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Tales of South AfricaByH.A. Bryden
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Tales of South Africa
Chapter One. The Secret of Verloren Vlei.
Chapter Two. A Bushwoman’s Romance.
Chapter Three. A Desert Mystery.
Chapter Four. The Professor’s Butterfly.
Chapter Five. A Boer Pastoral.
Chapter Six. Piet Van Staden’s Wife.
Chapter Seven. A Legend of Prince Maurice.
Chapter Eight. The Tapinyani Concession.
Chapter Nine.Vrouw Van Vuuren’s Frenchman.
Chapter Ten. The Great Secret.
Chapter Eleven. The Story of Jacoba Steyn.
It was not until my second season’s hunting with Koenraad du Plessis that I heard of Verloren Vlei, a place I am never likely to forget. Du Plessis was a Transvaal Boer, descended, as his name implies, from that good Huguenot stock which, after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, made its way to the Cape to replenish the Dutch settlers. The French language quickly died out in South Africa, mainly from a stern repression; yet here and there, all over that vast land, you may see at this day, in the strong and stubborn Boer breed, plain traces of the French admixture. Du Plessis bore about him very certain indications of his ancestry. He was shortish for a Boer, very dark of complexion, keen-eyed, merry, alert, vigorous and active as a cat.
Nineteen years ago, the north and east of the Transvaal, and the countries just across the border, were wild and little-known lands, still teeming with game. I was wandering through this region, hunting and exploring. The gold-fever had recently broken out, and as I understood something of mining and geology, I put in a good deal of prospecting as well. It was a vagrant, delightful existence, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Du Plessis and I met first in the north of Waterberg. I found him an excellent good fellow; he took to me; and we quickly became great friends. We trekked along the Crocodile River together, crossed it before it takes its southerly bend, and, for the whole of the dry winter season, hunted in a glorious veldt abounding in game. So excellent a comrade had I found the Boer, and so well had we enjoyed one another’s company, that we engaged to meet again the following season. Thus, at the end of July, 1876, we were once more hunting together in that wild and distant region north-east of the Crocodile.
One evening—I remember it well—we were outspanned in a delightful valley between low hills, through which a pleasant stream ran—a rare thing in the prevailing drought. We had had a good hunt that day, and the flesh of a fat buffalo cow filled our stew-pot. Our oxen lay peacefully in a strong thorn kraal close at hand—for there were lions about—and our horses were tied up to the wagon-wheels; the fires blazed ruddily against the outer darkness. At one of these fires were gathered our native boys, feasting and chattering, and laughing in high good humour; at the other, Du Plessis and I sat in our wagon-chairs. We had finished our meal, and were smoking our fragrant Rustenburg tobacco and drinking our coffee; for the day had been hot, and our hunt a long and exciting one, and our thirst was still unassuaged. We were talking about gold and prospecting. The Dutchman was not over-keen about it, but he was anxious to help me.
“There’s a kloof somewhere about here, Fairmount,” (that’s my name), he said, “in which I shot a white rhinoceros five years ago. I should like you to see it; I remember some natives brought me a quill of gold which they had collected up there. I think you would find it worth looking at; but this country is so broken, that I can’t for the life of me make out the exact spot. We shall hit it off presently, no doubt; but just now it’s almost as hard to find as poor Tobias Steenkamp’s ‘Verloren Vlei.’”
“Verloren Vlei,” I replied in Cape Dutch, in which we habitually spoke. “I never heard of the place. Where’s that?”
“Allemaghte! That’s a very queer story,” answered Du Plessis. “Tobias Steenkamp was a cousin of mine. One day four years ago he came to our farm and outspanned. He had had a hard trek, and lost some oxen, and was himself smitten with fever. He stayed a week, and he was forever talking of a wonderful vlei (Pronounced flay, A vlei is the Dutch name for a shallow lake.) he had discovered somewhere in an inaccessible mountain range in this direction, on the shores of which he had found much gold. He showed us some fine nuggets; and, indeed, he excited my brother Hans and myself so much, that we half promised to go back with him and have a look at the place.
“Well, Tobias got over his fever, obtained fresh oxen, refitted his wagon, and started off again for his wonderful vlei. Hans and I could not get away at that moment; but we meant to hunt in that direction, and we promised to follow him up in a little time. He left a boy with us to show us the road. In two months’ time we had trekked up to the neighbourhood of Tobias’s great discovery, and then we received a shock. We met his driver and servants returning with the wagon, and no master. They told us that they had outspanned near the vlei—which they themselves had never seen; that their master had started off alone up the mountain next morning—he would never permit any of his boys to go with him; and that he had never returned. They had waited and waited, and had then searched for him in every direction without result. For a fortnight this had gone on; and now they had given up the search, and believed their master dead. Well, Hans and I took the men back with us to the mountain again, and made a thorough search, and sent out parties in every direction into the country round. We might as well have looked for the Fiend himself; we never again found a trace of Tobias Steenkamp. He is dead, undoubtedly, and his fate is wrapped in black mystery. How he disappeared, where he went, I cannot say. We did find spoor of a man and donkey to the north-east. The man had disappeared, and the donkey had been eaten by a lion. What their mystery was, I know not either. We found no trace of a passage up the grim mountain-walls where poor Tobias had vanished; and as for the vlei itself, well, Hans and I could make nothing of it. We never set eyes on it, and half doubted its existence. We have always called it since ‘Verloren Vlei,’ and by that name we and our friends still know it. And yet Tobias was no fool; he described the vlei very plainly to us more than once; and he firmly believed in it. Allemaghte! Yes, of that I am quite certain; and what’s more, he showed me the gold he had found there. It’s incomprehensible.”
“That’s a queer story of yours, Koenraad,” said I. “I wonder I never heard you mention it before. How far away is this place you speak of?”
“About six days’ journey from here, I suppose,” replied Du Plessis; “and it’s a rough trek.”
“Has anyone else ever tried to discover this secret?” I went on.
“Two or three people only,” rejoined the Dutchman. “Tobias’s brother and three other Boers who knew him went on two different occasions; but they came away no wiser than ourselves. Neither Tobias nor his bones have ever come to light.”
We went on chatting by the fire that night, and presently turned into our wagons.
I am bound to confess that the Dutchman’s grim story grew upon and fascinated me. Mystery has always a curious attraction. Here was hidden away some dark episode, in which this simple, unfortunate Boer had lost his life. I determined to try to unravel the clew; and the gold, too, lent an additional motive to the search.
I had small difficulty in persuading Koenraad du Plessis next morning to lead me to the place of misfortune. We settled to trek thither, hunting on our way; and in six days’ time we found ourselves outspanned for the night beneath the loom of the great rock fortress which held so securely the Dutchman’s secret. It was the hour of sunset as we neared the mountain range, which lay between us and the north-west. The sky was a sheet of red and gold, against which the rugged mass stood out in a wonderful relief. Up above the mountain tops, long skeins of great birds, all following one another slowly and majestically in an endless maze of evolutions, were silhouetted black against the flaming heavens. We were a good mile away from the nearest string, but there was a wonderful stillness of the atmosphere; all nature seemed hushed, except for the birds—and the faint notes of their peculiar plaintive whistle told me instantly what they were.
“Why, Koenraad,” I said, “those are pelicans, and they’re just going down to water somewhere in the mountains! See, there they go!”
As I spoke the lower skein sank gently into the mountains, and presently chain after chain of the singular evolutionaries disappeared softly within the range, until the last bird had vanished, and the now fading sky lay clear and unflecked.
“Allemaghte!” ejaculated Du Plessis in his deepest tones; “those are pelicans surely, and they have gone down to water. Strange that I have never seen them there before. There is the vlei, sure enough! We will never rest now till we find it.”
We were up at dawn next morning, and as we breakfasted we saw with intense interest the pelicans rise from the heart of the mountain, slowly circle about the sky, and then stretch their flight, in their leisurely and majestic fashion, in our direction. As they quitted the mountain, they sank lower towards the flat country, and some of them were evidently about to pass right overhead.
“They’ll come over the wagons,” said Du Plessis; “they’re off for that big salt pan we passed yesterday morning.”
I dived into my wagon, and took down my rifle. An idea had struck me. I pushed a cartridge into the breech, and, as the great birds passed slowly a hundred yards overhead, took aim at one and fired. The target was a big and an easy one: the stricken bird toppled downwards, turning over and over in its fall, and presently hit the earth with a tremendous thud. One of the boys ran and brought it to me. I opened its bill. The pouch contained seven fresh fish—six smallish and carp-like, well-known to the Boers as karpers, the seventh a “yellow fish,” a barbel-like fish of a pound and a half.
“Here, Koenraad,” I said to my companion, “is proof positive that your mysterious vlei lies in the mountain and holds water. These fish are fresh—they were caught early this morning; and the birds are away to the salt pan for the day to eat and digest them.”
We finished breakfast hastily, and sallied forth on our search. First, we followed the tiny stream near which we were camped. This led us to the westerly side of the mountain, and manifestly took its rise in some marshy ground immediately beneath the rock walls. A careful examination convinced me that the marsh itself owed its origin to some subterraneous escape—very probably from the vlei itself—from within the mountains. But there was no hope of ingress in that direction. Pursuing our investigations, we rode carefully round the whole western and southern face of the mountain-wall, scanning closely every yard of its surface. This mountain-wall ran in a great semicircle; its dark-red, rampart-like cliffs were sheer, and wonderfully free from projections and undergrowth. We spent the whole day searching for any trace of path or ingress, and retired to our wagons for the evening completely discomfited. There was not foothold for the hardiest cliff climber that ever risked his life in search of wildfowl eggs.
Next morning, we followed this cliff face along the southerly aspect. Here, after a little way, it was met by another mass of mountains, into which it ran, terminating in a chimney-like cul-de-sac at the end of a short narrow gorge. Here, too, apparently, there was no possible approach upward or inward.
“It was here,” said Du Plessis, “that the spoor of my cousin was last seen. His servants tracked him to this spot, and from there no trace of him could be found. It’s a mystery I cannot fathom. He could not possibly have climbed this way.”
We looked up at the dark grim rock walls above us, narrowing so that a foot or two of pale blue sky could alone be seen, and the thing seemed an impossibility. No living man could have made his way up that terrible chimney.
Retracing our steps from this dark ravine, we tried in another direction. All the remainder of that day, and for four long days thereafter, we explored with infinite care and toil the mass of mountain on the south-east, east, and northern side of the place where, from the movements of the pelicans, the lost vlei apparently lay. We had to leave our horses behind on these expeditions; we toiled, climbed, descended, struggled, and fell, often at the risk of our necks and limbs, but were met everywhere by precipices and ravines which absolutely barred us in these directions. The mass of mountain, which trended away to the north-east for some miles, was, although much broken up, accessible with great labour, until we had approached within less than half a mile, as we reckoned, of the mysterious place we sought. Here, sheer and perfectly hopeless precipices shut us out, exactly as had been the case on the open part of the mountain we had first examined. It seemed clear that Verloren Vlei lay within a ring-fence of utterly inaccessible cliff wall.
On the fifth evening after our arrival, we lay wrapped in our sheepskin karosses by the fire, stiffened, sore, and thoroughly disheartened; and yet, evening after evening, just at the glorious time of sunset, the pelicans had come swinging over in their majestic hundreds from the south-east, had skeined and circled in the glowing sky, and had sunk into the heart of the mountain, and at dawn of day as regularly had they departed. The vlei must be there; it was heart-breaking to be baffled in this way.
I lay long that night in my wagon, thinking out some solution of the puzzle, until sleep at last overcame me. While I lay asleep, I had a very singular dream. I dreamed that I sat upon a high cliff of rock, looking down upon a fair lake of water, which lay girt in part by a sandy shore, and surrounded by a ring of mountains. It was sunset, and one end of this lake was white with pelicans. At other parts were gathered flocks of wild-duck, and round about flew bands of the swift desert sand-grouse—Namaqua partridge, as the colonists call them. And occasionally the flights of sand-grouse stooped in their pretty way and drank at the margin of the water. But I saw yet another sight in that singular valley. I saw a tall figure walking by the edge of the lake. Its back was towards me, and, for the life of me, I could not see its face. I gazed and gazed; but the face never turned; and then suddenly the scene vanished, and my dream was over. Again I dreamed, and again I saw the spreading water beneath me, and the wildfowl; but there were no pelicans and no sand-grouse. I saw, too, a figure walking along the shore. This time the figure was different. It was shorter, and the walk was brisker; but again the man’s back was towards me, and his face was hidden. And then, again, the dream faded, and I saw no more.
Next morning, Du Plessis and I sat at breakfast, still stiff and sore, yet in better heart. Our night’s sleep had restored our flagging spirits. We had agreed to rest after our five days of hard work, and have a quiet day at our camp. We were later this morning, and the last of the pelicans were vanishing for their day’s excursion as we sat down to breakfast I was surprised, therefore, as I looked towards the mountain, to see a string of wildfowl—evidently duck—circle a few times in the clear morning sky, and then drop down into the mountains again, exactly from where the pelicans sank and rose. I nudged Du Plessis, whose nose was in his coffee, and pointed. “Wild-duck!” he ejaculated—“the first time we have seen them, too. There is the vlei, truly enough.”
Half an hour later, about nine o’clock, flights of sand-grouse came overhead, and made straight for the heart of the mountain. More and more followed; there must have been many scores of them. They were the first we had seen at this camp.
My dream instantly came into my mind. I attached little importance to such things, yet the coincidence of the wildfowl and the sand-grouse was remarkable, and I told Du Plessis what I had dreamed. Quite in a chaffing way, I said: “We’re going to discover your vlei and its secret after all, Koenraad. Dreams do sometimes come true. I wonder, though, what on earth the two men’s figures could mean?”
Du Plessis was much more serious, and said with a solemn face: “It is not right to laugh at dreams, my friend; the Heer God sends them for some good reason, undoubtedly. I had nearly given this search up as hopeless. We must; yes, allemaghte! we must try again.”
We strolled after breakfast, taking our pipes with us, to the chimney-like cul-de-sac where Tobias Steenkamp’s footprints had been last seen, four years before. The place looked more than ever dark, narrow, and forbidding; and as we stood upon the sandy floor of the ravine and gazed upward to the faint patch of sky showing between the cliffs, two hundred feet above, the sharp contrast made it yet more awesome. For half an hour we looked about us, examining carefully every cranny and projection within our vision. Suddenly a boyish expedient of mine flashed into my mind. I had in my young days in Derbyshire ascended a steep and very narrow fissure in a cliff among my native dales, by copying faithfully the example of a sweep’s boy, whom I had watched climbing the great kitchen chimney. Why not make the attempt here? It looked a tremendous risk, but still it might be accomplished up in the far corner where the cliff-walls ran but a foot or two apart. I had hazarded my limbs many a time as a boy in search of birds’ nests: why not here in pursuit of this mystery which so strangely baffled us? I told my plan to Du Plessis; he evidently thought very little of it. However, as we strolled back to camp, I thought out and discussed my scheme, and, so far as I could, prepared for it in the afternoon. We had at the wagons a long coil of stout rope some one hundred and fifty feet in length. It seemed too short for my purpose, and I fastened to it, therefore, with the greatest care, another seventy feet of strong ox riems—halters of raw hide—carefully lashed one to the other. I thus had over two hundred feet of rope.
Next morning, after a long night’s rest, Du Plessis and I set off for the ravine, taking with us our most useful native servant, Andries, one of the drivers. I carried about my person some billtong (dried meat), matches, a revolver, hunting-knife, and a flask of brandy. Du Plessis was equipped (save for the revolver) in the same manner. Arrived at the extremity of the ravine, we threw down the rope, one end of which I attached to my waist I wore, as usual, only my flannel shirt and a pair of moleskin trousers, and upon my feet I had a pair of velschoens—Boer field-shoes, made of strong yet soft leather of home-tanned hide. These shoes were close-fitting, light, and pliable, and exactly suited my purpose.
I now made my way back to where a sort of ledge ran sloping upwards a little way towards the narrowest part of the ravine—at the end. I carefully climbed this, and found myself, as I had expected, some thirty feet on my way up, and now right in the narrowest extremity of the narrow gorge. At my back was the cliff wall; in front of me was the opposing wall, less than two feet away; on my right was the mass of rock ending the gorge, sometimes uneven and projecting a little, sometimes almost smooth; on my left hand was open space, where the gorge slowly widened out I looked upward in doubt, almost in dismay; I looked down upon Du Plessis’ serious face: it was no use waiting; I took one long breath and began the task. My plan was this: pressing my feet against the wall of rock in front, and planting my back hard against the cliff behind me, I gradually levered my way upwards. I made use of every inequality and jutting rock that could aid me, and occasionally obtained an excellent rest from bits of rock on my right, upon which I could lean, and thus relieve the tension. I worked my way as rapidly as possible, knowing how the strain must tell upon my legs, and, as far as half-way, or a little beyond, progressed better and more speedily than I could have hoped. Now, the labour began to tell more hardly as every ten seconds passed. I was in good sound fettle; I had always been a “stayer”; and my wind was in capital order; but my breath now began to come with difficulty, the sweat was pouring from me, my shirt was ripping off my back, and, worst of all, my legs were failing me. At three-fourths of the distance—about one hundred and fifty feet up—I noticed a projecting rock on the right. I worked up to this with infinite difficulty, and then, leaning my right arm and as much of my body over as possible, I rested for full three minutes. I was now, as I well recognised, in a very serious plight. There were yet fifty more feet of cliff to climb. I had already undergone what seemed superhuman labour, and my muscles were relaxing, my strength and wind were ebbing. To return was as perilous as to go on; to fall meant a shocking death I took out my brandy flask, drained it to the last drop, uttered within myself a half-prayer to a God I had long neglected, hitched up my belt and trousers, and struggled on. If I live to a hundred, I never can forget the terrible nightmare of that last fifty feet. But for the brandy, that put new if fleeting energy into me—it was Three Star, luckily, and I believe it saved my life—I should never have succeeded. I most heartily wished I had never seen Du Plessis, never started on this accursed trip, never offered to risk my life. I struggled on, growing weaker and slower. Once I slipped three or four good feet, and only saved myself by some miraculous luck! The sharp wall behind me laid a deep furrow into my back as I did so, and I felt the warm blood issuing forth and mingling with the sweat that ran from me.
Once more I set my teeth for the last twenty feet. I recovered my ground, and foot by foot fought my way on. The muscles of my legs quivered like aspen leaves; I feared they would give way each moment. At last—I hardly know how—I found my face above the cliff; the sweet outer air met me; I gave a last struggle, got foothold on the right, flung myself forward, and lay upon the cliff top with my feet still projecting over the edge. I remember hearing a faint shout from far beneath me, and then all swam.
When I came to, I suppose I had lain senseless for a quarter of an hour. I was in sorry plight indeed. I was stiff, sore, bleeding from my back, and the poor remnant of my shirt hung in front of me. I staggered to my feet and looked about me. A glance showed me that there were yet difficulties to be overcome before we could descend to the vlei, yet they were not insuperable. The chiefest of them lay in a sharp saddle-back of rock, sheer on either side, which had to be crossed somehow before the main mass of the inner ring of mountain could be attained. But my strength was coming back to me; a sense of triumph and elation over the dreadful task I had conquered rose in my breast; and my determination to pierce the secret of the valley was stronger than ever.
Here and there upon the cliff top grew some wild olive trees, stunted and dwarfed, but strong. To one of these I fastened the end of the rope I had brought up with me. I now approached the edge, lay down, and looked over. Du Plessis was there, gazing anxiously upward. I shook the rope and shouted to him to come up. We had agreed upon this plan, if I succeeded; and he now fastened the lower end of the rope round his waist and began his climb. With the help of the rope it was comparatively easy work. The Dutchman was strong in the arms and active, and came steadily on. Occasionally he unbound the rope, and refastened it at a higher point to his waist, as an insurance against falls. In fifteen minutes he was up beside me. Even his journey had been no light one. He, too, streamed with perspiration; his limbs trembled, and he flung himself to the ground to gather breath and rest.
“Maghte! Fairmount,” he gasped as soon as he had recovered a little breath, “you must have got up by a miracle. Even with that rope, I don’t think I would care to climb the cliff again. ’Tis a job only fit for a klipspringer (a small and very active mountain antelope), not a man!”
We rested full twenty minutes, smoked a pipe of tobacco, and then set about completing the rest of our task. The sharp saddle-back, a bridge of rock which crossed another deep ravine between us and the inner mountain, looked excessively nasty. In some places it was as much as four feet wide; in others it narrowed to as little as two. There were about forty yards of it; and in portions the surface was rugged and sharp.
“Come along, Du Plessis,” I said; “the sooner we’re over the better. The rest seems easy enough.”
The broader part of the bridge came first, and admitted of walking for ten yards. Then it narrowed. I went down upon all-fours, and crawled. It was nerve-shaking work; for the bridge fell away sheer on either side, and the drop of nearly two hundred feet meant a horrible death. In the middle of the bridge the space was too narrow even for crawling; it was necessary to sit astride, and so fudge one’s way along for ten or twelve yards. At last the broader part came again, and in five yards more the solid mountain top and safety were achieved. Du Plessis had followed close behind, imitating carefully my tactics. As we stood up upon safe ground again, I noticed that he was deadly pale. He shook his head, as he looked at me ruefully, and wrung the sweat from his brow. “Man!” he said, “if I had not been shamed into following you, I never would have come across that place, no, not for a thousand Verloren Vleis. You are unmarried and a little foolhardy. I am married, and have a wife and six children pulling at my jacket. I didn’t bargain for these adventures; they are only fit for baboons.”
“Come on, Koenraad,” I replied, laughing. “It’s a nasty crossing, I own; but it’s all plain sailing now, apparently.”
We went on over the mountain for twenty minutes; then came a shallow kloof, thickly bushed at bottom; then another ascent, a rough walk of another half-hour; and then, clearing some more bush and low scrub that grew here upon the mountain top, we came suddenly upon an enchanting scene. “The vlei!” we exclaimed in a burst together, then stood and gasped in very pleasure and bewilderment.
Right below us, ringed in by a perfect amphitheatre of mountain, lay an oval sheet of water, its smooth surface, unruffled by a flaw of wind, shining beneath the ardent sunlight like the mirror of a giantess. This vlei—the long-lost vlei, undoubtedly—was about half a mile long by three hundred yards in breadth. Here and there upon the placid water floated troops of wildfowl; and high in the air hung a fishing-eagle or two, keenly intent upon sport beneath. Immediately below us, the lake seemed deep; but towards the far end, it evidently shallowed, and upon one side of that end grew dense masses of reeds. The shores, save where the reed-beds grew, were in places sandy; elsewhere, of rock. Between the water and the mountain sides, which sloped easily downward, and were well bushed, was an outer ring of reddish soil, masked by a park-like growth of scattered acacia thorns. It was now the month of August, and getting towards African spring-time, and, favoured doubtless by the neighbourhood of the vlei, the acacias were already putting forth a pleasant bravery of green leafage. Birds—many of them of brilliant plumage—were in plenty about this gem-like spot. It seemed that here in this secret place Nature had done her utmost to atone for much of the drought and hardship that at this season lay in the wilderness outside.
For five minutes we stood gazing with a sense of rapture at this goodly scene. We looked keenly hither and thither, but could discern no trace of human existence. Then we descended. We reached the water without great difficulty; upon its margin we lay down and drank long and eagerly. Having thus refreshed ourselves, and eaten some of the little store of food we had brought with us, we set out to explore the vlei thoroughly. The chief thing in our minds was to ascertain the fate of Tobias Steenkamp, whether living or dead. And first we settled to search systematically the side upon which we stood. We looked carefully for traces of spoor, yard by yard along the sand fringing the water. Not a footprint could we discover. Once or twice we came across the tracks of klipspringers and leopards, but no sign of human life was there. We turned back, and searched among the groves of thorny acacia, now fragrant with the strong scent of the rich sweet blossoms, but with the same ill success. It was now late in the afternoon; we passed round the end of the vlei, skirted the reed-bed, and then came upon more rocky formation. It was here that I first convinced myself of the gold-bearing richness of the valley. In a crevice of rock, time-worn by long ages of water-wear and decay, I picked up three smallish nuggets. I am afraid this success rather threw us off the search for Tobias Steenkamp, of which we had already begun to despair. Several times during the day we had raised our voices and hallooed loudly, in faint hopes of an answer. The cliffs eagerly returned us echo after echo, but there was nought else. For the rest of the short afternoon time we scrambled about the rocks, peering into crannies and basins. We had fair success, and by evening had between us gathered some fourteen ounces of gold, all in nuggets.
It was now sundown; already the pelicans had arrived, and were sailing about the sky in marvellous intricacies; the light was going fast, and we must prepare to camp for the night. We had told our men at the wagons not to expect us till next day; they would be therefore under no anxiety. We picked a place not far from the water, where the view was open, and danger from the approach of night ferae minimised. We chose a smooth sandy spot under a wall of rock. In front we made two good fires, and then, having eaten a scant supper, we sat smoking and talking beneath the warm starlight. It was about nine o’clock; we were both becoming drowsy, when Du Plessis suddenly sat bolt upright and listened breathlessly. “Did you hear that?” he whispered in a low, intense voice. “No,” I said, sinking my voice too, for the man’s strange demeanour rather awed me.
“I heard a man groan—or a spook,” he said.
Now, I am not a believer in spooks at any time; yet it was a wild, eerie place, and the senses of these Boer hunters are so preternaturally quickened by long acquaintance with savage life, that I knew Koenraad must have heard something.
I listened intently, and again we both heard a faint groan, as of a man in pain.
“Allemaghte!” whispered Du Plessis, “what, in the name of the Heer God, can it be?” A moment later he clutched me by the arm, and pointing with his right hand, whispered fiercely: “Look! look!”
The moon was now up and shining brightly, and the valley had passed from the dimness of the starlight. I looked where the Boer was pointing, and saw something that sent a shiver down my back. Certainly there was a shapeless something crawling slowly towards the water on our left front, one hundred and fifty yards away. Again came the faint groan we had heard.
“This is bosh,” I said. “It’s a man, undoubtedly, and he’s in pain. It may be your cousin. Come and look.” I sprang to my feet, picked up my revolver, and started off. Du Plessis pulled himself together—he had need, for he was a firm believer in spooks—and followed closely. We approached the creeping thing—it looked more like a man. I hailed it, and again a low groan came. We reached the dark object. It was a man, or the remains of one, emaciated, half-clad in tattered rags; and it crawled upon all-fours, dragging one leg. It was not a Boer—not Tobias Steenkamp. In a flash it came into my mind that here was the second figure, of my strange dream.
“Who are you?” I said.
“Water, for God’s sake!” was all the poor wretch could utter. I ran to the water, filled the top of my felt hat, and came back. The tattered figure drank eagerly.
“Come, Du Plessis,” I said; “let’s carry him up to the camp-fire.”
We picked the poor framework up, and carried it to the fire; it weighed, I suppose, about five stone. Then we got out Du Plessis’ flask, poured out some brandy, mashed up some biscuit and water with it, and administered the mess out of the flask cup. The brandy seemed to revive the poor creature. We gave him a piece of biltong to suck, and at last he spoke.
“I know your face,” he said, looking at me; “don’t you remember Spanish Jack?”
Of course I remembered Spanish Jack, a well-known prospector in the Eastern Transvaal some few years before. Three parts English, one part Spanish, he was one of those restless pioneers who move, Uhlan-like, before the main body of the gold-diggers, always on the hunt for new finds. Looking at the poor death’s-head before me, I could only recognise, in the dark, cavernous eyes and the mass of tangled black hair, the faintest traces of the strong, restless, dare-devil prospector known as Spanish Jack.
“How did you come here?” I queried, and in the same instant, “What’s become of Tobias Steenkamp?” asked Du Plessis in Dutch.
“Give me a drop more brandy,” answered the man in a hoarse whisper, “and I’ll tell you.”
We gave him part of our small remaining stock, with some water, and he went on, speaking, however, with great difficulty.
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