Perils in the Transvaal and Zululand
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He was now greatly troubled. Relying on Matamo’s assurance of meeting with a guide, he had not even taken any instructions from him as to the way to his mother’s house. He only knew in a general way that it lay to the north-west. He would at once have ridden back and endeavoured to overtake Matamo, but he reflected that the Bechuana, being now on foot, would probably take a shorter way to Heidelberg, which he had been unable to follow while on horseback. There was only, in fact, the alternative of going on, in what he knew must be at least the right direction, or return to the town. After a long debate, he determined on the former course. He took out his pocket compass, and turned his horse’s head directly to the north-west.
He rode on for seven or eight hours, and presently the aspect of the country changed. An open stretch of veldt succeeded to the mingled forest and scrub and jungle through which he had been passing. The grass grew up to his horse’s hocks, and in some places up to its shoulder. Suddenly there came a rush through the grass, and a hartebeest, closely pursued by a pack of wild dogs, rushed by him George had not hitherto come much into contact with these creatures, which, however, are to be found in large numbers in these regions. They are curious animals, more resembling hyenas than dogs, though the specially distinctive mark of the hyena, the drooping off at the hind-quarters, is not to be found in them. But in the stripe, and the bushy tail, and the peculiar-shaped ear, they closely resemble the hyena. They are not so cowardly as the last-named creatures, and are in consequence more dangerous to encounter.
The hartebeest was evidently almost exhausted. It was not likely that it could run another mile; and George, who had omitted to take any provision with him, expecting to get his dinner at the Kaffir kraal, resolved to follow and rescue the carcase from the wild dogs, whom a shot from his rifle would probably disperse, or, at all events, keep at a distance, while he cut off the meat he required. He spurred his horse accordingly, and started in pursuit. But the ground was soft, and for some time he gained but little on his quarry. The hartebeest held on with more vigour than he had expected, and at last, when he had got within distance, a sudden stumble of his horse caused him altogether to miss his mark. He was obliged to stop and reload, and the ground thus lost was difficult to regain. It was not until after a full hour’s pursuit that he saw the hartebeest, unable to go any further, at last turn round in despair and face his enemies. Rivers had now sufficient time to take aim at the leader of the pack with his first barrel, and the hartebeest with the second. Both shots were successful. The hartebeest dropped instantly, with a ball through its heart, and the dog rushed off with a yell of pain, falling dead before it had gone a hundred yards. But the rest of the troop did not take to flight, as George had expected.Probably the pursuit of the prey had been stimulated by hunger, which now rendered them insensible to danger. After a moment’s hesitation they rushed on the carcase, while one or two, bolder than the rest, sprang on his horse, from which he had alighted to drive off the dogs with his hunting-knife. Terrified at the attack, the steed broke loose from George’s hold, galloping off at full speed, and pursued by the greater part of the pack. George shouted and endeavoured to follow, but became instantly aware of the hopelessness of the attempt. The horse was already a hundred yards off, galloping at the utmost of its speed, in the hope of distancing its pursuers. The darkness, too, was rapidly coming on. It would plainly be impossible for him to recover his horse that night, as it would presently be too dark to discern any objects at a distance. He must provide himself as well as he was able with food and shelter for the night. Hastily reloading, he first rid himself of the two or three dogs that were busily engaged in mangling the body of the hartebeest. Next with his hunting-knife he cut down a quantity of bushes, part of which he piled up as a shelter against the wind, which began to blow with some sharpness as the dusk came on. The rest of the wood he set alight by the help of the matches in his belt, and presently succeeded in kindling a tolerable fire. Then he cut off some meat from the carcase of the hartebeest, of which there was a good deal left, notwithstanding the ravages of the dogs. By these means, and by obtaining water from a clear rivulet, which he found flowing at a little distance, he contrived to satisfy his hunger and thirst. He sat down in the shelter which he had provided for himself, and looked up at the sky above him. It was a delicious night. The constellations of the Southern Hemisphere are not in themselves as beautiful, as those with which we of the northern regions are familiar. But their liquid brilliancy, seen against the background of the deepest blue, renders the general aspect of the heavens far more lovely and imposing. The sense also of entire loneliness came upon him with profound solemnity. He was here far – he knew not how far – from all human help and sympathy. Whatever good or evil fortune might befall him was his concern and his only. The utter helplessness of man so situated impressed him painfully. We seldom realise the full meaning of passages of Holy Writ until some striking circumstance of our lives bring them home to us, and George felt for the first time how profound a meaning was contained in these words: “It is not good for man to be alone.”
George awoke chilled and cramped with the night air, and was preparing leisurely to get up and commence the search after his missing steed, when his eye lit on an object a few feet of him, which caused him instantly to leap to his feet. A snake, which had probably been attracted to the spot during the night by the warmth of his fire, was just raising its head, as if preparing to dart upon him, spitting venom at the same time from its open jaws. His rapid backward spring just enabled him to avoid its fangs. But some of the poison had been spurted on to his face, and he instantly felt a sharp sting of pain. His first act was to crush the head of the reptile with his heel, and then to sever its neck with his knife. It was of a dark brown, almost a black colour, and six or seven feet long. George had never seen one of the kind before, but recognised it from the descriptions that had been given him as the picakholu, the most venomous, it was said, of any known serpent, and called by the natives the “spitting snake.” George noticed that the fangs were still distilling poison in a considerable quantity, notwithstanding that the neck had been completely severed. He felt a good deal of pain in the places where the poison had fallen, and especially in the white of the left eye. He hurried to the spring, which was fortunately only at a short distance, and, kneeling down, plunged his head again and again into the water, hoping in that manner to get rid of the painful smart. This gave him some slight relief, and he hoped that, as no poison could have mixed with his blood, the pain would gradually wear itself out.
The first thing, of course, was to find his horse. He had hoped that if it had succeeded in shaking off the wild dogs, it would return to the spring to drink. But though he did not doubt that it would soon outstrip them, they having been evidently completely exhausted by the long previous chase, there might be water nearer to the point at which the animal found itself after its escape, and in that case of course it would make for it. Taking up his gun, he began following the track of the animal’s hoofs, which were clear enough to be traced in the soft grass of the veldt. After an hour’s search, the grass was exchanged for a long arid stretch of sand, diversified by scrub and stone. Here the hoofs of the horse and the lighter prints of the dogs’ feet were still more plainly to be distinguished. The sand became looser and looser as he advanced. It was evident that the horse must have grown rapidly more exhausted, as its feet plunged almost to the fetlock at every step. At last he came upon the carcase of the animal itself, which had evidently been torn down by the pack and devoured. There had plainly been a furious struggle, one or two of the dogs having been killed by the dying efforts of the horse.
Rivers was now seriously alarmed. He must retrace his steps as well as he was able to the spring, and seek again to relieve the burning pains in his face, which under the scorching heat of the sun stung him more sharply than even at first. Then he must make his way on foot, keeping as before to the north-west, and hope to fall in with some traveller, or reach the shelter of some friendly habitation. He was well aware that, if all these chances failed him, his life on earth would soon be ended. He began his return across the sandy waste, and, after several hours of painful exertion, succeeded in reaching the spring, by the side of which he sank down completely exhausted. Long and copious draughts somewhat restored him; and as the cool of the evening came on, he got up and resumed his journey, making another meal before he started on what remained of his morning’s repast. He walked on for a mile or two, leaning on his gun, and hardly sensible of the objects round him. At last he got to a part of the wood where the trees seemed to have been cut away, and a broader path, almost approaching to a road, cut out. He staggered for some distance along this track, and then his senses completely deserted him, and he dropped to the ground, his gun going off as he fell, though happily without injury to himself.
When he opened his eyes again, he looked around him with great surprise. He was lying on a comfortable bed, in a tolerable-sized room; which, though different in many respects from any chamber he had hitherto occupied, was nevertheless evidently of European construction. There was a sash window, looking out, so far as George could distinguish, upon a garden. The walls were of plank, planed and fitted together with some neatness; the floor of mud, beaten hard and smeared with cow-dung. There were no tables or chairs, no chests of drawers, or washing apparatus, but there was a bench and one or two solid chests. The bed itself was tolerably clean, and there were sheets, but of coarse material. By his side, on a shelf, were a tea-cup and spoon and several bottles.
With some difficulty he recalled the incidents which had taken place previously to his fainting fit, – the poison spirted on his face by the snake, his search after his horse, and his subsequent journey through the wood. But all seemed dim and confused, and as if it had taken place a long while ago. He lay thinking for a long time, or rather in a state of half consciousness, in which dream and reality were blended together. Then he closed his eyes and again fell asleep, waking up a second time, also to his confused fancy after a long period of inaction. He found himself lying on the same bed and in the same room, but this time he was not alone. There was an old man sitting by his bedside and watching him apparently with some curiosity. He was a Dutchman, – that was plain from his physiognomy alike and his dress, – and probably a man of some substance. His clothes were of the usual material, but of a good quality, and had not been much worn. His features were rather harsh, but not repulsive, and his demeanour quiet and self-possessed. He noticed the change in George’s appearance, and proceeded to express his satisfaction in English, which was not quite idiomatic, but nevertheless was intelligible.
“The Englishman is better; is he able to talk?”
“Thank you, I feel much better,” said George. “Will you please to tell me where I am, and how I came here?”
“I heard your gun, and found you in a swoon. This is my house; it is called Malopo’s Kloof.”
“I am very thankful,” said George. “How long have I been ill?”
“It is more than five weeks since I found you – five weeks last Monday.”
“Five weeks!” repeated George, becoming dimly conscious of strange, wild scenes, among which he seemed to have passed an immeasurable period of time, – gallops over interminable plains, struggles with armed assassins, writhings of wounded snakes, and the like phantasmagoria of a sick fancy, succeeding and intermingling with one another. “Five weeks! Have I had a fever?”
“A marsh fever, and a very bad one. I thought several times the Englishman would die,” said the old man.
“And who has been my doctor?” inquired Rivers, only able to recall two figures that were not quite shadowy and unreal, – the figure of the man before him, and another younger than he. “Who have been my doctor and my nurse?”
“You have had no doctor: there is none in these parts. Rudolf and I nursed you,” was the answer. “We put on cool bandages and gave you cool drinks – nothing else.”
“And I have to thank you for my life then!” exclaimed George, feebly stretching out his hand, and becoming aware for the first time how thin and wasted it had become.
“We could not let the Englishman die,” said the old man simply. “But you must be quiet – you are not strong enough to talk.” Putting a glass containing some mixture which tasted deliciously cool and refreshing to his lips, the Dutchman now withdrew, and Rivers was soon once more buried in slumber.
He woke again after a long interval, feeling stronger, and so went on for a week or two more, gaining strength continually, until at last he was permitted to get up and sit for an hour in the garden, which was now in the prime of its beauty and luxuriance. Mynheer Kransberg – that he presently discovered to be his host’s name – had been one of the earliest settlers in the Transvaal, long before the country bore that name, and when it was only inhabited by the native tribes. He had been quite a young man, though possessed of good means, when the Dutch first broke out into resistance to the English rule. Aware of the hopelessness of rebellion, and unwilling to take part against his countrymen, he had withdrawn with a considerable following of his own dependants into the then unknown regions lying to the north of the Orange river. Here he had purchased land of one of the native chiefs, built his house, and enclosed his farm, and here he had lived ever since, through all the numerous changes which the country had undergone, paying as little heed to them as if he had belonged to another planet. He had never married, or felt any inclination to do so. He had ridden about his fields, and reared his cattle and sent them to market, and brewed his Dutch beer, year after year, with a placid contentment which is rarely witnessed, even in a Dutchman. If he was indolent he was at all events extremely good-tempered, and his oldest servants scarcely ever remembered to have seen him ruffled.
He had lived alone until within the last few years, never seeming to experience the want of a companion. But about two years since his solitude had been broken in upon by the arrival of his nephew, Rudolf Kransberg, a tall, gawky youth of two-and-twenty, who came to claim his help and protection. His father, a merchant in Graham’s Town, had died insolvent, and his son, calling to mind for the first for a great many years his uncle in the Transvaal, had made a journey hither, in the hope of gaining a kind reception. In that he had not been disappointed. The old man heard of his arrival, and of the misfortunes which had befallen his brother, without exhibiting the smallest emotion, but at the same time he gave the young man shelter and maintenance, allowed him, in fact, to live in his house, treating him in all respects as though he had been his own son. Rudolf, who in many respects resembled his relative, accepted the situation with equal complaisance, and they had now lived together two years in perfect contentment, not a word having been exchanged between them as to the older man’s disposal of his property or the younger one’s prospects in life, till within the last few weeks, when Rudolf had consulted his uncle on the subject of a marriage which he was anxious to contract.
The two were sitting in the garden in a Dutch summer-house which old Kransberg had run up with his own hands some forty years before. It was generally thought that the old man liked the society of his nephew, and especially during the smoking of the evening pipe, though he never expressed any feeling to that effect, or, indeed, to any effect whatsoever, unless compelled by absolute necessity. He was therefore somewhat surprised when one evening Rudolf took his pipe from his lips, and after rolling out a long puff of smoke, addressed his uncle.
“My uncle, there is something I would ask you. May I speak?”
The old man similarly removed his pipe, emitting a corresponding puff, and then answered briefly, “Ya.”
“My uncle, I am four-and-twenty.”
He paused, but his uncle not considering this to require a verbal acknowledgment, only nodded.
“My uncle, it is time I was married.”
This apparently was regarded as calling for a reply. The pipe accordingly was again removed, and Mynheer inquired “Whom?”
Another long silence followed this communication, after which the old man remarked, “Englishwoman.”
“True,” assented the nephew, roused by his feelings to unusual prolixity of speech; “but she has always been bred up in our ways. And her father-in-law is a good man.”
Old Kransberg again gave an affirmative nod. “Go over and ask her,” he said.
Rudolf nodded in his turn, and so the conversation ended.
It was on the day following this that Mynheer Kransberg, as he was proceeding after supper to smoke his usual pipe in the summer-house, was startled by the discharge of a gun at a short distance. As the reader has heard, the country had been for some time infested by bands of ruffians, who committed great depredations in the neighbourhood. The old man’s first idea was to summon his servants and send them out to see after the marauder, but, casting his eyes along the road, he saw the figure of a man lying prostrate, having apparently been shot. Straightway he summoned two of his Hottentots and desired them to bring the wounded man or his body, as the case might be, into the house. It was soon discovered that there was no wound, but the stranger had a dangerous attack of fever of some kind, and was in imminent danger of his life. Without more words he had him consigned to the bed in his guest-chamber, where he and his nephew nursed him with all possible kindness, until he had recovered his consciousness, as the reader has heard, and appeared to be in a fair way of recovery. George soon made acquaintance with both uncle and nephew. No great effort, indeed, was necessary to form such an acquaintance. All that was required was to sit still and smoke, exchanging, it might be, two words in the course of every hour. During all this time Rudolf’s courtship had been held in abeyance. As it was necessary for him to stop at home and assist his uncle in nursing, it was not possible he could be spared to ride over twenty miles to Umtongo. If the swain had been a Frenchman or an Italian, or even an Englishman, it might have been argued that his attachment to the lady was not a very ardent one. But that would have been to mistake the case. Rudolf was very sincere in his devotion, and was anxious that his visit should not be delayed any longer, and he had ordained in his own mind that he would set forth on his errand the following day, when he was greatly startled by a question which his guest put to him.
George had been sitting, as the reader has heard, in his host’s garden, enjoying the scent of the delicious flowers, when he saw Rudolf Kransberg advancing towards him. The young Dutchman bestowed a nod upon him, his usual greeting, and then, sitting down on the bench beside him, lighted his pipe and began to smoke. Presently George inquired whether Rudolf could tell him of a farmhouse in that neighbourhood called Umtongo, the residence of a farmer named Ludwig Mansen.
Rudolf was so startled that he actually dropped his pipe. He stooped, however, to pick it up again, before he repeated the words, “Umtongo! Ludwig Mansen!”
“Yes,” said George, supposing that his companion did not understand him. “I was on my way to his house when I was taken ill. The farm must lie at no very great distance. Perhaps you may be able to tell me where it is.”
“You going there!” ejaculated Rudolf with more animation.
“Yes, I was going there, and I want to go there now.”
“It will not be fit for you to go for a long time yet,” returned the Dutchman, relapsing into silence, from which he could only be roused to make monosyllabic replies. A minute or two afterwards, indeed, chancing to see his uncle in the distance, he got up and went to join him.
George was perplexed, but the demeanour of his hosts had puzzled him from the first. He saw, however, that they meant kindly by him, and supposed that Rudolf was simply afraid that he might bring on a relapse by venturing on a long ride in his present weak condition. He knew, indeed, he was not fit to make the attempt yet. Impatient, therefore, as he was to rejoin his mother and sister, he resolved to remain quiet for a few days more. He was more ready to do this, because he felt his strength returning to him every day, and it was evident from Rudolf’s manner that his stepfather’s house lay at no great distance.
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