ceremony! What, do you think he was creeping up through the reeds with that intention when Matamo saw him?”
“I cannot say. But if it was really he that Matamo saw, I don’t think it unlikely.”
“Well, we must be on our guard of course. It is a pity we haven’t a good dog with us. We must see if we can’t get one at one of the houses we pass. There is nothing for it but to go to sleep now. I think we are safe for to-night.”
The night passed as had been anticipated, without further disturbance. In the morning the route was resumed, the place appointed for that evening’s halt being Elandsberg. They were able to proceed with greater speed than on the previous day, the long, level plain being rarely interrupted by watercourses. The only drawback was that the veldt, though to all appearance level and firm, was in many places undermined by the burrows of the ant-bears which abound in this district, and which the long grass renders invisible. The horses were continually plunging into these fetlock deep, and sometimes almost to the knee. The greatest care was necessary to prevent a dangerous accident. This formation of ground lasted through the whole of the morning’s ride, so that Vander Heyden had no opportunity of resuming the conversation with George which he had held on the previous evening. But when the mid-day halt had been made, the Dutchman, who had been seated near him under the shade of a large oomehahma, asked him to take a turn with him into the wood, while the drivers were engaged in inspanning the cattle.
“Mr Rivers,” he said, “I think I ought to tell you what I have heard from my sister about this man Cargill, of whom we were speaking last night. I suppose she had overheard something from the Hottentots, which induced her to suppose that he had been seen in the neighbourhood. But it certainly is necessary that some steps should be taken to prevent the mischief which may otherwise not improbably follow. You will perhaps think it strange that I should speak to you, of all men, about her. I know the light in which you regard her. You have never, indeed, made any secret of it.” He paused and hesitated, looking at George in an embarrassed manner.
Rivers bowed rather distantly. “You are right, Mr Vander Heyden,” he said; “I have said and done nothing secretly. But I am aware of your feeling on the subject. You must allow me to say that you have made no secret of your feeling either.”
“That is true, Mr Rivers, and is one reason why I wish to speak to you now. I will not deny that when we first met, on board the Zulu Queen, my feeling was one of simple dislike to your countrymen. That may be an unreasonable prejudice; but if you knew my family history, you would not wonder at it. But the events which ensued on board the ship, and afterwards during the campaign in Zululand, have, permit me to say, completely altered my feeling. I have learned your true character, and honour and esteem you.”
George again bowed, and put out his hand, which the other took frankly. “I, too, Mr Vander Heyden, have had prejudices to get over,” he said, “and may say with truth that I have surmounted them.”
“I am glad that you can say so,” resumed Henryk. “To proceed – I would now willingly accept you as a suitor for my sister’s hand, and, to be perfectly frank, do not much doubt that she would receive you favourably, but for a circumstance which is perhaps to be regretted, but cannot be set aside. My father entertained a still stronger resentment against the English than ever I have felt. The idea of being connected with them in any manner was odious to him. Above all, the notion that either I should ever marry an Englishwoman, or an Englishman become the husband of Annchen, was one against which he was determined to guard by every means in his power. She is seven or eight years younger than I am, and was indeed not more than twelve years old at the time of his death. He thought her too young to be spoken to on the subject. But he put a clause into his will, by which she forfeited her whole inheritance if she married an Englishman, and he also laid his solemn commands on me never to allow such a marriage. I gave him my promise, and nothing can ever release me from it.”
He again paused. But George only once more bowed, and Henryk went on. “I have never told Annchen of my interview with my father, which took place only a few days before his death; nor is she aware of the clause in his will of which I have told you. When I perceived your attentions to her, I warned her against entertaining any reciprocal feelings, but only on the ground that I could never consent to such an union. I did not wish to bring in my father’s name, if I could help it. Nor shall I do so, unless it becomes absolutely necessary. May I not hope, Mr Rivers, that you, seeing what the consequences of a marriage with her would be, will prevent the occurrence of this necessity by abstaining from any further persistence in your suit?”
George was silent for a minute or two, and then replied, “You have spoken frankly, Mr Vander Heyden, and in a manner that does you honour. I do not fear poverty myself, but I ought not to reduce her to it, unless at her own expressed wish. We should not, in England, think it right for a parent to exercise so extreme an authority over a daughter as a prohibition to marry a person of any particular nation, be he who or what he might, would amount to. But under the circumstances of the case, I am willing to respect your joint wishes, and will not, unless with your permission, ask Annchen to be my wife.”
“I thank you, Mr Rivers. You will observe that my father’s command was not addressed to her, forbidding her to marry an Englishman, but to me, requiring me to forbid it. If I could think it right to set my father’s injunction aside, she doubtless would feel no scruple. But that, I fear, can never be the case.”
There was a further pause, and then Vander Heyden again spoke. “Having told you this, I have no hesitation in asking your help in the present condition of things. This man Cargill, or Bostock, or whatever he may choose to call himself, does not pursue us in this manner only because he bears me a deadly hate. He has an equally deadly passion for Annchen. I had no idea till last night of the length to which he had gone. Even on board the ship, he had the insolence to speak to her. On the day when we left the Cape he contrived to find her alone, and warn her that there would probably be mutiny and danger to the captain and officers and passengers, but she might trust to him to preserve her from all harm.”
“Why did not Miss Vander Heyden warn you?” exclaimed Rivers, greatly startled.
“He timed it well. It was only just before the ship struck. Moritz and I were asleep in our cabin, and the captain was asleep in his also. He knew that there would be no possibility of warning us. Again, as I learn, while she was at the Swedish pastor’s house, just after our encounter on the banks of the Blood river, she received a letter which he contrived to have handed to her, telling her of his unaltered affection, and that he was still resolved she should be his. I learn that he was seen in Luneberg making inquiries as to the route we were to pursue, accompanied by some of the mutineers and one or two other notorious ruffians. There is, I am afraid, no doubt that some attempt will be made to carry her off during this journey to Zeerust.”
“It sounds like it, I fear,” said Rivers. “Well, Mr Vander Heyden, you may command my services to the utmost in averting so dreadful a calamity.”
“I thank you; I knew I might reckon on your generous help. I think, if we can reach Standerton in safety, as with great exertion may be done to-morrow, we may engage more men to accompany us. Our party may be made so numerous, that Cargill will not venture on any violence. We are at present ten in number, but two or three of them cannot be relied on. If we could engage five or six stout fellows, and arm them well with rifles and revolvers, they would not dare to attack us. I propose to have a watch kept throughout the night, as well as two or three men riding always in advance, and they may follow in our rear by day.”
“I think you could not do more wisely,” said George; “and until we reach Standerton we will undertake the duty ourselves. Margetts and I will keep one watch, you and Hardy another, and Matamo and Haxo the third. And the same with the parties in advance and in the rear.”
“I thank you heartily,” said Vander Heyden. “I will speak to Mr Hardy and the two servants, if you will do so to Mr Margetts.”
The dawn was only just beginning to dapple the skies, when the voice of Henryk Vander Heyden was heard rousing his Hottentots and superintending the inspanning of the oxen and the saddling of the horses. The sun was hardly above the horizon before the party had set out, Vander Heyden and Hardy riding two or three hundred yards in advance with their guns and revolvers loaded, keeping a keen lookout as they advanced, and two of the Hottentot servants following in the same manner in the rear. In this manner they advanced for three hours or so, through a country resembling in character that which they had passed yesterday, with the difference that the ground was harder and drier, so that the progress of the waggons was less interrupted. About nine o’clock they halted for the first meal of the day on the edge of a dense mass of shrubs and underwood, through which nothing but the woodman’s axe or a herd of elephants could have forced their way. Here occurred an incident which was remembered by one of the party, at all events, long afterwards. Redgy Margetts had alighted, and was about to take his place at the breakfast table, if the rough boards taken from the cart, on which the viands were spread, could be so designated, when he saw what he took to be the end of a long green plantain among the stems of the cacti. They are very delicious eating; and, thinking to add to the attractions of the meal, he took hold of one end to draw it out. To his surprise and alarm, he felt it move and writhe in his grasp, and the next moment a hideous green head made its appearance from the bushes, and would have sprung on him, if Matamo, who was calling out to Margetts to warn him, had not dexterously flung the large knife which he was holding in his hand, wounding the snake in the neck and disconcerting its aim. It missed Redgy’s face, at which it had darted, and fell on the ground close to him, and Haxo, who had caught up an axe, struck its head off.
“A lucky escape, Mr Margetts,” said Matamo. “A big mamba, that; he is seven or eight feet long. I never saw a bigger.”
“The brute?” exclaimed Redgy. “I took him for a big cucumber, or something of that kind. Is he poisonous, Matamo?”
“Yes, Mr Redgy, very poisonous. A man, if he was bit by him, would die in an hour, perhaps in less. I’ve known one die in three-quarters of an hour.”
“You must be careful, Mr Margetts,” said Annchen, who had witnessed what had passed with a shudder of horror. “I have been learning a good deal about the African snakes. They are the worst things in the country. We newcomers cannot be too careful.”
“You are right, miss,” said Matamo. “Some of them look like sticks or green stalks or stems of trees lying on the ground. Strangers sometimes don’t find out that they are snakes, till they are bitten.”
“But, as a rule, they won’t harm you unless you provoke them,” said Vander Heyden. “They have the cobra in India as well as here. In which country do you think it is the most venomous, Hardy?”
“It is bad enough anywhere,” answered Hardy; “but I think it is worst in India. Its venom is very rapid in its action there. I remember Captain Winter’s Hindoo cook being bitten by one. She used to keep her money in a hen’s nest near the kitchen door. One night she heard a noise in the nest, and thought some one was stealing her money. She crept down in the dark and put her hand into the nest to feel if the money was safe. The noise had been caused by a cobra which had crept in to eat the chickens. It bit her, and she was dead in less than half an hour.”
“Yes, no doubt it was in a state of great irritation, and the bite unusually venomous,” observed Vander Heyden; “but I consider both the puff-adder and the cerastes to be quite as dangerous as the cobra, and the mamba yonder is almost as bad as any. But with proper care there is not much danger. If they do bite you, as a rule, the only thing to be done is to cut or burn the flesh out.”
The meal was now eaten, and the waggons were soon once more in motion, the same precautions being observed during the remainder of the day. No enemies, however, were sighted, or, indeed, any living creatures at all, except some koodoos, which Haxo and George pursued and were fortunate enough to overtake, killing one and bringing the prime parts home for supper.
About five o’clock they reached Elandsberg; which had never been more than a tolerable-sized village, and had been sacked and burned by the Zulus some months before in one of their incursions. It was now deserted; and it was fortunate that the koodoo had been killed, or the party might have had but a slender supper to partake of. But as it was, they soon made themselves comfortable. All the cottages had been wrecked, and the furniture broken to pieces or carried off; but the walls of some were still standing, and one of the largest – a farmhouse apparently – had suffered less than the others. The roof, of corrugated iron, over two of the rooms was still almost whole, and even the windows of one, the principal bedroom, had escaped. This room was got ready for Annchen and her Hottentot. Her bed and box were brought in, and a rug spread on the floor for the servant. In the other room, which had been the kitchen, the men of the party took up their quarters. A fire was lighted on the hearth, at which the koodoo’s flesh was roasted; a half shattered table was rescued from the d?bris outside and propped up with boxes, and the party presently sat down to an appetising supper. Two of the servants were left to keep guard outside, their places being taken by others at midnight. Then the rest of the company wrapped themselves in their rugs and lay down round the fire.
The night was undisturbed, and the route resumed with the first glimmer of daylight, Vander Heyden being particularly anxious to reach Standerton that night; where, he believed, his anxieties would be at an end. It was a most delicious day, and everything went smoothly until after the halt for the mid-day meal. Then it was arranged that Margetts and Haxo should form the advanced guard, while Matamo and Hardy followed in the rear.
Redgy rode on, thoroughly enjoying the delicious afternoon. The sky was beautifully blue, and for a long time not flecked by a single cloud.
“How lovely the afternoon is!” he exclaimed half to himself, as they paced leisurely along. “I wish our halting-place was farther off. I shall be quite sorry when this comes to an end.”
“It is quite far enough off, sir,” replied Haxo, to whom this remark appeared to be addressed. “It is about half a mile on, and I wish it wasn’t a quarter.”
“Why do you wish that, Haxo?” asked Redgy, turning in surprise to his companion, whose presence he had almost forgotten.
“Because the river is between us and Dolly’s Kop, sir,” answered Haxo; “and I am not sure whether the waggon will get across.”
“Get across! Why not? I suppose it is like the other rivers we have passed to-day, – so I understand at least. We have had no difficulty about crossing them.”
“Just so, Mr Margetts. The rivers about here are nearly all sand, with just a little water. But after an hour’s rain they look different.”
“Rain! Yes, but we’ve had no rain.”
“We are going to have it, though, and that pretty soon. Do you see those clouds?” He pointed as he spoke to a thick bank of black vapour which was creeping over the sky. “See, they’re hurrying on the oxen as fast as they can. They may get across, but I don’t think it.”
They turned round and rode up to the waggon, where, indeed, the giraffe-hide whips were in full requisition, and the waggons proceeded at a pace which would soon have brought them up to the river-side had it continued. But they were presently obliged to moderate their pace, and before long it became difficult to proceed. The sky grew so dark as almost to obscure the track – indeed, but for the lightning, which repeatedly burst forth with a vividness which illuminated the whole scene, they would not have been able to distinguish their way at all. Then there came a cold, biting rush of wind, and suddenly the rain burst forth in torrents, which soon drenched every one to the skin, while the animals became almost unmanageable. It was well they had experienced drivers, or some serious disaster must have ensued.
At length, after a fierce struggle with the elements, the banks of the river were reached. But it became evident at a glance that all hope of crossing it must for a long time to come be abandoned. The narrow streamlet had risen to a roaring torrent, not only filling its sandy bed, but expanding into wide lagoons on either side, and filling up hollows which in some places were fifteen or twenty feet deep. Fortunately for the belated wanderers, the ground at the point which they had reached was high and rocky; and they were glad to avail themselves of Matamo’s local knowledge, who ordered the oxen to be turned aside from the track, and presently drew the waggons into a cavern, running far enough back into the rock to afford a shelter from both wind and rain. The horses were now stabled in an adjoining cavern, and the oxen turned out to find what food they could. The condition of the party was in some degree improved. But they were sufficiently miserable nevertheless. The deluge of rain had not only soaked the men to the skin, but had forced its way into the waggons, and Annchen and her maid, and the beds and wraps and every other article inside, except the solid chests, were as completely drenched as though they had been plunged into the river. Some wood, with which the floor of the cave had been strewn, was heaped together and a fire lighted, but it would evidently be hours before anything like warmth or comfort could be restored. Our travellers were greatly relieved when they saw a horseman, wearing a heavily flapped hat and leggings and boots of untanned leather, together with a thick cloak wrapped round his person, suddenly draw up at the mouth of the cave and ask in intelligible English who they were, and whether they required any help.
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