The Adventures of Three Englishmen and Three Russians in Southern Africa/Chapter XVI
DANGER IN DISGUISE.
By the end of September the astronomers had accomplished half their task. Their diminished numbers added to their fatigue, so that, notwithstanding their zeal, they occasionally had to recruit themselves by resting for several days. The heat was very overpowering. October in lat. 24° S. corresponds to April in Algeria, and for some hours after mid-day work was impossible. The bushman was alone uneasy at the delay, for he was aware that the arc was about to pass through a singular region called a “karroo,” similar to that at the foot of the Roggeveld mountains in Cape Colony. In the damp season this district presents signs of the greatest fertility; after a few days of rain the soil is covered with a dense verdure; in a very short time flowers and plants spring up every where; pasturage increases, and water-courses are formed; troops of antelopes descend from the heights and take possession of these unexpected prairies. But this strange effort of nature is of short duration. In a month, or six weeks at most, all the moisture is absorbed by the sun; the soil becomes hardened, and chokes the fresh germs; vegetation disappears in a few days; the animals fly the region; and where for a while there was a rich fertility, the desert again asserts its dominion.
This karroo had to be crossed before reaching the permanent desert bordering on Lake Ngami. The bushman was naturally eager to traverse this region before the extreme aridity should have exhausted the springs. He explained his reasons to the Colonel, who perfectly understood, and promised to hurry on the work, without suffering its precision to be affected. Since, on account of the state ot the atmosphere, measuring was not always practicable, the operations were not unfrequently retarded, and the bushman became seriously concerned lest when they reached the karroo its character of fertility should have disappeared.
Meanwhile the astronomers could not fail to appreciate the magnificence around. Never had they been in finer country. In spite of the high temperature, the streams kept up a constant freshness, and thousands ot flocks would have found inexhaustible pasturage. Clumps of luxuriant trees rose here and there, giving the prospect at times the appearance of an English park.
Colonel Everest was comparatively indifferent to these beauties, but the others were fully alive to the romantic aspect of this temporary relief to the African deserts, Emery now especially regretted the alienation of his friend Zorn, and often thought how they would have mutually delighted in the charming scenery around them.
The advance of the caravan was enlivened by the movements as well as by the song-notes of a variety of birds. Some of these were edible, and the hunters shot some brace of “korans,” a sort of bustard peculiar to the South African plains, and some “dikkops,” whose flesh is very delicate eating. They were frequently followed by voracious crows, instinctively seeking to avert attention from their eggs in their nests of sand. In addition to these, blue cranes with white throats, red flamingoes, like flames in the thinly scattered brushwood, herons, curlews, snipes, “kalas,” often perching on a buffalo's neck, plovers, ibises, which might have flown from some hieroglyphic obelisk, hundreds of enormous pelicans marching in file,—all were observed to find congenial habitats in this district, where man alone is the stranger. But of all the varieties of the feathered race, the most noticeable was the ingenious weaver-bird, whose green nests, woven with rushes and blades of grass, hung like immense pears from the branches of the willows. Emery, taking them for a new species of fruit, gathered one or two, and was much surprised to hear them twitter like sparrows. There seemed some excuse for the ancient travellers in Africa, who reported that certain trees in the country bore fruit producing living birds.
The karroo was reached while still it was lovely in its verdure. Gnus, with their pointed hoofs, caamas, elks, chamois, and gazelles abounded. Sir John could not resist the temptation to obtain two days' leave from the Colonel, which he devoted with all his energy to his favourite pastime. Under the guidance of the bushman, while Emery accompanied as an amateur, he obtained many a success to inscribe in his journal, and many a trophy to carry back to his Highland home. His hand, skilful with the delicate instruments of the survey, was at home still more on his gun; and his eye, keen to discern the remotest of stars, was quick to detect the nearest movement of a gazelle. It was ever with something of self-denial that he laid aside the character of the hunter to resume the duties of the astronomer. The bushman's uneasiness was ere long renewed. On the second day of Sir John's interval of recreation, Mokoum had espied, nearly two miles to the right, a herd of about twenty of the species of antelope known as the oryx. He told Sir John at once, and advised him to take advantage of the fortune that awaited him, adding that the oryx was extremely difficult to capture, and could outstrip the fleetest horse, and that Cumraing himself had not brought down more than four.
This was more than enough to arouse the Englishman. He chose his best gun, his best horse, and his best dogs, and, in his impatience preceding the bushman, he turned towards the copse bordering the plain where the antelopes had been seen. In an hour they reined in their horses, and Mokoum, concealed by a grove of sycamores, pointed out to his companion the herd grazing several hundred paces to leeward. He remarked that one oryx kept apart.
“He is a sentinel,” he said, “and doubtless cunning enough. At the slightest danger, he will give his signal, and the whole troop will make their escape. We must fire from a long distance, and hit at the first shot.”
Sir John nodded in reply, and sought for a favourable position.
The oryxes continued quietly grazing. The sentinel, as though the breeze had brought suspicions of danger, often raised his head, and looked warily around. But he was too far away for the hunters to fire at him with success, and to chase the herd over the plain was out of the question. The only hope of a lucky issue was that the herd might approach the copse.
Fortune seemed propitious. Gradually following the lead of the sentinel male, the herd drew near the wood, their instinct, perchance, making them aware that it was safer than the plain. When their direction was seen, the bushman asked his companion to dismount. The horses were tied to a sycamore, and their heads covered to secure them from taking alarm.
Followed by the dogs, the hunters glided through the creepers and brushwood till they were within three hundred paces of the troop. Then, crouching in ambush, and waiting with loaded guns, they could admire the beauty of the animals. By a strange freak of nature, the females were armed with horns more formidable than those of the males. The whole herd approached the wood, and awhile remained stationary. The sentinel oryx, as it seemed, was urging them to leave the plain; he appeared to be driving them, something like a sheep-collie congregates a flock, into a compact mass. The herd seemed strangely indifferent, and indisposed to submit to the guidance of their leader. The bushman was perplexed; he could not understand the relative movements of the sentinel and the herd.
Sir John began to get impatient. He fidgeted with his rifle, sometimes wanting to fire, sometimes to advance; and the bushman had some trouble to restrain him. An hour passed away in this manner, when suddenly one of the dogs gave a loud bark, and rushed towards the plain. The bushman felt angry enough to send a ball into the excited brute. The oryxes fled, and Sir John saw at once that pursuit was useless; in a few seconds they were no more than black specks in the grass. But to the bushman's astonishment it was not the old male which had given the signal for flight. The oryx remained in its place, without attempting to follow, and only tried to hide in the grass.
“Strange,” said the bushman; “what ails the creature? Is he hurt, or crippled with age?”
“We shall soon see,” said Sir John, advancing towards the animal.
The oryx crouched more and more in the grass; only the tips of his long horns were visible above the surface; but as he did not try to escape. Sir John could easily get near him. When within a hundred paces he took aim, and fired. The ball had struck the head, for the horns sunk into the grass. The hunters ran hastily to the spot. The bushman held in his hand his hunting-knife, in case the animal should still live. This precaution was unnecessary; the oryx was so dead, that when Sir John took hold of the horns, he pulled nothing but an empty flabby skin, containing not so much as a bone.
“By St. Andrew! these things happen to no one but me,” he cried, in a tone so comical that any one but the immovable Mokoum would have laughed outright. But Mokoum did not even smile. His compressed lips and contracted brow showed him to be utterly bewildered. With his arms crossed, he looked quickly right and left.
Suddenly he caught sight of a little red leather bag, ornamented with arabesques, on the ground, which he picked up and examined carefully.
“What's that?” asked Sir John.
“A Makololo's pouch,” replied Mokoum.
“How did it get there?”
“The owner let it fall as he fled.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean,” said Mokoum, clenching his fists, “that the Makololo was in the oryx skin, and you have missed him.”
Sir John had not time to express his astonishment, when Mokoum, observing a movement in the distance, with all speed seized his gun and fired.
He and Sir John hastened to the suspected spot. But the place was empty: they could perceive by the trampled grass that some one had just been there; but the Makololo was gone, and it was useless to think of pursuit across the prairie.
The two hunters returned, much discomposed. The presence of a Makololo at the cromlech, together with his disguise, not unfrequently adopted by oryx hunters, showed that he had systematically followed the caravan. It was not without design that he was keeping watch upon the Europeans and their escort. The more they advanced to the north, the greater danger there would be of being attacked by the plunderers.
Emery was inclined to banter Sir John on his return from his holiday without booty; but Sir John replied,—
“I hadn't a chance, William; the first oryx I hunted was dead before I shot at him.”