Chapter 5 - History and Adventures of a Cape Farmer and his Family by Mayne Reid

The Locust-Flight.

The field-cornet slept but little. Anxiety kept him awake. He turned and tossed, and thought of the locusts. He napped at intervals, and dreamt about locusts, and crickets, and grasshoppers, and all manner of great long-legged, goggle-eyed insects. He was glad when the first ray of light penetrated through the little window of his chamber.

He sprang to his feet; and, scarce staying to dress himself, rushed out into the open air. It was still dark, but he did not require to see the wind. He did not need to toss a feather or hold up his hat. The truth was too plain. A strong breeze was blowing—it was blowing from the west!

Half distracted, he ran farther out to assure himself. He ran until clear of the walls that enclosed the kraals and garden.

He halted and felt the air. Alas! his first impression was correct. The breeze blew directly from the west—directly from the locusts. He could perceive the effluvium borne from the hateful insects: there was no longer cause to doubt.

Groaning in spirit, Von Bloom returned to his house. He had no longer any hope of escaping the terrible visitation.

His first directions were to collect all the loose pieces of linen or clothing in the house, and pack them within the family chests. What! would the locusts be likely to eat them?

Indeed, yes—for these voracious creatures are not fastidious. No particular vegetable seems to be chosen by them. The leaves of the bitter tobacco plant appear to be as much to their liking as the sweet and succulent blades of maize! Pieces of linen, cotton, and even flannel, are devoured by them, as though they were the tender shoots of plants. Stones, iron, and hard wood, are about the only objects that escape their fierce masticators.

Von Bloom had heard this. Hans had read of it, and Swartboy confirmed it from his own experience.

Consequently, everything that was at all destructible was carefully stowed away; and then breakfast was cooked and eaten in silence.

There was a gloom over the faces of all, because he who was the head of all was silent and dejected. What a change within a few hours! But the evening before the field-cornet and his little family were in the full enjoyment of happiness.

There was still one hope, though a slight one. Might it yet rain? Or might the day turn out cold?

In either case Swartboy said the locusts could not take wing—for they cannot fly in cold or rainy weather. In the event of a cold or wet day they would have to remain as they were, and perhaps the wind might change round again before they resumed their flight. Oh, for a torrent of rain, or a cold cloudy day!

Vain wish! vain hope! In half-an-hour after the sun rose up in African splendour, and his hot rays, slanting down upon the sleeping host, warmed them into life and activity. They commenced to crawl, to hop about, and then, as if by one impulse, myriads rose into the air. The breeze impelled them in the direction in which it was blowing,—in the direction of the devoted maize-fields.

In less than five minutes, from the time they had taken wing, they were over the kraal, and dropping in tens of thousands upon the surrounding fields. Slow was their flight, and gentle their descent, and to the eyes of those beneath they presented the appearance of a shower of black snow, falling in large feathery flakes. In a few moments the ground was completely covered, until every stalk of maize, every plant and bush, carried its hundreds. On the outer plains too, as far as eye could see, the pasture was strewed thickly; and as the great flight had now passed to the eastward of the house, the sun’s disk was again hidden by them as if by an eclipse!

They seemed to move in a kind of echellon, the bands in the rear constantly flying to the front, and then halting to feed, until in turn these were headed by others that had advanced over them in a similar manner.

The noise produced by their wings was not the least curious phenomenon; and resembled a steady breeze playing among the leaves of the forest, or the sound of a water-wheel.

For two hours this passage continued. During most of that time, Von Bloom and his people had remained within the house, with closed doors and windows. This they did to avoid the unpleasant shower, as the creatures impelled by the breeze, often strike the cheek so forcibly as to cause a feeling of pain. Moreover, they did not like treading upon the unwelcome intruders, and crushing them under their feet, which they must have done, had they moved about outside where the ground was thickly covered.

Many of the insects even crawled inside, through the chinks of the door and windows, and greedily devoured any vegetable substance which happened to be lying about the floor.

At the end of two hours Von Bloom looked forth. The thickest of the flight had passed. The sun was again shining; but upon what was he shining? No longer upon green fields and a flowery garden. No. Around the house, on every side, north, south, east, and west, the eye rested only on black desolation. Not a blade of grass, not a leaf could be seen—even the very bark was stripped from the trees, that now stood as if withered by the hand of God! Had fire swept the surface, it could not have left it more naked and desolate. There was no garden, there were no fields of maize or buckwheat, there was no longer a farm—the kraal stood in the midst of a desert!

Words cannot depict the emotions of the field-cornet at that moment. The pen cannot describe his painful feelings.

Such a change in two hours! He could scarce credit his senses—he could scarce believe in its reality. He knew that the locusts would eat up his maize, and his wheat, and the vegetables of his garden; but his fancy had fallen far short of the extreme desolation that had actually been produced. The whole landscape was metamorphosed—grass was out of the question—trees, whose delicate foliage had played in the soft breeze but two short hours before, now stood leafless, scathed by worse than winter. The very ground seemed altered in shape! He would not have known it as his own farm. Most certainly had the owner been absent during the period of the locust-flight, and approached without any information of what had been passing, he would not have recognised the place of his own habitation!

With the phlegm peculiar to his race, the field-cornet sat down, and remained for a long time without speech or movement.

His children gathered near, and looked on—their young hearts painfully throbbing. They could not fully appreciate the difficult circumstances in which this occurrence had placed them; nor did their father himself at first. He thought only of the loss he had sustained, in the destruction of his fine crops; and this of itself, when we consider his isolated situation, and the hopelessness of restoring them, was enough to cause him very great chagrin.

“Gone! all gone!” he exclaimed, in a sorrowing voice. “Oh! Fortune—Fortune—again art thou cruel!”

“Papa! do not grieve,” said a soft voice; “we are all alive yet, we are here by your side;” and with the words a little white hand was laid upon his shoulder. It was the hand of the beautiful Trüey.

It seemed as if an angel had smiled upon him. He lifted the child in his arms, and in a paroxysm of fondness pressed her to his heart. That heart felt relieved.

“Bring me the Book,” said he, addressing one of the boys.

The Bible was brought—its massive covers were opened—a verse was chosen—and the song of praise rose up in the midst of the desert.

The Book was closed; and for some minutes all knelt in prayer.

When Von Bloom again stood upon his feet, and looked around him, the desert seemed once more to “rejoice and blossom as the rose.”

Upon the human heart such is the magic influence of resignation and humility.