Chapter 16 - History and Adventures of a Cape Farmer and his Family by Mayne Reid

The terrible “Tsetse.”

The verdant carpet that stretched away around them—the green leaves upon the trees—the flowers by the fountain—the crystal water in its bed—the black bold rocks towering up at a distance—all combined to make a lovely picture. The eyes of the wayfarers were glad as they beheld it; and while the wagon was outspanning, every one gave utterance to their delightful emotions.

The place seemed to please every one. Hans loved its quiet and sylvan beauty. It was just such a place as he would choose to ramble in, book in hand, and dream away many a pleasant hour. Hendrik liked it much, because he had already observed what he termed “extensive spoor” about the spot: in other words, he had noticed the tracks of many of Africa’s largest wild animals.

Little Trüey was delighted to see so many beautiful flowers. There were bright scarlet geraniums, and starlike sweet-scented jessamines, and the gorgeous belladonna lily, with its large blossoms of rose-colour and white; and there were not only plants in flower, but bushes, and even trees, covered with gaudy and sweetly-perfumed blossoms. There was the “sugar-bush” (Protea mellifera), the most beautiful of its family, with its large cup-shaped corollas of pink, white, and green; and there, too, was the “silver-tree” (Leucodendron argenteum), whose soft silvery leaves playing in the breeze, looked like a huge mass of silken flowers; and there were the mimosas covered with blossoms of golden yellow that filled the air with their strong and agreeable perfume.

Rare forms of vegetation were around or near at hand: the arborescent aloes, with their tall flower-spikes of coral red, and euphorbias of many shapes; and zamia, with its palm-like fronds; and the soft-leaved Strelitzia reginae. All these were observed in the neighbourhood of this new-discovered fountain.

But what received little Trüey’s admiration more than any other was the beautiful blue waterlily (Nympha caerulea), which is certainly one of the loveliest of Africa’s flowers. Close by the spring, but a little farther in the direction of the plain, was a vley, or pool—in fact, it might have been termed a small lake—and upon the quiet bosom of its water the sky-blue corollas lay sleeping in all their gorgeous beauty.

Trüey, leading her little pet in a string, had gone down on the bank to look at them. She thought she could never cease gazing at such pretty things.

“I hope papa will stay here a long time,” she said to her companion, little Jan.

“And I hope so too. Oh! Trüey, what a fine tree yon is! Look! nuts as big as my head, I declare. Bless me, sis! how are we to knock some, of them down?”

And so the children conversed, both delighted with the new scenes around them.

Although all the young people were inclined to be happy, yet they were checked in their expression of it, by observing that there was a cloud on the brow of their father. He had seated himself under the great tree, but his eyes were upon the ground, as though he were busy with painful reflections. All of them noticed this.

His reflections were, indeed, painful—they could not well have been otherwise. There was but one course left for him—to return to the settlements, and begin life anew. But how to begin it? What could he do? His property all gone, he could only serve some of his richer neighbours; and for one accustomed all his life to independence, this would be hard indeed.

He looked towards his five horses, now eagerly cropping the luxuriant grass that grew under the shadow of the cliffs. When would they be ready to trek back again? In three or four days he might start. Fine animals, most of them were—they would carry the wagon lightly enough.

So ran the reflections of the field-cornet. He little thought at the moment that those horses would never draw wagon more, nor any other vehicle. He little thought that those five noble brutes were doomed!

Yet so it was. In less than a week from that time, the jackals and hyenas were quarrelling over their bones. Even at that very moment, whilst he watched them browsing, the poison was entering their veins, and their death-wounds were being inflicted. Alas! alas! another blow awaited Von Bloom.

The field-cornet had noticed, now and again, that the horses seemed uneasy as they fed. At times they started suddenly, whisked their long tails, and rubbed their heads against the bushes.

“Some fly is troubling them,” thought he, and had no more uneasiness about the matter.

It was just that—just a fly that was troubling them. Had Von Bloom known what that fly was, he would have felt a very different concern about his horses. Had he known the nature of that little fly, he would have rushed up with all his boys, caught the horses in the greatest hurry, and led them far away from those dark cliffs. But he knew not the “tsetse” fly.

It still wanted some minutes of sunset, and the horses were permitted to browse freely, but Von Bloom observed that they were every moment getting more excited—now striking their hoofs upon the turf,—now running a length or two—and at intervals snorting angrily. At the distance they were off—a quarter of a mile or so—Von Bloom could see nothing of what was disturbing them; but their odd behaviour at length induced him to walk up to where they were. Hans and Hendrik went along with him. When they arrived near the spot, they were astonished at what they then beheld. Each horse seemed to be encompassed by a swarm of bees!

They saw, however, they were not bees, but insects somewhat smaller, of a brown colour, resembling gad-flies, and exceedingly active in their flight. Thousands of them hovered above each horse, and hundreds could be seen lighting upon the heads, necks, bodies, and legs of the animals,—in fact, all over them. They were evidently either biting or stinging them. No wonder the poor brutes were annoyed.

Von Bloom suggested that they should drive the horses farther out into the plain, where these flies did not seem to haunt. He was only concerned about the annoyance which the horses received from them. Hendrik also pitied their sufferings; but Hans, alone of all the three, guessed at the truth. He had read of a fatal insect that frequented some districts in the interior of South Africa, and the first sight of these flies aroused his suspicions that it might be they.

He communicated his thoughts to the others, who at once shared his alarm.

“Call Swartboy hither!” said Von Bloom.

The Bushman was called, and soon made his appearance, coming up from the spring. He had for the last hour been engaged in unpacking the wagon, and had taken no notice of the horses or the interest they were exciting.

As soon, however, as he got near, and saw the winged swarm whirring around the horses, his small eyes opened to their widest extent, his thick lips fell, and his whole face yielded itself to an expression of amazement and alarm.

“What is it, Swart?” inquired his master.

“Mein baas! mein baas! der duyvel um da—dar skellum is da ‘tsetse!’”

“And what if it be the tsetse?”

“Mein baas!—all dead—dead—ebery horse!”

Swartboy then proceeded to explain, with a loud and continuous “clicking,” that the fly which they saw was fatal in its bite, that the horses would surely die—sooner or later, according to the number of stings they had already received; but, from the swarm of insects around them, the Bushman had no doubt they had been badly stung and a single week would see all five of the horses dead.

“Wait, mein baas—morrow show.” And to-morrow did show; for before twelve o’clock on the next day, the horses were swollen all over their bodies and about their heads. Their eyes were quite closed up; they refused any longer to eat, but staggered blindly among the luxuriant grass, every now and then expressing the pain they felt by a low melancholy whimpering. It was plain to every one they were going to die.

Von Bloom tried bleeding, and various other remedies; but to no purpose. There is no cure for the bite of the tsetse fly!