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HOME > Short Stories > Life in South Africa > PART XII.
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Maritzburg, September 1, 1876.

I have had many pleasant cups of tea in my life, indoors and out of doors, but never a pleasanter cup than the one I had the other day in a wagon, or, to speak more exactly, by the side of a wagon—a wagon, too, upon which one looked with the deepest respect, for it had just come down from a long journey up the country, where it had been trekking these four months past—trekking night and day right up to the territory of the Ama-Swazies, through the Thorn country, over hundreds of miles of these endless billowy hills, rolling in wearying monotony day after day; but—and this “but” made up for every other shortcoming—amid hunting-grounds happier than often fall to the lot of even the South African explorer. And there were the spoils of the little campaign spread out before us. The first result, however, which struck me was the splendid health of the travelers. Sunburned indeed they were, especially the fair young English girl-face which had smiled good-bye to me from the depths of a sun-bonnet last April. But who would not risk a few shades of tan to have gone through such a novel and delightful journey? I never saw two people look so well in all my life as this adventurous couple, and it was with one voice they declared they had enjoyed every moment of the time. And what a pleasant time it must have been, rewarded as they were—and deserved to be—by splendid sport! On the fore part of the wagon lay a goodly pile of skins and quantities of magnificent horns, from the ponderous pair on the shaggy buffalo-skulls down to taper points which might have belonged to a fairy buck, so slender, so polished, so inexpressibly graceful, were they. But the trophy of trophies was the skin of a lion, which had been shot in the earliest morning light some twenty yards from the hunter’s tent. It was a splendid skin, and the curved claws are to be made into a necklace and earrings for the sportsman’s wife, who indeed deserves them for bearing her share of the dangers and discomforts of the expedition so cheerfully and bravely. It was very difficult to elicit the least hint of what the discomforts were, or might have been, until at last my eager questions raked out an admission that a week of wet weather (the only one, by the way, in all the four months) was tedious when cooped up under the tilt of the wagon, or that some of the places up and down which the lumbering, unwieldy conveyance had crept were fearful to look at and dangerous to travel, necessitating a lashing together of the wheels by iron chains, as well as the use of the ordinary heavy brake. Yet there had been no upset, no casualty, no serious trouble of any sort; and I think what these English travelers were more impressed with than anything else was the honesty of the Kafirs. The wagon with its stores of food and wine, of comforts and conveniences of all sorts, had been left absolutely alone by the side of a track crossed and recrossed every hour by Kafirs, and twenty miles short of the place whither the tent had been carried for greater facilities of getting at the big game. The oxen were twenty miles off in another direction, under no one’s care in particular; the wagon stood absolutely alone; and yet when the moment of reassembling came every bullock was forthcoming, and nothing whatever of any description was missing from the unguarded wagon. The great attraction to the Kafirs along the line of travel had been the empty tins of preserved milk or jam: with tops and bottoms knocked out they made the most resplendent bangles, and became a violent fashion up among the Thorns.

Nor was that grand lion’s skin the only one. There were quagga skins, wolf skins, buck skins of half a dozen different species, eland skins, buffalo skins, lynx and wild-cat skins enough to start a furrier’s shop, and all in excellent preservation, having been tightly pegged out and thoroughly dried. The horns—or rather the skulls—were still a little high, and needed to be heaped well to leeward before we settled down to tea, camping on kegs and boxes and whatever we could find. I was made proud and happy by being accommodated with a seat on the lion skin; and exactly opposite to me, tranquilly grazing on the young grass, was the identical donkey which had attracted the king of animals to the spot where his fate awaited him. Although camped in the very heart of the lion country, the hunter had neither seen nor heard anything of his big game until this donkey chanced to be added to the stud, and then the lions came roaring round, half a dozen at a time. A huge fire had to be kept up night and day, and close to this the unhappy ass was tethered, for his life would not have been worth much otherwise; and he seems to have been thoroughly alive to the perils of his situation. Lions can resist anything except ass-flesh, it appears; but it is so entirely their favorite delicacy that they forget their cunning, and become absolutely reckless in pursuit of it. When at the last extremity of terror, the poor donkey used to lift up his discordant voice, and so keep the prowling foe at bay for a while, though it invariably had the double effect of attracting all the lions within earshot. And so it was that in the early dawn the hunter, hearing the lion’s growls coming nearer and nearer, and the poor donkey’s brays more and more frequent, stole out, rifle in hand, just in time to get a steady shot at the splendid brute only fifteen yards away, who was hungrily eyeing the miserable ass on the other side of the blazing fire. In spite of all legends to the contrary, a lion never attacks a man first, and this lion turned and moved away directly he saw the sportsman’s leveled rifle. Only one shot was fired, for the dull thud of the bullet told that it had struck the lion, and nothing upon earth is so dangerous as a wounded lion. The huge beast walked slowly away, and when the full daylight had come the sportsman and a few Kafirs followed up the blood-flecked trail for a quarter of a mile, or less, to find the lion lying down as if asleep, with his head resting on his folded fore paw, quite dead. I don’t think I ever understood the weight of a lion until I was told that it took two strong Kafirs to lift one of its ponderous fore feet a few inches even from the ground, and it was almost more than ten men could manage to drag it along the ground by ropes back to the tent. Twenty men could scarcely have carried it, the size and weight of the muscle are so enormous. The Kafirs prize the fat of the lion very highly, and the headman of the expedition had claimed this as his perquisite, melting it down into gourds and selling it in infinitesimal portions as an unguent. I don’t know what the market-price up country was, but whilst we were laughing and chatting over our tea I saw the crafty Kafir scooping out the tiniest bits of lion’s fat in return for a shilling. One of my Kafirs asked leave to go down and buy some. “What for, Jack?” I asked. “Not for me, ma’—for my brudder: make him brave, ma’—able for plenty fight, ma’.” I am certain, however, that this was a ruse, and that Jack felt his own need of the courage-giving ointment.

Talking of Jack, reminds me of a visit I had the other day from a detachment of his friends and relatives. They did not come to see Jack: they came to see me, and very amusing visitors they were. First of all, there was a bride, who brought me a young hen as a present. She was attended by two or three scraggy girls of about fifteen, draped only in short mantles of coarse cloth. The bride herself was exceedingly smart, and had one of the prettiest faces imaginable. Her regular features, oval outline, dazzling teeth and charming expression were not a bit disfigured by her jet-black skin. Her hair was drawn straight up from her head like a tiara, stained red and ornamented with a profusion of bones and skewers, feathers, etc., stuck coquettishly over one ear, and a band of bead embroidery, studded with brass-headed nails, being worn like a fillet where the hair grew low on the forehead. She had a kilt—or series of aprons, rather—of lynx skins, a sort of bodice of calf skin, and over her shoulders, arranged with ineffable grace, a gay table-cover. Then there were strings of beads on her pretty, shapely throat and arms, and a bright scarlet ribbon tied tight round each ankle. All the rest of the party seemed immensely proud of this young person, and were very anxious to put her forward in every way. Indeed, all the others, mostly hard-working, hard-featured matrons, prematurely aged, took no more active part than the chorus of a Greek play, always excepting the old induna or headman of the village, who came as escort and in charge of the whole party. He was a most garrulous and amusing individual, full of reminiscences and anecdotes of his fighting days. He was rather more frank than most warriors who

Shoulder their crutch and show how fields are won,

for the usual end of his battle-stories was the na?ve confession, “And then I thought I should be killed, and so I ran away.” He and I used up a great many interpreters in the course of the visit, for he wearied every one out, and nothing made him so angry as any attempt to condense his conversation in translating it to me. But he was great fun—polite, as became an old soldier, full of compliments and assurances that “now, the happiest day of his life having come, he desired to live no longer, but was ready for death.” The visit took place on the shady side of the verandah, and thither I brought my large musical-box and set it down on the ground to play. Never was there such a success. In a moment they were all down on their knees before it, listening with rapt delight, the old man telling them the music was caused by very little people inside the box, who were obliged to do exactly as I bade them. They were all in a perfect ecstasy of delight for ever so long, retreating rapidly, however, to a distance whenever I wound it up. The old induna took snuff copiously all the time, and made me affectionate speeches, which resulted in the gift of an old great-coat, which he assured me he never should live to wear out, because he was quite in a hurry to die and go to the white man’s land, now that he had seen me. We hunted up all manner of queer odds and ends for presents, and made everybody happy in turn. As a final ceremony, I took them through the house: tiny as it is, it filled them with amazement and delight. My long looking-glass was at once a terror and a pleasure to them, for they rather feared bewitchment; but I held up the baby to see himself in it, and then they were pacified, saying, “The chieftainess never would go and bewitch that nice little chieftain.” As usual, the pictures were what they most thoroughly enjoyed. Landseer’s prints of wild cattle elicited low cries of recognition and surprise: “Zipi in korno!” (“Behold the cows!”) My own favorite print of the three little foxes was much admired, but pronounced to be “lill catties.” The bride was anxious to know why I kept the beds of the establishment on the floor and allowed people to walk over them. She did not consider that a good arrangement evidently; nor could she understand how matting could be of any use except to sleep on. At last it became time for “scoff,” and they all retired to partake of that dainty, the old induna having begged leave to kiss my hands, which he did very gallantly, assuring me he had never been so happy before in all his life, and that he could quite believe now what I had told him about the great white queen over the sea being just as careful for and fond of her black children as of her white ones. I made a great point of this in my conversations with him, and showed them all Her Majesty’s picture, to which they cried “Moochlie!” (“Nice!”), and gave the royal salute. I must say I delight in these little glimpses of Kafir character; I find in those whom I come across, like my visitors of last week, so much simple dignity with shrewd common sense. Their minds, too, seem peculiarly adapted to receive and profit by anything like culture and civilization, and there certainly is a better foundation on which to build up both these things than in any other black race with which I am acquainted.
September 15.

Such an expedition as we have just made! It reminded me exactly of the dear old New Zealand days, only that I should have been sure to have had a better horse to ride in New Zealand than here. I have a very poor opinion of most of the animals here: anything like a tolerable horse is rare and expensive, and the ordinary run of steeds is ugly to look at, ill-groomed and ill-favored, besides not being up to much work. Upon this occasion I was mounted on a coarsely-put-together chestnut, who was broken in to carry a lady a few evenings ago whilst I was getting ready for my ride. However, beyond being a little fidgety and difficult to mount, owing to lurking distrust of my habit, he has no objection to carry me. But he is as rough as a cart-horse in his paces, and the way he stops short in his canter or trot, flinging all his legs about anywhere, is enough to jolt one’s spine out of the crown of one’s head. As for his mouth, it might as well be a stone wall, and he requires to be ridden tightly on the curb to keep him from tripping. When you add to these peculiarities a tendency to shy at every tuft of grass, and a habit of hanging the entire weight of his head on your bridle-hand as soon as he gets the least bit jaded, it must be admitted that it would be easy to find a pleasanter horse for a long, hurried journey. Still, on the principle of all’s well that ends well, I ought not to be so severe on my steed, for the expedition ended well, and was really rather a severe tax on man and beast. This is the way we came to take it:

Ever since I arrived, now nearly a year ago, I have been hearing of a certain “bush” or forest some forty-five or fifty miles away, which is always named when I break into lamentations over the utter treelessness of Natal. Latterly, I have had even a stronger craving than usual to see something more than a small plantation of blue gums, infantine oaks and baby firs, making a dot here and there amid the eternal undulation of the low hills around. “Seven-Mile Bush” has daily grown more attractive to my thoughts, and at last we accepted one of many kind and hospitable invitations thither, and I induced F—— to promise that he would forego the dear delight of riding down to his barn-like office for a couple of days, and come with Mr. C—— and me to the “bush.” This was a great concession on his part; and I may state here that he never ceased pining for his papers and his arm-chair from the moment we started until we came back.

It was necessary to make a very early start indeed, and the stars were still shining when we set off, though the first sunbeams were creeping brightly and swiftly over the high eastern hills. It was a fresh morning, in spite of the occasional puff of dust-laden air, which seemed to warn us every now and then that there was such a thing as a hot wind to be considered, and also that there had not been a drop of rain for these last five months. The whole country seems ground to powder, and the almost daily hot winds keep this powder incessantly moving about; so it is not exactly pleasant for traveling. We picked up our Kafir guide as we rode through the town, and made the best of our way at once across the flats between this and Edendale, which we left on our right, climbing slowly and tediously up a high hill above it; then down again and up again, constantly crossing clear, cold, bright rivulets—a welcome moment to horse and rider, for already our lips are feeling swollen and baked; across stony reefs and ridges cropping out from bare hillsides; past many a snug Kafir kraal clinging like the beehives of a giant to the side of a steep pitch, with the long red wagon-track stretching out as though for ever and ever before us. The sun is hot, very hot, but we have left it behind us in the valleys below, and we sweep along wherever there is a foothold for the horses, with a light and pleasant air blowing in our faces. Still, it is with feelings of profound content that at the end of a twenty-mile stage we see “Taylor’s,” a roadside shanty, looking like a child’s toy set down on the vast flat around, but uncommonly comfortable and snug inside, with mealie-gardens and forage-patches around, and more accommodation than one would have believed possible beneath its low, thatched eaves from the first bird’s-eye glance. The horses are made luxuriously comfortable directly in a roomy, cool shed, and we sit down to an impromptu breakfast in the cleanest of all inn-parlors. I have no doubt it would have been a very comprehensive and well-arranged meal, but the worst of it was it never had a chance of being taken as a whole. Whatever edible the nice, tidy landlady put down on her snowy cloth vanished like a conjuring trick before she had time to bring the proper thing to go with it. We ate our breakfast backward and forward, and all sorts of ways, beginning with jam, sardines, and mustard, varied by eggs, and ending with rashers of bacon. As for the tea, we had drunk up all the milk and eaten the sugar by the time the pot arrived. The only thing which at all daunted us was some freshly-made boers’ bread, of the color of a sponge, the consistency of clay and the weight of pig iron. We were quite respectful to that bread, and only ventured to break off little crusts here and there and eat it guardedly, for it was a fearful condiment. Still, we managed to eat an enormous breakfast in spite of it, and so did the horses; and we all started in highest condition and spirits a little before two o’clock, having had more than a couple of hours’ rest. After riding hard for some time, galloping over every yard of anything approaching to broken ground, we ventured to begin to question our guide—who kept up with us in an amazing manner, considering the prominence of his little rough pony’s ribs—as to the remaining distance between us and “Seven-Mile Bush.” Imagine our horror when he crooked his hand at right angles to his wrist, and made slowly and distinctly five separate dips with it, pointing to the horizon as he did so! Now, the alarming part was, that there were five distinct and ever-rising ranges of hills before us, the range which made a hard ridge against the dazzling sky being of a deep and misty purple, so distant was it. We had been assured at Taylor’s that only twenty-five miles more lay between us and the “bush,” and those mountains must be now at least thirty miles off. But the guide only grins and nods his head, and kicks with his bare heels against his pony’s pronounced ribs, and we hasten on once more. On our right hand, but some distance off, rises the dark crest of the Swartzkopf Mountain, and beneath its shadow, extending over many thousand acres of splendid pasture-ground, is what is known as the Swartzkopf Location, a vast tract of country reserved—or rather appropriated—to the use of a large tribe of Kafirs. They dwell here in peace and plenty, and, until the other day, in prosperity too. But a couple of years ago lung-sickness broke out and decimated their herds, reducing the tribe to the very verge of starvation and misery. However, they battled manfully with the scourge, but it gave them a distrust of cattle, and they took every opportunity of exchanging oxen for horses, of which they now own a great number. What we should have called in New Zealand “mobs” of them were to be seen peacefully pasturing themselves on the slopes around us, and in almost every nook and hollow nestled a Kafir kraal. Here and there were large irregular patches of brown on the fast greening hillsides, and these straggling patches, rarely if ever fenced, were the mealie-gardens belonging to the kraals.

By four of the clock we have made such good way that we can afford immediately after crossing Eland’s River, a beautiful stream, to “off saddle” and sit down and rest by its cool banks for a quarter of an hour. Then, tightening up our girths, we push off once more. It has been up hill the whole way, just excepting the sudden sharp descent into a deep valley on the farther side of each range; but the increasing freshness—nay, sharpness—of the air proved to us how steadily we had been climbing up to a high level ever since we had passed through Edendale. From this point of the journey the whole scenic character of the country became widely different from anything I have hitherto seen in Natal. For the first time I began to understand what a wealth of beauty lies hidden away among her hills and valleys, and that the whole country is not made up of undulating downs, fertile flats and distant purple hills. At the top of the very first ridge up which we climbed after crossing Eland’s River a perfectly new and enchanting landscape opened out before us, and it gained in majesty and beauty with every succeeding mile of our journey. Ah! how can I make you see it in all its grandeur of form and glory of color? The ground is broken up abruptly into magnificent masses—cliffs, terraces and rocky crags. The hills expand into abrupt mountain-ranges, serrated in bold relief against the loveliest sky blazing with coming sunset splendors. Every cleft—or kloof, as it is called here—is filled with fragments of the giant forest which until quite lately must have clothed these rugged mountain-sides. Distant hill-slopes, still bare with wintry leanness, catch some slanting sun-rays on their scanty covering of queer, reddish grass, and straightway glow like sheets of amethyst and topaz, and behind them lie transparent deep-blue shadows of which no pigment ever spread on mortal palette could give the exquisite delicacy and depth. Under our horses’ feet the turf might be off the Sussex downs, so close and firm and delicious is it—the very thing for sheep, of which we only see a score here and there. “Why are there not more sheep?” I ask indignantly, with my old squatter instincts coming back in full force upon me. Mr. C—— translates my question to the Kafir guide, who grins and kicks his pony’s ribs and says, “No can keep ship here. Plenty Kafir dog: eat up all ships two, tree day.” “Yes, that is exactly the reason,” Mr. C—— says, “but I wanted you to hear it from himself.” And ever after this, I, remembering the dearness and scarcity of mutton in Maritzburg, and seeing all this splendid feed growing for nothing, look with an eye of extreme disfavor and animosity on all the gaunt, lean curs I see prowling about the kraals. Almost every Kafir we meet has half a dozen of these poaching-looking brutes at his heels, and it exasperates me to hear that there is a dog law or ordinance, or something of that sort, “only it has not come into operation yet.” I wish it would come into operation to-morrow, and so does every farmer in the country, I should think. Yes, in spite of this fairest of fair scenes—and in all my gypsy life I have never seen anything much more beautiful—I feel quite cross and put out to think of imaginary fat sheep being harried by these useless, hideous dogs.

But the horses are beginning to go a little wearily, and gladly pause to wet their muzzles and cool their hoofs in every brook we cross. I am free to confess that I am getting very tired, for nothing is so wearying as a sudden, hurri............
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