Perils in the Transvaal and Zululand
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“I was obliged to remain quite passive, but my condition was getting very uncomfortable. My arms and feet were bare, and the leaves of the mootjeeri afforded me a very insufficient shade from the blazing heat of the sun overhead. I also became very hungry as the evening came on. What food I had had with me was all in the bags attached to my saddle. My only chance, I felt, was that the lion might get tired of waiting for me and go off to seek food elsewhere. But I was sensible that this was not worth much. It was clear that he wanted me, or he would have sprung on my horse when he first made his attack; and I knew how eager the craving of the man-eater is for human flesh. He would wait as long as nature would allow him to hold out, in the hope of making his meal on me, and he would probably be able to last out much longer than I could.
“Presently he left the foot of the tree and went back to the spring, where he took a long draught, and then lay down on the grass under the shrubs, keeping his red and angry eye still fixed on me, and every now and then displaying his terrible teeth. The whole afternoon passed thus. I was in hopes that some of the Hottentots might pass that way, and repeatedly shouted at the top of my voice for help.
“By and by it grew dark, and some of the smaller animals which were accustomed to resort to the fountain to drink made their appearance in the distance, and again I hoped that he would pursue and make his supper on one of them. But no, it was quite plain that he had made up his mind to have me and nothing else. At last it grew quite dark, only a few stars being visible in the sky, and the lion, so far as I could make out, was sound asleep. I attempted to creep stealthily down from the branch, but the moment I moved he started up with a short roar, and rushed up to the tree so quickly that I had only just time to regain my former position.
“Daybreak came at last. I was worn out for want of sleep and ravenous with hunger. I foresaw that I should soon get weak and dizzy and drop from my perch into the jaws of my enemy. Suddenly it occurred to me, that although my supply of tobacco, was in my saddle-bags, I might have a small quantity in my belt, which would for the moment relieve my hunger. I felt accordingly, and drew out – not, alas! any tobacco, but my match-box. I usually carried this in my coat pocket, but by good luck I had thrust it into my belt at starting. The matches were of an unusually good kind, and when once ignited would burn for two or three minutes quite to the very end. The moment I saw them, I felt I had found a mode of deliverance if I could only accomplish it. I took my powder-flask, which was fortunately quite full, and dropped some loose powder on the ground. I then took one of the matches and fastened it to the end of the long stick by which I had endeavoured to hook up my coat and shoes. Having firmly secured it, I lighted it, and then dropped the flask on the heap of powder which I had scattered below.The lion, as before, rushed instantly up and put his head down to lay hold of the flask. Quick as lightning I thrust the stick down and applied it to the powder. The flask exploded directly in the lion’s face, setting his mane and whiskers on fire and severely scorching his mouth and nose. With a yell of terror and pain, he galloped off at the top of his speed, while I crawled down so exhausted that a long draught from the fountain and a feast of some wild medlars, which I fortunately found growing by the fountain, only restored me so far as to enable me with a great effort to get back to the Hottentot village, where I had to rest several days before I was fit to resume my journey.”
“What became of the lion?” asked Redgy.
“Nothing more was, I believe, ever heard of him. I inquired about him on my way back, but the Hottentots said he had entirely disappeared from the neighbourhood. They fancied that the fright he had had prevented his returning to his old haunts. But my opinion is that his eyesight had been completely destroyed by the explosion, and that, being rendered unable to provide himself with food, he had soon died of hunger.”
“Well, sir, that was a near touch, certainly,” said Hardy. “But I think what happened to my old comrade Robson may match it. He and I were in the same regiment in the war with the Ashantees. He told me the story, I remember, one night on our march to Coomassie, when the mosquitoes and the heat made it impossible to sleep. Robson had been servant to an officer who was very fond of field sports. He and two or three others who had got a short leave were resolved to pass it in some genuine African hunting, as they called it, going quite beyond the usual resorts of white men. They started from Graham’s Town, and travelled northwards across what is now the Orange Free State and the Transvaal, till they came within a short distance of the Limpopo. The country was wild enough even for them. They fell in with a number of savage tribes, and here and there a Dutch settler. But there had been nothing to scare away the wild beasts. When they encamped for the night, Robson said they could hear the lions roaring about them to their heart’s content. They were obliged at night to light two large fires, one on each side of the space enclosed by their waggons. The oxen were all placed in the middle, so that they couldn’t get out, or the lions get in, otherwise they would certainly have been seized and devoured. Sometimes the lions were so bold, that they were obliged to cut long stout poles and lash them to the spokes of the wheels to prevent the animals creeping in under the waggons. One or two always kept watch, and the others slept with their loaded rifles by their sides. Robson said that if any of the oxen had contrived to slip out, they would have been seized and devoured in no time. By the light of the moon, he had sometimes seen three or four lions stalking about, trying to find some way in. Till he got used to it, their roaring was the most terrible sound to him that could be imagined, and he used to lie quaking with terror. It seemed to fill the whole air in all directions, he said.”
“Ay,” remarked Prestcott; “that is because the lion when he roars puts his head close to the earth, so that his voice rolls along the ground and echoes among the rocks. Go on with your story.”
“Well,” resumed Hardy, “what the party wanted above all things was to fall in with a herd of elephants. They had been told how they went about everywhere in that country in large herds, breaking their way through the thick forests like a fleet of men-of-war through the waves. They were a good deal disappointed that several weeks passed without their meeting so much as a single elephant. Robson said that he was as much disappointed as the rest. But one day he had his wish, and something over, as the saying is. There had been a great hunt among the Matabeles to the north, and a large herd had been driven some way south of the Limpopo. One evening the scouts came hurrying in with the information that the whole forest a few miles to the north of them was full of elephants. They were resting for the night, the blackies said, but in the morning they would be pretty sure to make for a piece of water which lay about a mile to the south of us. They would pass through the very glade where we now were, in which there were some very large trees. If we climbed up into these, we should get some capital shots as they passed. But not a moment was to be lost in placing the waggons and oxen in some secure spot. The elephants would pass down the middle of the glade, trampling everything to powder that came in their way.
“The oxen were inspanned accordingly, there being just daylight enough for the purpose. Fortunately one of the party had seen some high steep cliffs about half a mile off, which the elephants could not get down if they tried. Thither the waggons and oxen were conveyed, and were placed in a shady nook immediately under the precipice, leaving some of the men in charge of them. The rest returned to the glade, and, after taking their supper, climbed up into the largest trees they could find, taking care to be fully eighteen or twenty feet from the ground. Robson made himself as comfortable as he could, but he could not sleep. The air was full of insects of one kind or another, and their bite was very annoying. Besides this, he kept continually fancying that he heard noises of one kind or another in the distance. Now it was a low rumbling, which he presently discovered to be the wind, now a shrill cry for help, which, after intense listening, he recognised to be the call of some bird. Repeatedly, too, he imagined he was falling out of the tree, in a fork of which he had fixed himself. At last he resolved to descend and lie down to rest on a heap of long grass which lay near the foot of the tree. He was convinced that his slumbers would be but light. Anyhow the crash of the advancing herd would be enough, he argued, to wake the dead. Two minutes would be enough to enable him to regain his station on the branch.
“He descended accordingly, and having made a careful examination of the grass, to make sure there were no snakes in it, he lay down with his rifle in his hand, and almost instantly dropped asleep. He did not know how long he slept, but it was probably several hours, for it was broad day when he awoke. The crash and din he had anticipated were fully realised. Babel itself seemed to have broken loose, but it was not the herd of elephants that created it. They were no doubt in motion. He could see, indeed, from the excited gestures of his companions in the great nowana above him, that the leaders were already in sight. But it was a crowd of frightened animals of all descriptions that had awakened him. They had been driven from their lairs by the approach of the monsters, and were flying in confusion from them. There were herds of buffaloes crowded so close together that it was with difficulty they could advance, whole legions of boks of every variety, a few jackals, hyenas, wild pigs, even here and there a lion or a rhinoceros, hurrying through the forest paths, in terror of being trampled under the feet of the elephants, which would have crushed them into atoms, scarcely aware of their presence. Among the runaways were crowds of monkeys, which did not join the crowd below, but sprang from branch to branch, along the lower parts of the trees immediately over his head, making it impossible for him to climb to his former perch. He would have been knocked off, gun and all, before he had mounted a dozen feet.
“It was evident to Robson that he must find some other place of refuge, and that without loss of time, for even he could now see, about a hundred yards off, the heads of the great bull-elephants which always marched in advance of the others, tearing and forcing their way through the dense forest as a man would through a field of standing corn. In a few minutes more they would be close upon him, and the crowd of animals still prevented him from escaping. The only chance that presented itself to him was creeping into the hollow of a huge nowana, close to which he was standing. The roots of this were above ground, and there was a huge cleft in them which was at all events large enough to hide him from sight. He forced his way through the opening in the bark accordingly, though with great difficulty, and found the hole inside larger than he had expected, though he could not distinguish how far it extended, for the climbing plants outside almost covered the entrance. But he had not been in his hiding-place five minutes before the leading elephants came up. On strode the giants, some of them appearing to Robson to be fully fourteen feet high, the large trees giving way before them and the very ground trembling under their feet. Just as the leaders came in front of the hole in which he was lying, a shot from above struck one of the largest behind the ear and passed into his brain. It was instantly fatal. With a loud roar the huge beast fell dead, and his head blocked up the lower part of the opening through which Robson had entered. It was impossible for him now to make his way out; but then, on the other hand, he was now safe from intrusion – so, at least, he fancied.
“He resolved to wait until the herd had passed, and then to shout to his companions for help. The tremendous noise for the present prevented the possibility of being heard, if he had shouted ever so loudly. There was nothing for it but to remain quiet. By and by the light became better, or rather, I should say, Robson’s eyes became used to the darkness, and he perceived that he was not the only occupant of the cave. There was something indistinct and shapeless in the farthest corner, a slight quivering motion showing that it was alive. It was probably some wild animal which in its terror had taken refuge in the hollow of the tree, as he had done. It might be something quite harmless, a stray goat, perhaps, from a herd, – there were plenty kept in the neighbourhood, and underground caves and hollow trees were favourite places of retreat for them. It was as well, however, for him to be on his guard. He took up his rifle and brought it to his shoulder. As he did so, there came a rustling sound from the dark corner, and two fiery eyes were visible against the light. Instinctively, rather than with any settled purpose, he drew the trigger, there was a loud hissing noise, the light from the eyes disappeared, a writhing motion which lasted for several minutes followed, and then the dark mass, whatever it was, lay motionless. Robson told me that a sickening sensation came over him, and he supposed that he must have fainted. When he came to, some time afterwards, he was in the hands of his friends. They had been engaged in cutting out the tusks of the great bull elephant, and had heard a shot fired inside the tree. In great surprise they searched the hollow, and dragged Robson out, to all appearance more dead than alive.”
“And did they pull out his companion too?” inquired Redgy eagerly.
“Yes, sir, they had pulled it out, and it was the first thing he saw lying on the ground near him when he came to his senses, and it didn’t improve his spirits.”
“What was it?” exclaimed several of the party together.
“A cobra, seven feet long, sir,” answered Hardy. “It had crept in there out of the noise, I suppose, and had been as much frightened as the other creatures were; that was no doubt the reason why it did not fly at Robson the first moment he entered. When he levelled his gun, the creature’s instinct probably warned it of its danger, and it had spread its hood and raised itself for a spring, when the bullet struck it between the eyes and killed it on the spot. If the shot had gone anywhere else, Robson would never have told me the story.”
“That was enough to shake a fellow’s nerves, certainly,” said George.
“Yes, sir; Robson could never endure the sight of even harmless snakes, and used to shake all over when he saw one, like a man with the ague. I used to joke him about it, and I think he told me his adventure to prevent me from doing so any more. Well, I suppose it is time that we go and lie down, isn’t it? We are to set off, I believe, as early, or rather earlier than usual to-morrow.”
“Are you going on to Standerton the first thing in the morning?” inquired Mr Prestcott; “and does the Dutch gentleman intend to accept my escort? He didn’t say positively.”
“I have no doubt he will,” replied George with some hesitation. “And you must accept,” he added more confidently, “our thanks for your kind and hospitable reception of us. Mr Vander Heyden is, as you have noticed, a Boer, and, like some of his countrymen, does not love the English.”
Mr Prestcott smiled. “We English settlers here,” he said, “understand all about that. This annexation of the Transvaal, though they were glad enough of it at the time, when their country was in the greatest danger of invasion, to which they could have offered no resistance, is not at all to their mind now. I hear they are trying to induce the new governor to get it rescinded; and if they are rebuffed, as probably they will be, they will get more and more discontented. But it has occurred to me, since speaking to Mr Vander Heyden, that there is an opportunity for him to travel in safety as far as Heidelberg, at all events. There are a number of waggons containing Government stores on their way to the town which are resting for the night a few miles from this. I have no doubt he might obtain leave to travel in their company. There is a military escort, which of course would make the journey quite secure. I have some acquaintance with Lieutenant Evetts, and would give Mr Vander Heyden an introduction to him, if he would condescend to make the acquaintance of a British officer.”
“Lieutenant Evetts,” repeated Rivers. “What, of the Mounted Volunteers, do you mean, who was present at the attack at Rorke’s Drift?”
“Yes, the same, only he now holds a commission in the Natal Mounted Police.”
“There is no need of any introduction to him,” said George, – “not for me, at all events. We knew one another for some weeks, before the advance into Zululand. And even if we had had no previous introduction, that night at Rorke’s Drift would have been introduction enough.”
“Were you there, Mr Rivers?” asked Prestcott eagerly. “And do I understand you that Mr Vander Heyden was there too?”
“Yes, he and I and Evetts were all three there, and saved each other’s lives at least half a dozen times during those nine or ten hours of fighting.”
“I am glad to have had you under my roof, Mr Rivers, and I must forgive Mr Vander Heyden his dislike to the English. No, sir, no introduction to Lieutenant Evetts can be required. I should as soon think of introducing one twin brother to another.”
“I say, Hardy,” said George, as they went off to bed, “that was a pretty good one about the cobra in the hollow tree, wasn’t it?”
“I wasn’t going to be beaten by him,” answered Hardy; “though his wasn’t a bad one about the lion, I must admit that.”
Nearly a week had passed, and the cort?ge was again setting out from Heidelberg, where it had arrived three days previously. Lieutenant Evetts greeted his old companions in arms with much cordiality, and they had travelled in great comfort as well as safety under his escort. He had expressed his great regret that he could not accompany them with his men to Lichtenberg. The distance between these two towns was much longer than between Luneberg and Standerton, or between Standerton and Heidelberg. The country, too, was wilder and more sparsely inhabited. His presence, and that of half a dozen of his men, would have made everything smooth. But he was under orders to leave immediately for Newcastle, as soon as he had performed his errand. All efforts to engage trustworthy men at Heidelberg had proved vain; and they were obliged to set out at last with the same party which had started from Luneberg. It was with equal surprise and satisfaction that they overtook, a few hours after leaving Heidelberg, some soldiers belonging apparently to the Natal Contingent, with a corporal at their head, who were escorting some prisoners, chiefly natives. These were handcuffed, as well as linked together by lashings round their arms. The soldiers were all white men. George, who was riding in advance of his party, moved up and spoke to the corporal. He introduced himself as Mr Rivers, late of the Mounted Infantry, and stated that his companions had belonged to the same corps.
The man answered civilly enough, though with rather a confused manner, that he remembered Lieutenant Rivers and his friends quite well, having been present at the action at Ulundi. George then inquired whither he was conveying his prisoners, and heard with much satisfaction that it was to Lichtenberg. It appeared that there had been a riot there. Houses had been plundered and murders committed, and these men, who were believed to have been concerned in the riot, had been arrested on the frontiers, and were on their way to Lichtenberg to be identified and tried. George again expressed his satisfaction, and proposed that the two parties should travel together for mutual convenience and security. To this the corporal rejoined that he should be quite satisfied with such an arrangement; and George rode off well pleased to give the information to Vander Heyden and Margetts, who were acting as rearguard. The Dutchman at once expressed his satisfaction, as did Margetts, though in a more guarded manner, and George noticed, with some surprise, that he scrutinised very closely the corporal and his men when he rode up to speak to them. He made no remark, however, and George, riding back, resumed his place by Margetts’ side. It was still quite early. Desirous of avoiding the mid-day heat, which for the last day or two had been very great, they had started two hours before daybreak, and the whole landscape had hitherto been wrapped in a gloom through which they could not do much more than distinguish their way. But the dawn now began to dapple the skies, and with the first light appeared a scene so startling, that our two travellers drew rein to gaze with wonder on it.
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