The Mission/Chapter XXI

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As they fully expected to fall in with a herd of buffaloes as they proceeded, they started very early on the following morning. They had now the satisfaction of finding that the water was plentiful in the river, and, in some of the large holes which they passed, they heard the snorting and blowing of the hippopotami, to the great delight of the Hottentots, who were very anxious to procure one, being very partial to its flesh.

As they travelled that day, they fell in with a small party of Bushmen; they were shy at first, but one or two of the women at last approached, and receiving some presents of snuff and tobacco, the others soon joined; and as they understood from Omrah and the Hottentots that they were to hunt in the afternoon, they followed the caravan, with the hopes of obtaining food.

They were a very diminutive race, the women, although very well formed, not being more than four feet high. Their countenances were pleasing, that is the young ones; and one or two of them would have been pretty, had they not been so disfigured with grease and dirt. Indeed the effluvia from them was so unpleasant, that our travellers were glad that they should keep at a distance; and Alexander said to Swinton, “Is it true that the lion and other animals prefer a black man to a white, as being of higher flavour, Swinton, or is it only a joke?”

“I should think there must be some truth in the idea,” observed the Major; “for they say that the Bengal tiger will always take a native in preference to a European.”

“It is, I believe, not to be disputed,” replied Swinton, “that for one European devoured by the lion or other animals, he feasts upon ten Hottentots or Bushmen, perhaps more; but I ascribe the cause of his so doing, not exactly to his perceiving any difference in the flesh of a black and a white man, and indulging his preference. The lion, like many other beasts of prey, is directed to his game by his scent as well as by his eye; that is certain. Now I appeal to you, who have got rid of these Bushmen, and who know so well how odoriferous is the skin of a Hottentot, whether a lion’s nose is not much more likely to be attracted by one of either of these tribes of people, than it would by either you or me. How often, in travelling, have we changed our position, when the wind has borne down upon us the effluvia of the Hottentot who was driving?—why that effluvia is borne down with the wind for miles, and is as savoury to the lion, I have no doubt, as a beef-steak is to us.”

“There can, I think, be no doubt of that,” said Alexander; “but it is said that they will select a Hottentot from white men.”

“No doubt of it, because they follow up the scent right to the party from whence it emanates. I can give you an instance of it. I was once travelling with a Dutch farmer, with his waggon and Hottentots. We unyoked and lay down on the sand for the night; there were the farmer and I, two Hottentot men and a woman—by the bye, a very fat one, and who consequently was more heated by the journey. During the night a lion came and carried away the woman from among us all, and by his tracks, as we found on the following morning, he had passed close to the farmer and myself.”

“Was the woman killed?”

“The night was so dark that we could see nothing; we were roused by her shrieks, and seized our guns, but it was of no use. I recollect another instance which was not so tragical. A Hottentot was carried off by a lion during the night, wrapped up in his sheep-skin kaross, sleeping, as they usually do, with his face to the ground. As the lion trotted away with him, the fellow contrived to wriggle out of his kaross, and the lion went off with only his mantle.”

“Well, I should think one of the karosses must be a very savoury morsel for a hungry lion,” said the Major;—“but I imagine it is almost time to unyoke, we must have travelled nearly twenty miles, and these forests promise well for the game we are in search of.”

“I suspect that they contain not only buffaloes, but elephants; however, we shall soon find out by examining the paths down to the river, which they like in going for water.”

“I think that yonder knoll would be a good place to fix our encampment, Swinton,” said the Major; “it is well shaded with mimosas, and yet clear of the main forest.”

“Well, you are quartermaster-general, and must decide.”

The Major ordered Bremen to arrange the waggons as usual, and turn the cattle out to feed. As soon as this had been accomplished, they saddled their horses, and awaited the return of Swanevelt, who had gone to reconnoitre. Shortly afterwards he returned, with the report that there were the tracks of elephants, buffaloes, and lions, in every direction by the river’s banks; and as the dogs would now be of use, they were ordered to be let loose, which they seldom were, unless the game was large and to be regularly hunted down. Our travellers mounted and proceeded into the forest, accompanied by all the Hottentots except the cattle-keepers and the Bushmen; Bremen, Swanevelt, and Omrah only being on horseback, as well as themselves. As they rode forward slowly and cautiously at the outset, Swinton asked the Major whether he had ever shot buffaloes.

“Yes, in India,” replied the Major; “and desperate animals they are in that country.”

“I was about to say that you will find them such here; and, Alexander, you must be very careful. In the first place, a leaden bullet is of little use against their tough hides and, I may almost say, impenetrable foreheads. The best shot is under the fore-shoulder.”

“Our balls are hardened with tin,” observed Alexander.

“I know that,” replied Swinton; “but still they are most dangerous animals, especially if you fall in with a single buffalo. It is much safer to attack a herd; but we have no time to talk over the matter now, only, as I say, be very careful, and whatever you do, do not approach one which is wounded, even if he be down on his knees. But here comes Bremen with news.”

The Hottentot came up and announced that there was a large herd of buffaloes on the other side of the hill, and proposed that they should take a sweep round them, so as to drive them towards the river.

This proposal was considered good, and was acted upon; and, after riding about a mile, they gained the position which seemed the most desirable. The dogs were then let loose, and the Hottentots, on foot, spread themselves on every side, shouting so as to drive the animals before them. The herd collected together and for a short while stood at bay with the large bulls in front, and then set off through the forest towards the river, followed by all the hunters on horse and on foot. In a quarter of an hour the whole herd had taken refuge in a large pool in the river, which, with the reeds and rushes, and small islands in the centre, occupied a long slip of ground.

The Major, with Swanevelt and two other Hottentots, proceeded farther up the river, that they might cross it before the attack commenced, and the others agreed to wait until the signal was given by the Major’s firing. As soon as they heard the report of the Major’s rifle, Swinton and Alexander, with their party, advanced to the banks of the river. They plunged in, and were soon up to the horses’ girths, with the reeds far above their heads. They could hear the animals forcing their way through the reeds, but could not see them; and, after some severe labour, Swinton said—“Alexander, it will be prudent for us to go back; we can do nothing here, and we shall stand a chance of being shot by our own people, who cannot see us. We must leave the dogs to drive them out, or the Hottentots and Bushmen; but we must regain the banks.”

Just as Swinton said this, a loud rushing was heard through the reeds. “Look-out!” cried he; but he could say no more before the reeds opened and a large hippopotamus rushed upon them, throwing over Alexander’s horse on his side, and treading Alexander and his horse both deep under the water as he passed over them and disappeared. Although the water was not more than four feet in depth, it was with difficulty that the horse and rider could extricate themselves from the reeds, among which they had been jammed and entangled; and Alexander’s breath was quite gone when he at last emerged. Bremen and Swinton hastened to give what assistance they could, and the horse was once more on his legs. “My rifle,” cried Alexander, “it is in the water.”

“We will find it,” said Swinton: “haste up to the banks as fast as you can, for you are defenceless.”

Alexander thought it advisable to follow Swinton’s advice, and with some difficulty regained the bank, where he was soon afterwards followed by Swinton and Bremen, who had secured his rifle. Alexander called Omrah, and sent him to the caravan for another rifle, and then, for the first time, he exclaimed, “Oh, what a brute! It was lucky the water was deep, or he would have jammed me on the head, so that I never should have risen up again.”

“You have indeed had a providential escape, Alexander,” replied Swinton; “is your horse hurt?”

“He must be, I should think,” said Alexander, “for the animal trod upon him; but he does not appear to show it at present.”

In the mean time several shots were fired from the opposite side of the river by the Major and his and occasionally the head or horns of a buffalo were seen above the reeds by the Hottentots, who remained with Swinton and Alexander; but the animals still adhered to their cover. Omrah having brought another rifle, Bremen then proposed that the Hottentots, Bushmen, and dogs should force their way through the reeds and attempt to drive the animals out; in which there would be no danger, as the animals could not charge with any effect in the deep water and thick rushes.

“Provided they don’t meet with a hippopotamus,” said Alexander, laughing.

“Won’t say a word about him, sir,” replied Bremen, who then went and gave the directions.

The Hottentots and Bushmen, accompanied by the dogs, then went into the reeds, and their shouting and barking soon drove out some of the buffaloes on the opposite side, and the reports of the guns were heard.

At last one came out on that side of the river where Alexander and Swinton were watching; Swinton fired, and the animal fell on its knees; a shot from Alexander brought it down dead and turned on its side. One of the Bushmen ran up to the carcass, and was about to use his knife, when another buffalo charged from the reeds, caught the Bushman on his horns, and threw him many yards in the air. The Bushman fell among the reeds behind the buffalo, which in vain looked about for his enemy, when a shot from Bremen brought him to the ground.

Shortly afterwards the Bushman made his appearance from the reeds; he was not at all hurt, with the exception of a graze from the horns of the animal, and a contusion of the ribs.

The chase now became warm; the shouting of the Hottentots, the barking of the dogs, and the bellowing of the herd, which were forcing their way through the reeds before them, were very exciting. By the advice of Swinton, they took up their position on a higher ground, where the horses had good footing, in case the buffaloes should charge.

As soon as they arrived there, they beheld a scene on the other side of the river, about one hundred yards from them, which filled them with anxiety and terror; the Major’s horse was galloping away, and the Major not to be seen. Under a large tree, Swanevelt was in a sitting posture, holding his hands to his body as if severely wounded, his horse lying by his side, and right before him an enormous bull buffalo, standing motionless; the blood was streaming from the animal’s nostrils, and it was evidently tottering from weakness and loss of blood; at last it fell.

“I fear there is mischief done,” cried Swinton; “where can the Major be, and the two Hottentots who were with him? Swanevelt is hurt and his horse killed, that is evident. We had better call them off, and let the buffaloes remain quiet, or escape as they please.”

“There is the Major,” said Alexander, “and the Hottentots too; they are not hurt, don’t you see them?—they were up the trees; thank God.”

They now observed the Major run up to Swanevelt, and presently the two Hottentots went in pursuit of the Major’s horse. Shortly afterwards, Swanevelt, with the assistance of the Major, got upon his legs and, taking up his gun, walked slowly away.

“No great harm done, after all,” said Alexander; “God be praised: but here come the whole herd, Swinton.”

“Let them go, my good fellow,” replied Swinton, “we have had enough of buffalo-hunting for the present.”

The whole herd had now broken from the reeds about fifty paces from where they were stationed, and with their tails raised, tossing with their horns, and bellowing with rage and fear, darted out of the reeds, dripping with slime and mud, and rushed off towards the forest. In a few seconds they were out of sight.

“A good riddance,” said Swinton; “I hope the Major is now satisfied with buffalo-hunting.”

“I am, at all events,” replied Alexander. “I feel very sore and stiff. What a narrow escape that Bushman had.”

“Yes, he had indeed; but, Alexander, your horse is not well: he can hardly breathe. You had better dismount.”

Alexander did so, and unloosed his girths. Bremen got off his horse, and, offering it to Alexander, took the bridle of the other and examined him.

“He has his ribs broken, sir,” said the Hottentot,—“two of them, if not more.”

“No wonder, poor fellow; lead him gently, Bremen. Oh, here comes the Major. Now we shall know what has occurred; and there is Swanevelt and the two men.”

“Well, Major, pray tell us your adventures, for you have frightened us dreadfully.”

“Not half so much as I have been frightened myself,” replied the Major; “we have all had a narrow escape, I can assure you, and Swanevelt’s horse is dead.”

“Is Swanevelt hurt?”

“No, he was most miraculously preserved; the horn of the buffalo has grazed the whole length of the body, and yet not injured him. But let us go to the caravan and have something to drink, and then I will tell you all about it—I am quite done up, and my tongue cleaves to the roof of my mouth.”

As soon as they had arrived at the caravan and dismounted, the Major drank some water, and then gave his narrative. “We had several shots on our side of the river, for the buffaloes had evidently an intention of crossing over, had we not turned them. We had killed two, when a bull buffalo charged from the reeds upon Swanevelt, and before he could turn his horse and put him to his speed, the horns of the buffalo had ripped up the poor animal, and he fell with Swanevelt under him. The enraged brute disengaged himself from the horse, and made a second charge upon Swanevelt; but he twisted on one side, and the horn only grazed him, as I have mentioned. I then fired and wounded the animal. He charged immediately, and I turned my horse, but from fright he wheeled so suddenly that I lost my stirrups, and my saddle turned round.

“I found that I could not recover my seat, and that I was gradually sliding under the horse’s belly, when he passed under a tree, and I caught a branch and swung myself on to it, just as the buffalo, which was close behind us, came up to me. As he passed under, his back hit my leg; so you may imagine it was ‘touch and go.’ The animal, perceiving that the horse left him, and I was not on it, quitted his pursuit, and came back bellowing and roaring, and looking everywhere for me.

“At last it perceived Swanevelt, who had disengaged himself from the dead horse, and was sitting under the tree, apparently much hurt, as he is, poor fellow, although not seriously. It immediately turned back to him, and would certainly have gored him to death, had not Kloet, who was up in a tree, fired at the animal and wounded him mortally—for his career was stopped as he charged towards Swanevelt, and was not ten yards from him. The animal could proceed no further, and there he stood until he fell dead.”

“We saw that portion of the adventure ourselves, Major,” said Swinton; “and now we will tell you our own, which has been equally full of incident and danger.” Swinton having related what had passed on his side of the river, the Major observed:—

“You may talk about lions, but I had rather go to ten lion-hunts than one more buffalo-hunt. I have had enough of buffaloes for all my life.”

“I am glad to hear you say so,” replied Swinton, “for they are most ferocious and dangerous animals, as you may now acknowledge, and the difficulty of giving them a mortal wound renders the attack of them very hazardous. I have seen and heard enough of buffalo-hunting to tell you that you have been fortunate, although you have lost one horse and have another very much hurt;—but here come the spoils of the chase; at all events, we will benefit by the day’s sport, and have a good meal.”

“I can’t eat now,” said Alexander; “I am very stiff. I shall go and lie down for an hour or two.”

“And so shall I,” said the Major; “I have no appetite.”

“Well, then, we will all meet at supper,” said Swinton. “In the mean time I shall see if I can be of any use to Swanevelt. Where’s Omrah?”

“I saw him and Begum going out together just now,” said the Major. “What for, I do not know.”

“Oh! I told him to get some of the Bushman-roots,” said Alexander; “they are as good as potatoes when boiled; and he has taken the monkey to find them.”

The Major and Alexander remained on their beds till supper-time, when Mahomed woke them up. They found themselves much refreshed by their sleep, and also found that their appetites had returned. Buffalo-steaks and fried Bushman-roots were declared to be a very good substitute for beef-steaks and fried potatoes; and after they had made a hearty meal, Alexander inquired of Swinton what he had seen of buffalo-hunting when he had been at the Cape before.

“I have only been once or twice engaged in a buffalo-hunt; but I can tell you what I have heard, and what I have collected from my own knowledge, as to the nature of the animal, of which indeed to-day you have all a very good proof. I told you this morning, that a single buffalo was more dangerous than a herd; and the reason is this:— At the breeding season, the fiercest bulls drive the others away from the herd, in the same manner as the elephants do; and these solitary buffaloes are extremely dangerous, as they do not wait to be attacked, but will attack a man without any provocation. They generally conceal themselves, and rush out upon you unawares, which makes it more difficult to escape from them. They are so bold, that they do not fear the lion himself; and I have been told by the Dutch boors, that when a buffalo has killed one of their comrades by goring and tossing him, it will not leave its victim for hours, but continue to trample on him with its hoofs, crushing the body with its knees as an elephant does, and with its rough tongue stripping off the skin as far as it can. It does not do all this at one time, but it leaves the body, and returns again, as if to glut its vengeance.”

“What a malicious brute!”

“Such is certainly its character. I recollect a history of a buffalo-hunting adventure, told me by a Dutch farmer, who was himself an eye-witness to the scene. He had gone out with a party to hunt a herd of buffaloes which were grazing on a piece of marshy ground, sprinkled with a few mimosa-trees. As they could not get within shot of the herd, without crossing a portion of the marsh, which was not safe for horses, they agreed to leave their steeds in charge of two Hottentots, and to advance on foot; thinking that, in case any of the buffaloes should charge them, it would be easy to escape by running back to the marsh, which would bear the weight of a man, but not of a horse, much less that of a buffalo.

“They advanced accordingly over the marsh, and being concealed by some bushes, they had the good fortune to bring down, with the first volley, three of the fattest of the herd; and also so severely wounded the great bull, which was the leader of the herd, that he dropped down on his knees, bellowing most furiously. Thinking that the animal was mortally wounded, the foremost of the huntsmen walked out in front of the bushes from which they had fired, and began to reload his musket as he advanced, in order to give the animal a finishing shot. But no sooner did the enraged animal see the man advancing, than he sprang up and charged headlong at him. The man threw down his gun, and ran towards the marsh; but the beast was so close upon him, that he despaired of escaping by that direction, and turning suddenly round a clump of copsewood, began to climb an old mimosa-tree which stood close to it.

“The buffalo was, however, too quick for him. Bounding forward with a roar, which the farmer told me was one of the most hideous and appalling sounds that he ever heard, he caught the poor fellow with his terrible horns, just as he had nearly got out of reach, and tossed him in the air with such force, that after whirling round and round to a great height, the body fell into the fork of the branches of the tree. The buffalo went round the tree roaring, and looking for the man, until, exhausted by wounds and loss of blood, it again fell down on its knees. The other hunters then attacked and killed him; but they found their comrade, who was still hanging in the tree, quite dead.”

“Well; I have no doubt but that such would have been the fate of Swanevelt or of me, had the brute got hold of us,” said the Major; “I never saw such a malignant, diabolical expression in any animal’s countenance as there was upon that buffalo’s. A lion is, I should say, a gentleman and man of honour compared to such an evil-disposed ruffian.”

“Well, Major, you have only to let them alone; recollect, you were the aggressor,” said Swinton, laughing.

“Very true; I never wish to see one again.”

“And I never wish to be in the way of a hippopotamus again, I can assure you,” said Alexander, “for a greater want of politeness I never met with.”

During this conversation the Hottentots and Bushmen at the other fires had not been idle. The Hottentots had fried and eaten, and fried and eaten, till they could hold no more; and the Bushmen, who in the morning looked as thin and meagre as if they had not had a meal for a month, were now so stuffed that they could hardly walk, and their lean stomachs were distended as round as balls. The Bushman who had been tossed by the buffalo came up and asked for a little tobacco, at the same time smiling and patting his stomach, which was distended to a most extraordinary size.

“Yes, let us give them some,” said Alexander; “it will complete their day’s happiness. Did you ever see a fellow so stuffed? I wonder he does not burst.”

“It is their custom. They starve for days, and then gorge in this way when an opportunity offers, which is but seldom. Their calendar, such as it is, is mainly from recollections of feasting; and I will answer for it, that if one Bushman were on some future day to ask another when such a thing took place, he would reply, just before or just after the white men killed the buffaloes.”

“How do they live in general?”

“They live upon roots at certain seasons of the year; upon locusts when a flight takes place; upon lizards, beetles—anything. Occasionally they procure game, but not very often. They are obliged to lie in wait for it, and wound it with their poisoned arrows, and then they follow its track and look for it the next day. Subtle as the poison is, they only cut out the part near the wound, and eat the rest of the animal. They dig pit-holes for the hippopotamus and rhinoceros, and occasionally take them. They poison the pools for the game also; but their living is very precarious, and they often suffer the extremities of hunger.”

“Is that the cause, do you imagine, of their being so diminutive a race, Swinton?”

“No doubt of it. Continual privation and hard ships from generation to generation have, I have no doubt, dwindled them down to what you see.”

“How is it that these Bushmen are so familiar? I thought that they were savage and irreclaimable.”

“They are what are termed tame Bushmen; that is, they have lived near the farmers, and have, by degrees, become less afraid of the Europeans. Treated kindly, they have done good in return to the farmers by watching their sheep, and performing other little services, and have been rewarded with tobacco. This has given them confidence to a certain degree. But we must expect to meet with others that are equally wild, and who will be very mischievous; attempting to drive off our cattle, and watching in ambush all round our caravan, ready for any pilfering that they can successfully accomplish; and then we shall discover that we are in their haunts without even seeing them.”

“How so?”

“Because it will only be by their thefts that we shall find it out. But it is time for bed, and as to-morrow is Sunday you will have a day of rest, which I think you both require.”

“I do,” replied Alexander, “so good-night to you both.”