The greatest danger to which we had yet been exposed was now over, but there remained much anxiety in my mind lest another serpent might, unseen by us, have entered the swamp, or might appear, as this had done, from the country beyond Falconhurst.
I projected then two excursions, the first to make a thorough examination of the thicket and morass; the next right away to the Gap, through which alone the archenemy could have entered our territory.
On summoning my sons to accompany me to the marsh, I found neither Ernest nor Jack very eager to do so, the latter vowing he had the cold shivers each time he thought how his ribs might have been smashed by the last flap of the snake's tail; but I did not yield to their reluctance, and we finally set about crossing the marsh by placing planks and wicker hurdles on the ground, and changing their places as we advanced.
Nothing was discovered beyond tracks in the reeds and the creature's lair; where the rushes, grass, and bog-plants were beaten down.
Emerging beyond the thicket we found ourselves on firm ground, near the precipitous wall of rock, and perceived a clear sparkling brook flowing from an opening, which proved to be a cave or grotto of considerable size.
The vaulted roof was covered with stalactites, while many formed stately pillars, which seemed as though supporting the roof. The floor was strewn with fine snow-white earth, with a smooth soapy feeling, which I felt convinced was fuller's earth.
`Well, this is a pleasant discovery!' said I. `This is as good as soap for washing, and will save me the trouble of turning soap-boiler.'
Perceiving that the streamlet flowed from an opening of some width in the inner rock, Fritz passed through, in order to trace it to its source, presently shouting to me that the opening widened very much, and begging me to follow him.
I did so, leaving the other boys in the outer cave, and fired a pistol-shot—the reverberating echoes of which testified to the great extent of the place; and lighting the bit of candle I always carried with me, we advanced, the light burning clear and steadily, though shedding a very feeble light in so vast a space.
Suddenly Fritz exclaimed: `I verily believe this is a second cave of salt! See how the walls glance! And how the light is reflected from the roof!'
`These cannot be salt crystals,' said I, `the water which flows over them leaves no track, and tastes quite sweet. I am rather inclined to believe that we have penetrated into a cave of rock crystal!'
`Oh, how splendid! Then we have discovered a great treasure!'
`Certainly if we could make any use of it; otherwise, in our situation, it is about as valuable as the lump of gold found by good old Robinson Crusoe.'
`Anyhow, I will break off a piece for a specimen. See, here is a fine bit, only rather dull, and not transparent: what a pity! I must knock off another.'
`You must go more carefully to work, or it will look as dull as the first. You destroyed its true form, which is that of a pyramid, with six sides or facets.'
We remained some time in this interesting grotto, but our light burnt low after we had examined it in different directions; and Fritz having secured a large lump, which exhibited several crystals in perfection, we quitted the place, Fritz discharging a farewell shot for the sake of hearing the grand echoes.
On reaching the open air we saw poor Jack sobbing bitterly, but as soon as we appeared he ran joyfully towards us, and threw himself into my arms.
`My child, what is the matter?' I cried anxiously.
`Oh, I thought you were lost! I heard a noise twice, as if the rocks had shattered down; and I thought you and Fritz were crushed in the ruins! It was horrible! How glad I am to see you!'
I comforted the child, and explained the noises he had heard, inquiring why he was alone.
`Ernest is over there among the reeds: I daresay he did not hear the shots.'
I found Ernest busily engaged in weaving a basket in which to catch fish: he had devised it ingeniously, with a funnel-shaped entrance; through which the fish passing would not easily find their way out, but would remain swimming about in the wide part of the apparatus.
`I shot a young serpent while you were away, father,' said he. `It lies there covered with rushes; it is nearly four feet long, and as thick as my arm.'
`A serpent!' cried I, hurrying towards it in alarm, and fearing there must be a brood of them in the swamp after all. `A fine large eel you mean, my boy. This will provide an excellent supper for us tonight. I am glad you had the courage to kill it, instead of taking to your heels and fleeing from the supposed serpent.'
`Well, I thought it would be so horrid to be pursued and caught that I preferred facing it; my shot took effect, but it was very difficult to kill the creature outright, it moved about although its head was smashed.'
`The tenacity of life possessed by eels is very remarkable,' I said. `I have heard that the best mode of killing them is to grasp them by the neck and slap their tails smartly against a stone or post.'
We made our way back more easily by keeping close to the cliffs, where the ground was firmer, and found my wife washing clothes at the fountain. She rejoiced greatly at our safe return, and was much pleased with the supply of fuller's earth, as she said there was now very little soap left. The eel was cooked for supper, and during the evening a full account was given of our passage through the swamp, and discovery of the rock-crystal cavern.
It was most important to ascertain whether any serpent lurked among the woods of our little territory between the cliffs and the sea. Preparations were set on foot for the second and greater undertaking of a search throughout the country beyond the river, as far as the Gap. I wished all the family to go on the expedition, a decision which gave universal satisfaction.
Intending to be engaged in this search for several weeks, we took the small tent and a store of all sorts of necessary provisions, as well as firearms, tools, cooking utensils and torches.
All these things were packed on the cart, which was drawn by Storm and Grumble. Jack and Franz mounted them, and acted at once the part of riders and drivers. My wife sat comfortably in the cart, Fritz rode in advance, while Ernest and I walked; we were protected in flank by the dogs and Fangs, the tame jackal.
Directing our course towards Woodlands, we saw many traces of the serpent's approach to Rockburg. In some places, where the soil was loose, the trail, like a broad furrow, was very evident indeed.
At Falconhurst we made a halt and were, as usual, welcomed by the poultry, as well as by the sheep and goats.
We then passed on to Woodlands, where we arrived at nightfall. All was peaceful and in good order; no track of the boa in that direction; no signs of visits from mischievous apes; the little farm and its inhabitants looked most flourishing.
Next day was passed in making a survey of the immediate neighbourhood, at the same time collecting a quantity of cotton, which was wanted for new pillows and cushions. In the afternoon Franz was my companion, carrying a small gun, entrusted to him for the first time.
We took Fangs and Bruno with us, and went slowly along the left bank of the lake, winding our way among reedy thickets, which frequently turned us aside a considerable distance from the water. The dogs hunted about in all directions, and raised duck, snipe and heron. These usually flew directly across the lake, so that Franz got no chance of a shot. He began to get rather impatient, and proposed firing at the black swans we saw sailing gracefully on the glassy surface of the lake.
Just then a harsh booming sound struck our ears. I paused in wonder as to whence the noise proceeded, while Franz exclaimed,
`Oh, father! Can that be Swift, our young onager?'
`It cannot possibly be Swift,' said I; adding, after listening attentively a minute or two, `I am inclined to think it must be the cry of a bittern, a fine handsome bird of the nature of a heron.'
`Oh! may I shoot it, father? But I wonder how a bird can make that roaring noise! One would think it was an ox, it is more like lowing than braying.'
`The noise creatures make depends more on the construction of the windpipe, its relation to the lungs and the strength of the muscles which force out the breath, than on their size. As for example, how loud is the song of the nightingale and the little canary bird. Some people say that the bittern booms with his long bill partly thrust into the boggy ground, which increases the hollow muffled sound of its very peculiar cry.'
Franz was very anxious that the first trophy of his gun should be so rare a bird as the bittern; the dogs were sent into the wood, and we waited some distance apart, in readiness to fire.
All at once there was a great rustling in the thicket. Franz fired, and I heard his happy voice calling out: `I've hit him! I've hit him!' `What have you hit?' shouted I in return.
`A wild pig,' said he, `but bigger than Fritz's.'
`Aha! I see you remember the agouti! Perhaps it is not a hog at all, but one of our little pigs from the farm. What will the old sow say to you, Franz?'
I soon joined my boy, and found him in transports of joy over an animal certainly very much like a pig, although its snout was broad and blunt. It was covered with bristles, had no tail, and in colour was a yellowish grey.
Examining it carefully and noticing its webbed feet, and its curious teeth, I decided that it must be a capybara, a water-loving animal of South America, and Franz was overjoyed to find that he had shot 'a new creature', as he said.
It was difficult to carry it home, but he very sensibly proposed that we should open and clean the carcase, which would make it lighter. Then, putting it in a game-bag, he carried it till quite tired out; he asked if I thought Bruno would let him strap it on his back. We found the dog willing to bear the burden, and reached Woodlands soon afterwards.
There we were surprised to see Ernest surrounded by a number of large rats which lay dead on the ground.
`Where can all these have come from?' exclaimed I. `Have you and your mother been rat-hunting instead of gathering rice as you intended?'
`We came upon these creatures quite unexpectedly,' he replied. `While in the rice swamp, Knips, who was with us, sprang away to a kind of long-shaped mound among the reeds, and pounced upon something, which tried to escape into a hole.
`He chattered and gnashed his teeth, and the creature hissed and squeaked, and running up, I found he had got a big rat by the tail; he would not let go, and the rat could not turn in the narrow entrance to bite him, but I soon pulled it out and killed it with my stick.
`The mound was a curious-looking erection, so I broke it open with some difficulty, and in doing this dislodged quite a dozen of the creatures. Some I killed, but many plunged into the water and escaped.
`On examining their dwelling I found it a vaulted tunnel made of clay and mud, and thickly lined with sedges, rushes, and water-lily leaves.
`There were other mounds or lodges close by, and seeking an entrance to one I stretched my game-bag across it, and then hammered on the roof till a whole lot of rats sprang out, several right into the bag. I hit away right and left, but began to repent of my audacity when I found the whole community swarming about in the wildest excitement, some escaping, but many stopping in bewilderment, while others actually attacked me.
`It was anything but pleasant, I assure you, and I began to think of Bishop Hatto in the Mouse Tower on the Rhine. Knips liked it as little as I did, and skipped about desperately to get out of their way, though he now and then seized a rat by the neck in his teeth.
`Just as I began to shout for help, Juno came dashing through the reeds and water, and made quick work with the enemy, all flying from her attack.
`My mother had great difficulty in forcing her way through the marsh to the scene of action, but reached me at last; and we collected all the slain to show you, and for the sake of their skins.'
This account excited my curiosity, and I went to examine the place Ernest described: where I found, to my surprise, an arrangement much like a beaver dam, though on a small scale, and less complete.
`You have discovered a colony of beaver rats,' said I to Ernest, `so called from their resemblance in skill and manner of life to that wonderful creature.
`Muskrat, musquash, and ondatra are other names given to them. They have, you see, webbed feet and flattened tails, and we shall find that they carry two small glands containing the scented substance called musk. The sooner we strip off the skins the better; they will be useful for making caps.'
We went back to the house, and met Fritz and Jack just returned from their excursion, reporting that no trace of serpents, great or small, had been met with.
Jack carried in his hat about a dozen eggs; and Fritz had shot a couple of heath fowls, a cock and hen.
We sat down to supper, Franz eager to partake of his capybara. Even he himself made a face at the peculiar flavour of the meat.
`It is the musk which you taste,' said I; and I described to them the various animals in which this strange liquid is found; the musk deer, musk ox, crocodile, muskrat of India (also called soudeli, which taints a corked bottle of wine, if it only runs across it) concluding with an account of the civet, also called civet-cat.
`The civet,' said I, `is a handsome black and white animal, and the perfume obtained from it was formerly considered a valuable medicine; in the present day it is used chiefly as a scent. This odoriferous substance is secreted, i.e., formed, in a double glandular pouch near the tail, and the Dutch keep the creature in captivity, so that it shall afford them a continual supply.
`The method of removing the civet perfume is ingenious. The animal is very quick and elastic in its movements, and having sharp teeth it is not pleasant to handle. So it is put into a long, narrow cage in which it cannot turn around, a horn spoon is then introduced, and the perfume, a thick, oily stuff something like butter, is coolly scraped from the pouch, the plundered civet being then released from strait durance, until the supply is re-formed.'
Presently Jack ran for his game-bag, producing some fruit which he had forgotten. Several pale green apples, quite new to us, excited general attention.
`Why, what are those? Are they good?' I asked.
`I hope so,' said Jack, `but Fritz and I were afraid of eating some awful poison or other, like the manchineel, so we brought them for the inspection of the learned Master Knips.'
I took one and cut it in two, remarking that it contained a circle of seeds or pips, instead of the stone of the manchineel.
At that moment Knips slyly came behind me, and snatching up one half, began to munch it with the liveliest satisfaction, an example which the boys were so eager to follow that a general scramble ensued, and I had some trouble in securing a couple of the apples for myself and their mother.
I imagined this to be the cinnamon apple of the Antilles.
Everyone seeming wearied by the fatigues of the day, our mattresses and pillows were arranged, and the inmates of Woodlands betook themselves to repose.
With early light we commenced the next day's journey, directing our course to a point between the sugar-brake and the Gap, where we had once made a sort of arbour of the branches of trees; as this remained in pretty good condition, we spread a sailcloth over the top of it, instead of pitching the tent, and made it very comfortable quarters for the short time I proposed to stay there.
Our object being to search the neighbourhood for traces of the boa constrictor, or any of his kindred, Fritz, Jack, and Franz went with me to the sugar-cane brake, and we satisfied ourselves that our enemy had not been there. It was long since we had enjoyed the fresh juice of these canes, and we were refreshing ourselves therewith, when a loud barking of dogs and loud rustling and rattling through the thicket of canes disturbed our pleasant occupation, and, as we could see nothing a yard off where we stood, I hurried to the open ground, and with guns in readiness we awaited what was coming.
In a few minutes a herd of creatures like little pigs issued from the thicket, and made off in single file at a brisk trot; they were of a uniform grey colour, and showed short sharp tusks.
My trusty double-barrel speedily laid low two of the fugitives which I felt certain to be peccaries; the others continued to follow the leader in line, scarcely turning aside to pass the dead bodies of their comrades, and maintaining the same steady pace, although Fritz and Jack also fired and killed several.
I felt certain that these were peccaries, and recollected that an odoriferous gland in the back must be removed immediately, otherwise the meat will become tainted, and quite unfit to eat.
This operation, with the help of my boys, I accordingly performed at once.
Presently, hearing shots in the direction of the hut where we had left Ernest and his mother, I sent Jack to their assistance, desiring him to fetch the cart, that the booty might be conveyed to our encampment, employing the time of his absence in opening and cleaning the animals, thus reducing their weight.
Ernest came back with Jack and the cart, and told us that the procession of peccaries had passed near the hut, and that he, with Juno's help, had secured three of them.
I was glad to hear this, as I had determined to cure a good supply of hams, and we made haste to load the cart; the boys adorned it with flowers and green boughs, and with songs of triumph which made the woods ring they conveyed the valuable supply of game to the hut, where their mother anxiously waited for us.
After dinner we set to work upon our pigs, singeing and scalding off the bristles; I cut out the hams, divided the flitches, bestowed considerable portions of the carcase on the dogs, and diligently cleansed and salted the meat, while the boys prepared a shed, where it was to be hung to be cured in the smoke of fires of green wood.
This unexpected business of course detained us in the place for some time. On the second day, when the smoking-shed was ready, the boys were anxious to cook the smallest porker in the Otaheitean fashion. For this purpose they dug a hole, in which they burnt a quantity of dry grass, sticks and weeds, heating stones, which were placed round the sides of the pit.
While the younger boys made ready the oven, Fritz singed and washed his peccary, stuffing it with potatoes, onions and herbs, and a good sprinkling of salt and pepper.
He then sewed up the opening, and enveloped the pig in large leaves to guard it from the ashes and dust of its cooking-place.
The fire no longer blazed, but the embers and stones were glowing hot; the pig was carefully placed in the hole, covered over with hot ashes, and the whole with earth, so that it looked like a big mole heap.
Dinner was looked forward to with curiosity, as well as appetite; my wife, as usual, distrusting our experiments, was not sanguine of success, and made ready some plain food as a pis aller*.
* Last resort, backup, poor substitute.
She was well pleased with the curing-hut, which was roomy enough to hang all our hams and bacon. On a wide hearth in the middle we kindled a large fire, which was kept constantly smouldering by heaping it with damp grass and green wood. The hut being closed in above, the smoke filled it, and penetrated the meat thoroughly: this process it had to undergo for several days.
In a few hours Fritz gave notice that he was going to open his oven. Great excitement prevailed as he removed the earth, turf, and stones, and a delicious appetizing odour arose from the opening. It was the smell of roast pork, certainly, but with a flavor of spices which surprised me, until I thought of the leaves in which the food had been wrapped up.
The peccary was carefully raised, and when a few cinders were picked off, it looked a remarkably well-cooked dish. Fritz was highly complimented on his success, even by his mother.
The scented leaves were, I thought, those of a tree which I knew to be found in Madagascar, called by the natives ravensara, or 'good leaf.' It is said to combine the scent of the nutmeg, clove, and cinnamon. The fruit is a species of nut, possessing the scent of the leaves in a more delicate degree, and from it an oil or essence is distilled, which is highly valued in native cookery.
During the process of curing our large supply of hams and bacon, which occupied several days, we roamed about the neighbourhood in all directions, finding no trace of the serpent, but making many valuable acquisitions, among which were some gigantic bamboos from fifty to sixty feet in length, and of proportionate thickness. These, when cut across near the joints, formed capital casks, tubs, and pots; while the long sharp thorns, which begirt the stem at intervals, were as strong and useful as iron nails.
One day we made an excursion to the farm at Prospect Hill, and were grievously provoked to find that the vagabond apes had been there, and wrought terrible mischief, as before at Woodlands.
The animals and poultry were scattered, and everything in the cottage so torn and dirtied, that it was vain to think of setting things right that day. We therefore very unwillingly left the disorder as we found it, purposing to devote time to the work afterwards.
When all was in readiness for the prosecution of our journey, we closed and barricaded the hut, in which, for the present, we left the store of bacon; and arranging our march in the usual patriarchal style, we took our way to the Gap, the thorough defence of which defile was the main object we had in view.
Our last halting-place being much enclosed by shrubs, bamboos and brushwood, we had during our stay opened a path through the cane thicket in the direction we were about to travel; this we now found of the greatest assistance, and the loaded cart passed on without impediment.
The ground was open and tolerably level beyond, so that in a few hours we arrived at the extreme limit of our coast territory.
We halted on the outskirts of a little wood behind which, to the right, rose the precipitous and frowning cliffs of the mountain gorge, while to the left flowed the torrent, leaving between it and the rocks the narrow pass we called the Gap, and passing onward to mingle its waters with the sea.
The wood afforded us pleasant shelter and standing high, and within gunshot of the mouth of the rocky pass, I resolved to make it our camping-place. We therefore unpacked the cart, and made our usual arrangements for safety and comfort, not forgetting to examine the wood itself, so as to ascertain whether it harboured any dangerous animals. Nothing worse than wild cats was discovered. We disturbed several of these creatures in their pursuit of birds and small game, but they fled at our approach.
By the time dinner was ready we felt much fatigued, and some hours of unusually sultry and oppressive heat compelled us to rest until towards evening, when returning coolness revived our strength. We pitched the tent, and then occupied ourselves with preparations for the next day, when it was my intention to penetrate the country beyond the defile, and make a longer excursion across the savannah, than had yet been undertaken.
All was ready for a start at an early hour; my brave wife consented to remain in camp with Franz as her companion, while the three elder boys, and all the dogs, except Juno, went with me.
We expected to find it somewhat difficult to make our way through the narrowest part of the pass, which had been so strongly barricaded and planted with thorny shrubs, but found on the contrary that the fences and walls were broken down and disarranged. It was thus very evident that the great snake, as well as the herd of peccaries, had made an entrance here.
This barricade was the first check that had been placed by hand of man upon the wild free will of nature in this lonely place. With one consent storms, floods, torrents, and the wild beasts of the forest, had set themselves to destroy it.
We resolved to make the defences doubly strong, being convinced that the position was capable of being barricaded and fortified so as to resist the invaders we dreaded.
The prospect which opened before us on emerging from the rocky pass was wide, and varied. Swelling hills and verdant wooded vales were seen on one hand, while a great plain stretched before us, extending from the banks of the river towards a chain of lofty mountains, whose summits were rendered indistinct in the haze of the distance.
We crossed the stream, which we named East River, filling our flasks with water, and it was well we did so, for in continuing our journey, we found the soil become more arid and parched than we had expected; in fact we soon appeared surrounded by a desert.
The boys were astonished at the altered appearance of the country, part of which had been explored when we met with the buffaloes. I reminded them of the difference of the season; that the expedition had been made directly after the rains, when vegetation had clothed with transient beauty this region, which, possessing no source of moisture in itself, had become scathed and bare during the blazing heat of summer.
Our march proceeded slowly, and many were the uncomplimentary remarks made on the `new country'.
It was `Arabia Petrea,' groaned one.
`Desert of Sahara,' sighed another.
`Fit abode for demons,' muttered a third. `Subterranean volcanic fires are raging beneath our feet.'
`Patience, my good fellows!' cried I. `You are too easily discouraged. Look beyond the toilsome way to those grand mountains whose spurs are already stretching forward to meet us. Who knows what pleasant surprises await us amid their steep declivities? I, for my part, expect to find water, fresh grass, trees and a lovely resting-place.'
We were all glad to repose beneath the shade of the first overhanging rock we came to, although by pressing further upwards, we might have attained to a pleasanter spot.
Looking back towards the Gap, we marked the strange contrast of the smiling country bordering the river, and the dreary, monotonous plain we had traversed.
After gazing on the distant scene, we produced our store of provisions, and were busily engaged, when Knips (our constant companion) suddenly began to snuff and smell about in a very ridiculous way; finally, with a shriek which we knew was expressive of pleasure, he set off at full speed, followed by all the dogs, up a sort of glen behind us.
We left them to their own devices, being far too pleasantly engaged with our refreshments to care much what fancy the little rogue had got in his head.
When hunger was somewhat appeased, Fritz once more cast his eyes over the expanse of plain before us, and after looking fixedly for a moment, exclaimed:
`Is it possible that I see a party of horsemen riding at full gallop towards us! Can they be wild Arabs of the desert?'
`Arabs, my boy! Certainly not; but take the spy-glass and make them out exactly. We shall have to be on our guard, whatever they are!'
`I cannot see distinctly enough to be sure,' said he presently, `and imagination supplies the deficiency of sight in most strange fashion. I could fancy them wild cattle, loaded carts, wandering hay-cocks, in fact almost anything I like.'
The spy-glass passed from hand to hand; Jack and Ernest agreed in thinking the moving objects were men on horseback; but when it came to my turn to look, I at once pronounced them to be very large ostriches.
`This is fortunate indeed!' I exclaimed. `We must try to secure one of these magnificent birds; the feathers alone are worth having.'
`A live ostrich, father! That would be splendid. Why, we might ride upon him!'
As the ostriches approached, we began to consider in what way we should attempt a capture. I sent Fritz and Jack to recall the dogs, and placed myself with Ernest behind some shrubs which would conceal us from the birds as they came onwards.
The boys did not rejoin us for some little time; they found Knips and the dogs at a pool of water formed by a small mountain stream, which the monkey's instinct had detected; his sudden departure was thus accounted for, and they availed themselves right gladly of his discovery, filling their flasks, and hastily bathing before their return.
The ostriches continued to come in our direction, varying their pace as though in sport, springing, trotting, galloping and chasing each other round and round, so that their approach was by no means rapid.
I could now perceive that of the five birds one only was a male, the white plumes of the wings and tail contrasting finely with the deep glossy black of the neck and body.
The colour of the females being ashen brown, the effect of their white plumes was not so handsome.
`I do not believe we shall have a chance with these birds,' said I, `except by sending Fritz's eagle in pursuit; and for that we must bide our time, and let them come as near as possible.'
`In what way, then, are ostriches caught by the natives of the African deserts?' inquired Fritz.
`Sometimes by chase on horseback; but their speed is so very great, that even that must be conducted by stratagem.
`When these birds are pursued, they will run for hours in a wide circle; the hunter gallops after them, but describes a much smaller circle, and can therefore maintain the pace for a longer time, waiting to make the attack until the bird is fatigued.
`Among the Bushmen, the hunter sometimes envelops himself in the skin of an ostrich, his legs doing duty for those of the bird, and his arm managing the head and neck so as to imitate the movements of the bird when feeding. The enterprising hunter is thus enabled to get among a flock of ostriches, and to shoot them with arrows one after another.
`When aware of an enemy they defend themselves desperately, using their powerful legs as weapons, always kicking forwards, and inflicting dreadful injuries on dogs, and even on men if attacked without due precaution. But let us take up our positions, and keep perfectly still, for the ostriches are at hand!'
We held the dogs concealed as much as possible; the stately birds suddenly perceiving us, paused, hesitated and appeared uneasy. Yet as no movement was made, they drew a few steps nearer, with outstretched necks, examining curiously the unwonted spectacle before them.
The dogs became impatient, struggled from our grasp and furiously rushed towards our astonished visitors. In an instant they turned and fled with the speed of the wind; their feet seemed not to touch the ground, their wings aiding their marvellously rapid progress.
In a few moments they would have been beyond our reach, but as they turned to fly the eagle was unhooded. Singling out the male bird the falcon made his fatal swoop, and, piercing the skull, the magnificent creature was laid low. Before we could reach the spot the dogs had joined the bird of prey, and were fiercely tearing the flesh and bedabbling the splendid plumes with gore.
This sight grieved us. `What a pity we could not capture this glorious bird alive!' exclaimed Fritz, as we took its beautiful feathers. `It must, I am sure, have stood more than six feet high, and two of us might have mounted him at once!'
`In the vast sandy deserts where nothing grows, what can flocks of these birds find to live upon?' inquired Ernest.
`That would indeed be hard to say, if the deserts were utterly barren and unfruitful,' returned I, `but over these sandy wastes a beneficent Providence scatters plants of wild melons, which absorb and retain every drop of moisture, and which quench the thirst as well as satisfy the hunger of the ostriches and other inhabitants of the wilds. These melons, however, do not constitute his entire diet; he feeds freely on grasses, dates and hard grain, when he can obtain them.'
`Does the ostrich utter any cry?'
`The voice of the ostrich is a deep hollow rumbling sound, so much resembling the roar of the lion as to be occasionally mistaken for it. But what does Jack mean by waving his cap, and beckoning in that excited fashion? What has the boy found, I wonder?'
He ran a little way towards us, shouting: `Eggs, father! Ostriches' eggs! A huge nest-full—do come quickly!' We all hastened to the spot, and in a slight hollow of the ground, beheld more than twenty eggs, as large as an infant's head.
The idea of carrying more than two away with us was preposterous, although the boys, forgetting what the weight would be, seriously contemplated clearing the nest. They were satisfied when a kind of landmark had been set up, so that if we returned we might easily find the nest.
As each egg weighed about three pounds, the boys soon found the burden considerable, even when tied into a handkerchief and carried like a basket. To relieve them, I cut a strong elastic heath stick, and suspending an egg in its sling at each end, laid the bent stick over Jack's shoulder, and like a Dutch dairy-maid with her milkpails, he stepped merrily along without inconvenience.
We presently reached a marshy place surrounding a little pool evidently fed by the stream which Knips had discovered. The soft ground was trodden and marked by the footsteps of many different sorts of animals; we saw tracks of buffaloes, antelopes, onagers or quaggas, but no trace whatever of any kind of serpent: hitherto our journey in search of monster reptiles had been signalized by very satisfactory failure.
By this brook we sat down to rest and take some food; Fangs presently disappeared, and Jack calling to his pet discovered him gnawing at something which he had dug from the marsh.
Taking it for a root of some sort, Jack brought it for my inspection. I dipped it in water to clear off the mud, and to my surprise found a queer little living creature, no bigger than half an apple, in my hand. It was a small tortoise.
`A tortoise, I declare!' cried Fritz. `What a long way from the sea. How came it here, I wonder?' `Perhaps there has been a tortoise-shower,' remarked Ernest. `One reads of frog-showers in the time of the ancient Romans.'
`Hollo, Professor! You're out for once,' said I. `This is nothing but a mud-tortoise, which lives in wet, marshy ground and fresh water. They are useful in gardens; for although they like a few lettuce leaves now and then, they will destroy numbers of snails, grubs, and worms.'
Resuming our journey, we arrived at a charming valley, verdant, fruitful, and shaded by clumps of graceful trees. It afforded us the greatest delight and refreshment to pass along this cool and lovely vale, which we agreed to call Glen Verdant.
In the distance we could see herds of antelopes or buffaloes feeding; but as our dogs continually ranged a long way ahead of us, they were quickly startled, and vanished up one or other of the narrow gorges which opened out of the valley.
Following the imperceptible windings of the vale, we were surprised, on quitting it for the more open ground, to find ourselves in country we were already acquainted with, and not far from the Jackal Cave, as we called the place where Fangs had been captured in cubhood.
On recognizing the spot, Ernest, who was in advance with one of the dogs, hastened towards it. We lost sight of him for a few minutes, and then arose a cry of terror, violent barking and deep, surly growls.
As we rushed forward, Ernest met us, looking white as ashes, and calling out:
`A bear, a bear, father! He is coming after me!'
The boy clung to me in mortal fear. I felt his whole frame quivering.
`Courage, my son!' cried I, disengaging myself from his grasp. `We must prepare for instant defence!'
The dogs dashed forward to join the fray, whatever it was; and not long were we in doubt. To my no small consternation, an enormous bear made his appearance, quickly followed by another.
With levelled guns, my brave Fritz and I advanced slowly to meet them. Jack was also ready to fire, but the shock had so unnerved Ernest that he fairly took to his heels. We fired together, one at each bear; but though hit, the monsters were unfortunately only wounded. We found it most difficult to take aim, as the dogs beset them on all sides.
However, they were much disabled, one having the lower jaw broken, and the other, with a bullet in its shoulder, was effectually lamed. The dogs, perceiving their advantage, pressed more closely round their foes, who yet defended themselves furiously with frightful yells of pain and rage.
Such was the confusion and perpetual movement of the struggle, that I dared not fire again, seeing that even slightly wounding one of our gallant hounds would instantly place him in the power of the raging bears.
Watching our opportunity, we suddenly advanced with loaded pistols to within a very few paces of the animals, and firing, both fell dead, one shot through the head, the other, in the act of rearing to spring on Fritz, received his charge in its heart.
`Thank Heaven!' cried I, as with dull groans the brutes sank to the ground. `We have escaped the greatest peril we have yet encountered!'
The dogs continued to tear and worry the fallen foe, as though unwilling to trust the appearance of death. With feelings somewhat akin, I drew my hunting-knife, and made assurance doubly sure.
Seeing all safe, Jack raised a shout of victory, that poor Ernest might gain courage to approach the scene of conflict, which at last he did, and joined us in examining the dangerous animals, as they lay motionless before us.
Every point was full of interest, their wounds, their sharp teeth, their mighty claws, the extraordinary strength of neck and shoulder, all were remarked and commented on, and observing that the shaded brown hair was tipped with glossy white, I thought that these might be the silver bears* mentioned in Captain Clarke's journey to the north-west coasts of America.
* Grizzlies, not polar bears
`Well, my lads,' said I, `if we have failed to catch sight of serpents, we have at least made good riddance of some other bad rubbish! These fellows would one day have worked us woe, or I am much mistaken. What's to be done next?'
`Why, skin them, to be sure,' said Fritz. `We shall have a couple of splendid bear-skin rugs.'
As this process would take time and evening drew on, we dragged the huge carcases into their den, to await our return, concealing them with boughs of trees and fencing the entrance as well as we could. The ostrich eggs we also left behind us, hidden in a sandy hole.
By sunset we reached the tent, and joyfully rejoined my wife and Franz, right glad to find a hearty meal prepared for us, as well as a large heap of brushwood for the watch-fire.
When a full account of our adventures had been given, with a minute and special description of the bear-fight, my wife related what she had done during our absence. She and Franz had made their way through the wood up to the rocks behind it, and discovered a bed of pure white clay, which it seemed to her might be used for making porcelain. Then she had contrived a drinking-trough for the cattle out of a split bamboo.
She had arranged a hearth in a sheltered place by building up large stones, cemented with the white clay; and, finally, she had cut a quantity of canes and brought them, on the cart, to be in readiness for the building we had in hand.
I praised the thoughtful diligence which had effected so much that was of real and definite use. In order to try the clay I put some balls of it in the fire now kindled to burn during the night, and we then betook ourselves to rest under shelter of our tent.
I awoke at dawn and aroused my little party. My first idea was to examine the clay balls, which I found baked hard and finely glazed, but too much melted down by the heat—a fault which, seeing the excellent quality of the clay, I knew it would be well worthwhile to remedy.
After breakfast, and our accustomed devotions, we harnessed the cart, and took the way to the bears' den. Fritz headed the party, and, coming in sight of the entrance to the cave, called out softly:
`Make haste and you will see a whole crowd of wild turkeys, who seem to have come to attend the funeral obsequies of their respected friend and neighbour, Bruin, here. But there appears to be a jealous watcher who is unwilling to admit the visitors to the bed of state!'
The Watcher, as Fritz called him, was an immensely large bird, with a sort of comb on his head, and a loose fleshy skin hanging from beneath the beak. Part of the neck was bare, wrinkled and purplish-red, while around it, resting on the shoulders, was a downy collar of soft white feathers. The plumage was greyish-brown, marked here and there with white patches; the feet appeared to be armed with strong claws. This great bird guarded the entrance to the cave, occasionally retiring into it himself for a few minutes; but as soon as the other birds came pressing in after him, he hurried out again and they were forced to retire.
We stopped to observe this curious scene, and were startled suddenly by a mighty rush of wings in the air above us. We looked up; at the same moment Fritz fired, and an enormous bird fell heavily head foremost on the rocks, by which its neck was broken, while blood flowed from a wound in the breast.
We had been holding back the dogs, but they, with Fritz, now rushed towards the cave, the birds rising around them and departing with heavy ungainly flight, leaving only Fritz's prize, and one of the other birds, killed by the large one in its fall.
With the utmost caution I entered the cave, and rejoiced to find that the tongue and eyes only of the bears had been devoured: a little later and we should have had the handsome skins pecked and torn to rags, and all chance of steaks and bears'-paws gone.
On measuring the wings of the large bird from tip to tip, I found the length exceeded eleven feet, and concluded it to be a condor; it was evidently the mate of the `Watcher', as Fritz called the first we saw.
To work we now went on the bears, and no slight affair we found it to skin and cut them up, but by dint of perseverance we at last succeeded in our object.
Determining to smoke the meat on the spot, we cut magnificent hams, and took off the rest of the meat in slices after the manner of the buccaneers in the West Indies, preserving the paws entire to be cooked as a delicacy, and obtaining from the two bears together a prodigious supply of lard, which my wife gladly undertook to melt and prepare for keeping.
The bones and offal we drew to some distance with the help of our cattle, and made the birds of the air most welcome to feast upon it. This, with the assistance of all sorts of insects, they did so effectually that before we left the place the skulls were picked perfectly clean, the sun had dried them, and they were ready for us to carry off to our museum.
The skins had to be very carefully scraped, washed, salted, cleansed with ashes and dried, which occupied fully two days.
I was lamenting our distance from the rascusara* tree, the leaves of which had flavoured our roast peccary so nicely, when I observed among the brushwood which the boys had brought from the thickets around us, a climbing plant, whose leaves had a very strong smell; the stem resembled a vine, and the fruit grew in clusters like currants. Some were red, and some of a green colour, which I supposed to denote various degrees of ripeness. They were hard, and the outer skin was quite thin. I recognized in this the pepper plant, a discovery particularly agreeable at this moment.
* Previously he called it ravensara.
The boys soon gathered a large supply; the red berries were soaked in salt and water for several days, then washed and rubbed, and finally, becoming perfectly white, were dried in the sun. The treatment of the green berries was simple; they were merely exposed to the sun's heat for a day or two, and then stored: in this way we obtained enough, both of black and white pepper, to last us a very long time.
I took also a number of young plants, that we might have pepper growing at Rockburg and our various settlements. Some roots of another plant were also taken, which, from the pods, appeared to be a kind of bean.
We were glad of this occupation during the tedious business of smoking the bears' meat, and availed ourselves of the leisure time by also preparing for stuffing the condor and the turkey buzzard, urubu or black vulture—for I could not determine to which species the smaller bird belonged.
The four boys at length became so weary of inaction, that I determined to let them make an excursion alone on the savannah.
Three of them received this permission with eager delight, but Ernest said he would prefer to remain with us; to which, as the expedition was to be entirely one of pleasure, I could make no objection.
Little Franz, on the other hand, whom I would willingly have kept with us, was wild to go with his brothers, and I was obliged to consent, as I had made the proposal open to all, and could not draw back.
In the highest spirits they ran to bring their steeds (as we were fain to call the cattle they rode) from their pasturage at a short distance. Speedily were they saddled, bridled and mounted—the three lads were ready to be off.
It was my wish that our sons should cultivate a habit of bold independence, for well I knew that it might be the will of God to deprive them easily of their parents; when, without an enterprising spirit of self-reliance, their position would be truly miserable.
My gallant Fritz possessed this desirable quality in no small degree, and to him I committed the care of his young brothers, charging them to look up to and obey him as their leader.
They were well armed, well mounted, had a couple of good dogs; and, with a hearty `God speed and bless you, my boys!' I let them depart.
We who remained behind passed the day in a variety of useful occupations.
The bears' meat, which was being cured in a smoking-shed such as that we set up for the peccary hams, required a good deal of attention from my wife. Ernest had a fancy for making ornamental cups from the ostrich eggs, while I investigated the interior of the cave.
I found the inner wall to consist of a kind of talc, mingled with threads of asbestos, and also indications of mica. Examining further, I detached a large block, and found to my joy that I could split it into clear transparent sheets, which would serve admirably for window panes.
My wife saw this substitute for glass with unfeigned satisfaction, declaring, that although she would not complain, yet the want of glass for windows had been a downright trouble to her.