Perils in the Transvaal and Zululand
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“We are mostly English travellers,” replied George. “We have been caught in the storm, and are almost wet to the skin. The lady who is with us, in particular, may suffer from the effects of the exposure. We should be thankful to you to show us any place where we can obtain warmth and food and shelter.”
“English!” repeated the stranger; “my countrymen. I do not often come across them in these regions, and shall be pleased to offer them such hospitality as I can. You have horses, I think; you had better mount and ride with me. My house lies at the distance of about a mile from here, though the wood lies between it and us.”
All complied without hesitation; even Vander Heyden, though unwilling to be indebted for any services to an Englishman, felt that, for his sister’s sake, it would be impossible for him to refuse. The servants were left behind under Matamo’s and Haxo’s charge, there being plenty of food for their wants, as well as accommodation quite as good as they were used to.
The party rode off, following a path evidently well known to their conductor, though indistinguishable by them. The rain had now entirely ceased, though the sky was still clouded. After a quarter of an hour’s ride they reached the house; which stood, as well as they could discern, on the edge of a wide, deep hollow, which the floods had converted for the time into an inland lake. There was light enough to distinguish clearly the outlines of the building. It was externally like the houses of the Dutch; but the internal arrangements were different. The kitchen was at one end, and there was a sitting-room adjoining it, and two or three separate bedrooms at the other end. The furniture, too, was different, the articles being less massive and solid than is usually the case with the Boers. There was even a bookcase in the parlour, containing it might be thirty or forty books, articles rarely to be seen in the houses of the Dutch.
Annchen was immediately shown to one of the spare bedrooms, and some clothes brought her by one of the Hottentot women, while her own were taken out to be dried. The males of the party were similarly accommodated, and in an hour’s time all the travellers were assembled round the stranger’s board, with the exception of Vander Heyden, who, having seen his sister made comfortable, took a courteous farewell of his host, and expressed his intention of returning to the cavern, not considering it safe, he said, to leave the waggons and cattle entirely in charge of the natives.
“You may be right, sir,” said the Englishman. “Natives, unless you have had long experience of them, cannot safely be left in charge of valuable property. More particularly is that the case at the present time.”
“Indeed!” said Vander Heyden, delaying his departure as he heard his host’s words. “To what do you more particularly refer?”
“The whole country has been for a long time past overrun with ruffians and outlaws of every description,” was the answer.“Zulus and Kaffirs, whom the recent war has driven out of their own country; Hottentots, who will not work, and live by pillage and pilfering; rogues from the diamond fields, who have been expelled for their knavish tricks, as well as convicts, who have broken loose from their confinement, have for years past formed a sort of banditti, against which one has perpetually to be on one’s guard. After the annexation, our Government almost entirely put them down; but the events of the last half-year have renewed the mischief almost as bad as ever. I have no doubt, however, that now that the struggle has come to an end, quiet and security of life and property will be reestablished. But you need not be afraid, I think, for your waggons. You do not seem to be aware that a bridge over the river has been recently made, and there is a good road from it all the way to Standerton. I shall be pleased to show it to you to-morrow. It is one of the boons for which we have to thank the English Government.”
Vander Heyden made no reply, but once more bowed and took his leave.
Rivers and Hardy looked at one another and smiled.
“What a pity it is that he dislikes the English so!” said the latter. “He really is a fine fellow – brave and generous and honest, and full of kindness to every one, except an Englishman.”
“We ought to feel it all the more a compliment that he is so civil to us. I suppose there must have been some very great wrong done to his father by our countrymen,” said George.
“To his grandfather first, and then to his father,” said Hardy. “His grandfather was one of those who rebelled when they found that the country had been permanently handed over to the English after the fall of Napoleon. He was taken prisoner with arms in his hands, and was hanged like any highwayman. His son migrated to Natal, and was again driven out by the English, when they annexed the colony. Proceedings were taken against him which were extremely harsh, and he died, as I have heard, of a broken heart. His son, our friend Henryk, got together all he could of his father’s property, and withdrew into the Transvaal; where he bought a farm, but left it in charge of an agent, while he himself served in the Dutch army for several years. The annexation of the country by the English, three or four years ago, was the last drop in the cup of his indignation. He had returned to the Transvaal, having become wealthy again, partly by his deputy’s successful farming, partly through money left him by his uncle, Van Courtlandt. He went again to Europe, to try if he could not procure the repeal of the Act of Annexation. He has come back now, bitterly disappointed at his failure. It is no wonder, I must say, that he cannot endure the English.”
The host now informed them that supper was ready, and they took their places at the table. After the meal Annchen withdrew for the night, and the rest of the party, gathering round the hearth, for the rain and wind had made the air chilly, smoked their pipes and drank their host’s Schiedam at their ease.
“If you would excuse my curiosity, sir,” said Hardy after a while, “I should like to know what brought you into these parts. You are, I think you said, an Englishman. But – ”
“But I don’t look as though I had lived in England, – that is what you mean, I think? Well, I’ll tell you my history. It illustrates what we were talking of at dinner, – as to what is the truth respecting the treatment of the natives by the Boers. My father and mother were English. They came out to the Cape Colony somewhere about 1830, and they settled on a farm in Namaqualand. It didn’t pay. Their cattle were continually driven off by the bushmen, and their fruit plundered and their guns and hoes and the like stolen by the Hottentots. Nothing they could do would prevent it. The native servants were often as not in league with the thieves. Every now and then they would run off and take anything of value with them.”
“As for the cattle-stealing,” remarked George, “that is an old story. A man must be a good deal wiser than I am who can say how it is to be prevented. But I wonder, I must say, if you treated the Hottentots well, as I have no doubt you did, that they didn’t stay with you.”
“Perhaps they might,” said Prestcott, which they afterwards found to be their host’s name, – “perhaps they might, if they had been left to themselves. But there were always a lot of Hottentots going loose about the country; and they threatened our servants with their vengeance if they didn’t give them food and drink. They didn’t dare refuse, and then they expected to be severely punished, and ran off. Anyhow, they couldn’t keep any servants, and their property was continually pillaged. They must have left the country if they had lived. But one day my father was speared by a party of bushmen, whom he had caught driving off a bull. My mother, who had seen the transaction, ran screaming out, and they speared her too. They then entered and pillaged the house. I was a child of eight years old, and they no doubt would have killed me along with my parents, if it hadn’t occurred to them that old Potgieter, a Boer farmer a few miles off, would give them something handsome for me. They took me to him, and he did buy me.”
“You don’t mean that he bought you of them, knowing how they had come by you?” exclaimed Redgy, horror-stricken.
“No, sir. They were too clever to tell him that, and he was too clever to ask. They merely said they had found me, and they believed my father and mother were dead.”
“And they had excellent reasons for believing so,” remarked Redgy.
“True, sir. Well, old Herman Potgieter took pity on me, as he was pleased to express it. He took me over to the field-cornet’s house, and apprenticed me, after their fashion, to himself, until I should be one-and-twenty years old.”
“Ay, I have heard of that before I left England,” remarked Margetts. “But I thought the age was five-and-twenty, and it was further remarked that it was astonishing how long these apprentices are in reaching their five-and-twentieth year.”
“Just so, sir. The natives seldom know how old they are; indeed, they are seldom able to keep any account of time; and they are obliged to prove that they are five-and-twenty before they can claim their freedom. I have known a native kept in service until he was nearly forty. But though I was not nine years old before I was taken before the field-cornet, I knew something of their ways, having heard my father talk about it. I produced a Prayer-Book he had given me on my eighth birthday, insisting upon it that in a little more than twelve years’ time I should be free. I suppose when they found out I was really an English boy, on my father’s side at all events, they were a little frightened, and thought it best to be cautious.”
“I have no doubt of it,” assented Hardy. “I suppose you took good care of your Prayer-Book?”
“Old Potgieter contrived to get hold of that,” said Prestcott; “but I was not to be beaten. The house where my father had lived stood only a few miles off, or rather had once stood, for no one had lived there since it had been wrecked by the Hottentots, and it was a mere ruin. But I knew my father had buried a box under the stone paving in one corner of the room, and that it contained among other articles my baptismal certificate. One day, when I wanted but a few weeks of becoming one-and-twenty, I took a pick-axe with me, went over to my old home, and dug up the box. There was my baptismal certificate, sure enough, and a good bit of money besides, as well as shares in an English company at Cape Town. I put these back into the box, which I buried again, but I took the certificate with me, and on my twenty-first birthday went over to the field-cornet’s again. Old Potgieter thought he had destroyed the evidence of my age, and was dumb-foundered when he saw the signatures to the papers, and durst say no more.
“I repossessed myself of my money and shares, and sold the latter at Cape Town, where they fetched a good price. Then I bought this land here and built this house, where I have lived ever since. I married, but never had any children. A few years ago my wife died, and I have never cared to marry again.”
“What became of old Potgieter, the old wretch?” inquired Redgy.
“Poor old Potgieter!” said Prestcott. “He wasn’t unkind to me after all; and when I heard how barbarously he had been murdered, I was as hot as any one to punish his slayers.”
“How was he murdered?” inquired Hardy.
“He was making a journey somewhere, I forget where. It was only for trading purposes, but I suppose the Kaffir chief, near whose kraal he halted for the night, thought otherwise. And it can’t be denied that there was some reason for his thinking so. Old Potgieter had been on a great many commandos, and had killed more natives than he would find easy to reckon up. Makapan, as the chief was called, attacked the camp by night and killed them all. I have been told that they flayed him alive, and the story was generally believed, though I have great doubts whether it was true. The Dutch, when they heard of it, ordered a general commando, which was joined by a large party of Potgieter’s relatives and friends, and I, as I told you, went with them. We were several hundreds in number, with waggons containing military stores, and a cannon or two. Makapan and his tribe were quite unable to resist. They retired into the broken country adjoining the kraal, and there assailed us with arrows and assegays from behind their rocky fastnesses. But we continually forced them back; and at last they retired into a cavern, which was some hundred yards in depth, and so dark that it was impossible to see anything, except close at hand.”
“It wouldn’t have done to have followed them there,” said George. “You would have been an easy mark for their poisoned arrows.”
“No doubt, and we might have fired as many rounds of ammunition as we pleased and hit nothing but the rocks. Praetorius and the others knew better than to try that.”
“What did they do?” asked George.
“They first tried to blast the rocks, but that had no effect but that of wasting powder. Then a sort of blockade was established. Guards were set at every opening, and nothing allowed to come out or go in. But either the Kaffirs had collected large stores of food, or they had some way of going out and getting in which we could not detect. At last the Dutchmen came to the conclusion that the only thing to be done was to build them in.”
“Build them in! What, build a wall in front of the cave, do you mean?”
“Build up the mouth of the cave itself. They had pretty clearly determined that there was but one mouth, – the fact that the cave ran deeper and deeper into the hillside seemed to prove that, – and if so, there could be no way out.”
“Why, that is very much what I remember reading in my history of Scotland,” said Margetts, “that a very barbarous Highland tribe did to another. It was in prehistoric times, so that there was only a legend about it.”
“As for barbarity, Redgy,” observed George, “I don’t fancy the Boers of the nineteenth century are much behind the McLeods of whom that story is told. And the French performed nearly the same feat in Algeria forty years or so ago. Only they, I believe, smoked the Arabs like bees in a hive.”
“That would have been much more merciful,” observed Prestcott. “These Kaffirs died of hunger, the most dreadful of all deaths, and no quarter was given them. Whenever any of them made their appearance at the mouth of the cave, they were shot down. More than a thousand were killed in that way. The blockade was maintained for nearly a month. After that no Kaffirs appeared, and there came so dreadful a stench from the cave that the Dutch could endure it no longer, and made their way in. I had gone away some time before that, not being able to endure the horror of it. But I am told that they found no living thing. The whole tribe had been destroyed.”
“Then, I suppose, they went home and celebrated their victory,” said George.
“Yes, and boast that peace has been maintained in that district ever since,” replied Mr Prestcott.
“Solitudinem faciunt pacem appellant,” said George, who had not forgotten his classics. “I did not know the Boers were as bad as that!”
“I should like to ask you, sir,” said Margetts after a pause, “the rights about the presence of the larger animals – wild animals, I mean – in these parts. In Zululand, which is very nearly on the same parallel as this, they were certainly to be found. Some of the horses were attacked by lions while we were actually in the country. We had been informed that it was very much the same state of things in the Transvaal. But here we have been journeying several days, and we have not come upon the slightest trace of elephant, or lion, or giraffe, or rhinoceros. We did hear a roaring one day, which we thought was that of a lion, but it turned out to be only an ostrich, – so Matamo said, at all events.”
“If you heard the roaring by day, Mr Margetts,” said Prestcott, “it was pretty sure to be that of an ostrich. As a rule, the lion only roars by night. The two roars are certainly very much alike, though a practised hunter could distinguish between them easily enough. As for the great game of which you speak, it has certainly left the lower parts of the Transvaal. If a solitary specimen here and there is to be met with, the animal in question has been driven southward by some accident. It is a different thing in Zululand from what it is here. The natives do not hunt the lion or the rhinoceros, as the European settlers do. After they have once begun to people a land, the big game soon disappears. We have, however, still herds of antelopes of all kinds, springboks, gemsboks, elands, koodoos, hartebeests, and gnus. The lion preys upon all these, and where they are to be found in great numbers he might be looked for also. But the white hunter is too much for him, I expect.”
“They are old acquaintances of yours, I perceive, sir,” suggested George. “Have you ever had any perilous encounters with them?”
“Well, sir, I have had one or two brushes – narrow escapes they may be called. I had one in Namaqualand some years ago – no one ever had a narrower, I may say.”
“Please let us hear it, sir,” said Redgy. “If one can’t see the lions themselves, as I had hoped, at all events one may hear about them.”
“Well, I’ll tell you my adventure, sir, if you like it,” said Mr Prestcott, who had evidently no disinclination to relate his personal experience. “I had gone to Walfisch Bay, where some English traders had settled, with whom I wished to establish business relations. I had to pass through the Hottentot country. At that time there were a good many villages scattered about, and there I could procure food and lodging. There were few or no white men at that time in the country, and the lions had never been disturbed in their occupation. One evening I reached a kraal on the Fish river, and there I found all the Hottentots in a terrible state of alarm about a very big lion, which was lurking somewhere in their neighbourhood and had taken to man-eating. I daresay you may have heard that when a lion once does that, the only chance is to kill him at once. He gets so fond of human flesh that he won’t eat any other, and he will lie in wait near one of the villages for days and weeks together, hiding himself in one place or another, and springing suddenly out on some unwary traveller.”
“Isn’t that fact disputed, Mr Prestcott?” asked Hardy. “I have met with old hunters who say that the man-eating lion is merely an old animal, who has become too stiff in the joints to run his victims down, and that he only preys on men in the way you have described, because they can’t run away from him in the way that an antelope or a gnu would.”
“Yes, I have heard that,” assented Mr Prestcott, “and think it may very possibly be true. Certainly such man-eating lions as I have seen killed were very wretched, mangy-looking creatures. That was attributed to the fact of their living on human flesh, but I don’t know why that should cause such a result. Their appearance is certainly consistent with their being old, worn-out animals. Any way, the Hottentots were in a state of great disquietude about this lion. No less than five victims – two men and three children – had been killed and carried off into the long jungle grass, where he principally took up his abode, within the last week or two. Several times the whole of the men had gone out to spear him. But though they had seen him at a distance, they could not get near enough to wound him with their shots or arrows. They implored me so earnestly to deliver them from this terrible pest, that I agreed to remain for a day or two and see what I could do for them. Well, I stayed with them a week, and made several excursions, but could see nothing of him. At last it was supposed that he had been killed or had left the neighbourhood. I had delayed there longer than I liked, so I took my leave one morning, and, having loaded both barrels of my gun, I set off on my way for Walfisch Bay. About a mile from the Hottentot village there was a clear spring of water. As the day was very hot, I resolved to bathe my hands and feet and take a good draught before going farther. I took off my coat and shoes and stockings and laid them at the foot of a large mootjeeri that almost overhung the pool, but I retained my gun in my hand. I was just stooping to take a draught of water, when I heard a stealthy movement in the long tambookie grass, like that of a large animal creeping towards me, and at the same moment my horse, which I had fastened to the bough of a small tree, broke away and rushed off at full speed I sprang up and swung myself round the mootjeeri, only just in time to escape the spring of a large lion, which struck against the tree and was thrown by the shock on its side. Before it could regain its legs I had dropped my gun and skimmed up into the tree, the lower limbs of which were only six feet or so from the ground. I seated myself on a branch, and took a good look at my assailant, who was now standing only a few feet below me, eyeing me with a hungry look, and every now and then giving vent to his impatience at being kept from his supper in short, angry roars. There could be no doubt that it was the man-eater, and that he had tracked me, waiting his opportunity. It was a good job for me that the mootjeeri was so close at hand, and that lions cannot climb, or he would have made short work with me. But though I thanked Heaven for my escape so far, I was by no means out of the scrape. If I had been able to take my gun up into the tree with me, I could soon have rid myself of him, but it was lying on the brink of the spring. Nor could I even recover my coat and shoes, which I had placed at the foot of the tree, a couple of yards below the branch. I could only reach them by hooking them up with a long stick. I did try this. I cut a long wand with a crook at the end, and let this down. But the lion instantly seized my coat in its teeth and tore it away. It was the same with my shoes, and I was presently obliged to give up the attempt. He instantly clutched anything which I attempted to move.
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