The Adventures of Three Englishmen and Three Russians in Southern Africa/Chapter IX

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The next day operations were continued. The angle made by the baobab with the extremities of the base was measured, and the first triangle solved. Two more stations were chosen to the right and left of the meridian; one formed by a distinct mound, six miles away; the other, marked out by a post about seven miles distant.

The triangulation went on uninterruptedly for a month, and by the 15th of May the observers had advanced northwards 1°, having formed seven triangles. During this first series of operations, the Colonel and Strux were rarely together. The division of labour separated them, and the circumstance of their daily work being several miles apart was a guarantee against any dispute. Each evening they returned to their several abodes, and although at intervals discussions arose about the choice of stations, there was no serious altercation. Hence Zorn and his friend were in hopes that the survey would proceed without any open rupture.

After advancing 1° from the south, the observers found themselves in the same parallel with Lattakoo, from which they were distant 35 miles to the west.

Here a large kraal had lately been formed, and as it was a marked halting-place, Sir John Murray proposed that they should stay for several days. Zorn and Emery could take advantage of the rest, to take the altitude of the sun; and Palander would employ himself in reducing the measurements made at different points of sight to the uniform level of the sea. Sir John himself wanted to be free from scientific observations, that he might divert himself with his gun among the fauna of the country. A kraal, as it is termed by the natives of South Africa, is a kind of moving village, wandering from one pasturage to another. It is an enclosure composed ordinarily of about thirty habitations, and containing several hundred inhabitants. The kraal now reached was formed by a group of more than sixty huts, enclosed for protection from wild animals by a palisade of prickly aloes, and situated on the banks of a small affluent of the Kuruman. The huts, made of water-proof rush mats fastened to wooden beams, were like low hives. The doorway, protected by a skin, was so small that it could only be entered on hands and knees, and from this, the only aperture, issued such dense wreaths of smoke as would make existence in these abodes problematical to any but a Bochjesman or a Hottentot.

The whole population was roused by the arrival of the caravan. The dogs, of which there was one for the protection of each cabin, barked furiously, and about 200 warriors, armed with assagais, knives, and clubs, and protected by their leathern shields, marched forward.

A few words from Mokoum to one of the chiefs soon dispelled all hostile feeling, and the caravan obtained permission to encamp on the very banks of the stream. The Bochjesmen did not even refuse to share the pastures, which extended for miles away.

Mokoum having first given orders for the waggons to be placed in a circle as usual, mounted his zebra, and set off in company with Sir John Murray, who rode his accustomed horse. The hunters took their dogs and rifles, showing their intention of attacking the wild beasts, and went towards the woods.

“I hope, Mokoum,” said Sir John, “that you are going to keep the promise you made at the Morgheda Falls, that you would bring me into the best sporting country in the world. But understand, I have not come here for hares or foxes; I can get them at home. Before another hour—”

“Hour!” replied the bushman. “You are rather too fast. A little patience, please. For myself, I am never patient except when hunting, and then I make amends for all my impatience at other times. Don't you know, Sir John, that the chase of large beasts is quite a science. Here you must wait and watch. You must not step or even look too quickly. For my part, I have laid in wait for days together for a buffalo or gemsbok, and if I have had success at last, I have not considered my trouble in vain.”

“Very good,” replied Sir John, “I can show you as much patience as you can wish; but mind, the halt only lasts for three or four days, and we must lose no time.”

“There is something in that,” said the bushman, so calmly that Emery would not have recognized his companion of the Orange River; “we will just kill that which comes first. Sir John, antelope or deer, gnu or gazelle, any thing must do for hunters in a hurry.”

“Antelope or gazelle!” cried Sir John, “why, what more could I ask, my good fellow?”

“As long as your honour is satisfied I have nothing more to say,” said the bushman, somewhat ironically. “I thought that you would not let me off with any thing less than a rhinoceros or two, or at least an elephant”

“Any thing and any where,” said Sir John, “we only waste time in talking.”

The horses were put to a hand-gallop, and the hunters advanced quickly towards the forest. The plain rose with a gentle slope towards the north-east. It was dotted here and there with shrubs in full bloom, from which issued a viscous resin, transparent and odorous, of which the colonists make a balm for wounds. In picturesque groups rose the “nwanas,” a kind of sycamore fig, whose trunks, leafless to the height of 30 or 40 feet, supported a spreading parasol of verdure. Among the foliage chattered swarms of screaming parrots, eagerly pecking the sour figs. Farther on were mimosas with their yellow clusters, “silver trees,” shaking their silky tufts, and aloes with spikes so red that they might pass for coral plants torn from the depths of the sea. The ground, enamelled with amaryllis with their bluish foliage, was smooth and easy for the horses, and in less than an hour after leaving the kraal, the sportsmen reached the wood. For several miles extended a forest of acacias, the entangled branches scarcely allowing a ray of sunlight to penetrate to the ground below, which was encumbered by brambles and long grass.

The hunters had little difficulty, however, in urging on both horse and zebra, in spite of every obstacle, resting at the recurring glades to examine the thickets around them. The first day was not very favourable. In vain was the forest scoured; not a single beast stirred, and Sir John's thoughts turned more than once to the plains of Scotland, where a shot is rarely long delayed. Mokoum evinced neither surprise nor vexation; to him it was not a hunt, but merely a rush across the forest.

Towards six in the evening they had to think about returning. Sir John was more vexed than he would allow. Rather than that he, the renowned hunter, should return empty-handed, he resolved to shoot whatever first came within range, and fortune seemed to favour him.

They were not more than three miles from the kraal when a hare (of the species called “lepus rupestris”) darted from a bush about 150 paces in front of them. Sir John did not hesitate a moment, and sent his explosive ball after the poor little animal.

The bushman gave a cry of indignation at such a ball being employed for such an aim; but the Englishman, eager for his prey, galloped to the spot where the victim fell. In vain! the only vestiges of the hare were the bloody morsels on the ground. Whilst the dogs rummaged in the brushwood, Sir John looked keenly about, and cried,—

“I am sure I hit it!”

“Rather too well,” replied the bushman quietly.

And sure enough, the hare had been blown into countless fragments.

Sir John, greatly mortified, remounted his horse, and returned to camp, without uttering another word.

The next day the bushman waited for Sir John Murray to propose another expedition; but the Englishman applied himself for a time to his scientific instruments. For pastime he watched the occupants of the kraal as they practised with their bows, or played on the “gorah,” an instrument composed of a piece of catgut stretched on a bow, and kept in vibration by blowing through an ostrich feather. He remarked that the women, while occupied in their domestic duties, smoked “matokouané” that is, the unwholesome hemp-plant, a practice indulged in by most of the natives. According to some travellers, this inhaling of hemp increases physical strength to the damage of mental energy; and, indeed, many of the Bochjesmen appeared stupefied from its effects.

At dawn, however, the following day, Sir John Murray was aroused by the appearance of Mokoum, who said, “I think, sir, we may be fortunate enough to-day to find something better than a hare.”

Sir John, not heeding the satire, declared himself ready; and the two hunters, accordingly, were off betimes. This time, Sir John, instead of his formidable rifle, carried a simple gun of Goldwin's, as being a more suitable weapon. True, there was a chance of meeting some prowling beast from the forest; but he had the hare on his mind, and would sooner use small shot against a lion than repeat an incident unprecedented in the annals of sport.

Fortune, to-day, was more favourable to the hunters. They brought down a couple of harrisbucks, a rare kind of black antelope, very difficult to shoot. These were charming animals, four feet high, with long diverging horns shaped like scimitars. The tips of their noses were narrow; they had black hoofs, close soft hair, and pointed ears. Their face and belly, white as snow, contrasted well with their black back, over which fell a wavy mane. Hunters may well be proud of such shots, for the harrisbuck has always been the desideratum of the Delegorgues, Vahlbergs. Cummings, and Baldwins, and it is one of the finest specimens of the southern fauna.

But what made the Englishman's heart beat fastest, was Mokoum's showing him certain marks on the edge of the thick underwood, not far from a deep pool, surrounded by giant euphorbias, and whose surface was dotted with sky-blue water-lilies.

“Come and lie in ambush here to-morrow, sir,” said Mokoum, “and this time you may bring your rifle. Look at these fresh footprints.”

“What are they? Can they be an elephant's?” asked Sir John.

“Yes,” replied Mokoum, “and, unless I am mistaken, of a male full-grown.”

Eagerly, then, was the engagement made for the following day. Sir John's horse, as they returned, carried the harrisbucks. These fine creatures, so rarely captured, excited the admiration of the whole caravan, and all congratulated Sir John, except perhaps Matthew Strux, who knew little of animals, except the Great Bear, the Centaur, Pegasus, and other celestial fauna.

At four o'clock the next morning, the hunters, attended by their dogs, were already hidden in the underwood. They had discovered by new footmarks that the elephants came in a troop to drink at the pool. Their grooved rifles carried explosive bullets. Silent and still, they watched for about half-an-hour, when they observed a movement in the grove, about fifty paces from the pool. Sir John seized his gun, but the bushman made him a sign to restrain his impatience. Soon large shadows appeared: the thickets rustled under the violence of some pressure; the brushwood snapped and crackled, and the sound of a loud breathing was perceptible through the branches. It was the herd of elephants. Half-a-dozen gigantic creatures, almost as large as those of India, advanced slowly towards the pool. The increasing daylight allowed Sir John, struck with admiration, to notice especially a male of enormous size. His colossal proportions appeared in the partial light even greater than they really were. While his trunk was extended above the underwood, with his curved tusks he struck the great stems, which groaned under the shock. The bushman leant down close to Sir John's ear, and whispered,—

“Will he suit you?”

Sir John made a sign of affirmation.

“Then,” said Mokoum, “we will separate him from the rest.”

At this instant, the elephants reached the edge of the pool, and their spongy feet sank into the soft mud. They pumped up the water with their trunks, and poured it into their throats with a loud gurgling. The great male looked uneasily about him, and seemed to scent some approaching danger.

Suddenly the bushman gave a peculiar cry. The dogs, barking furiously, darted from concealment, and rushed to-wards the herd. At the same moment, Mokoum, charging his companion to remain where he was, went off on his zebra to intercept the elephant's retreat. The animal made no attempt to take flight, and Sir John, with his finger on the lock of his rifle, watched him closely. The brute beat the trees, and lashed his tail furiously, showing signs not of uneasiness, but of anger. Now, for the first time, catching sight of his enemy, he rushed upon him at once.

Sir John was about sixty paces distant; and waiting till the elephant came within forty paces, he aimed at his flank and fired. But a movement of the horse made his aim unsteady, and the ball only entered the soft flesh without meeting any obstacle sufficient to make it explode.

The enraged beast increased its pace, which was rather a rapid walk than a run, and would have soon distanced the horse. Sir John's horse reared, and rushed from the thicket, his master unable to hold him in. The elephant followed, ears erect, and bellowing like a trumpet. Sir John, thus carried away, held on to his horse tightly with his knees, and endeavoured to slip a cartridge into the chamber of his rifle. Still the elephant gained on him. They were soon beyond the wood, and out on the plain. Sir John vigorously used his spurs, and the two dogs rushed panting in the rear. The elephant was not two lengths behind. Sir John could hear the hissing of his trunk, and almost feel his strong breath. Every moment he expected to be dragged from his saddle by the living lasso. All at once the horse sunk on his hind-quarters, struck by the elephant on his haunches. He neighed, and sprung to one side, thus saving Sir John. The elephant, unable to check his course, passed on, and sweeping the ground with his trunk, caught up one of the dogs, and shook it in the air with tremendous violence. No resource remained except to re-enter the wood, and the horse's instinct carried him thither. The elephant continued to give chase, brandishing the unlucky dog, whose head he smashed against a sycamore as he rushed into the forest. The horse darted into a dense thicket entangled with prickly creepers, and stopped.

Sir John, torn and bleeding, but not for an instant discomposed, turned round, and shouldering his rifle, took aim at the elephant close to the shoulder, through the net-work of creepers. The ball exploded as it struck the bone. The animal staggered, and almost at the same moment a second shot from the edge of the wood struck his left flank. He fell on his knees near a little pool, half-hidden in the grass. There, pumping up the water with his trunk, he began to wash his wounds, uttering plaintive cries. The bushman now appeared, shouting, “He is ours, he is ours!”

And in truth the animal was mortally wounded. He groaned piteously, and breathed hard. His tail moved feebly, and his trunk, fed from the pool of his blood, poured back a crimson stream on the surrounding brushwood. Gradually failed his strength, and the great beast was dead.

Sir John Murray now emerged from the grove. He was half naked, little of his hunting costume remaining but rags. But he felt as though he could have given his very skin for this triumph.

“A glorious fellow!” he exclaimed, as he examined the carcase; “but rather too big to carry home.”

“True, sir,” answered Mokoum; “we will cut him up on the spot, and carry off the choice parts. Look at his magnificent tusks! Twenty-five pounds a-piece at least! And ivory at five shillings a-pound will mount up.”

Thus talking, the hunter proceeded to cut up the animal. He took off the tusks with his hatchet, and contented himself with the feet and trunk, as choice morsels with which to regale the members of the Commission. This operation took some time, and he and his companion did not get back to camp before midday. The bushman had the elephant's feet cooked according to the African method. that is, by burying them in a hole previously heated, like an oven, with hot coals.

The delicacy was fully appreciated by all, not excepting the phlegmatic Palander, and Sir John Murray received a hearty round of compliments.