Chapter 34 - History and Adventures of a Cape Farmer and his Family by Mayne Reid

A helpless beast.

“What was to be done? How was I to avoid both enemies? If I leaped down, the wildebeest would kill me to a certainty. He was still there, with his fierce eye bent upon me continually. If I remained where I was, I would soon be covered with the swarming hideous insects, and eaten up like an old rag.

“Already I felt their terrible teeth. Those that had first crawled to my feet I had endeavoured to brush off; but some had got upon my ankles, and were biting me through my thick woollen socks! My clothes would be no protection.

“I had mounted to the highest part of the cone, and was standing upon its apex. It was so sharp I could scarcely balance myself, but the painful stings of the insects caused me to dance upon it like a mountebank.

“But what signified those, that had already stung my ankles, to the numbers that were likely soon to pierce me with their venomous darts? Already these were swarming up the last terrace. They would soon cover the apex of the cone upon which I was standing. They would crawl up my limbs in myriads—they would—

“I could reflect no longer on what they would do. I preferred taking my chance with the wildebeest. I would leap down. Perhaps some lucky accident might aid me. I would battle with the gnoo, using my gun. Perhaps I might succeed in escaping to some other hill. Perhaps—

“I was actually on the spring to leap down, when a new thought came into my mind; and I wondered I had been so silly as not to think of it before. What was to hinder me from keeping off the termites? They had no wings—the soldiers have none—nor the workers neither, for that matter. They could not fly upon me. They could only crawl up the cone. With my jacket I could brush them back. Certainly I could—why did I not think of it before?

“I was not long in taking off my jacket. I laid aside my useless gun, dropping it upon one of the lower terraces. I caught the jacket by the collar; and, using it as a duster, I cleared the sides of the cone in a few moments, having sent thousands of the termites tumbling headlong below.

“Pshaw! how simply the thing was done! why had I not done it before? It cost scarcely an effort to brush the myriads away, and a slight effort would keep them off as long as I pleased.

“The only annoyance I felt now was from the few that had got under my trousers, and that still continued to bite me; but these I would get rid of in time.

“Well—I remained on the apex, now bending down to beat back the soldiers that still swarmed upward, and then occupying myself in trying to get rid of the few that crawled upon me. I felt no longer any uneasiness on the score of the insects—though I was not a bit better off as regarded the bull, who still kept guard below. I fancied, however, that he now showed symptoms of weariness, and would soon raise the siege; and this prospect made me feel more cheerful.

“A sudden change came over me. A new thrill of terror awaited me.

“While jumping about upon the top of the cone, my footing suddenly gave way—the baked clay broke with a dead crash, and I sank through the roof. My feet shot down into the hollow dome—till I thought I must have crushed the great queen in her chamber—and I stood buried to the neck.

“I was surprised, and a little terrified, not by the shock I had experienced in the sudden descent. That was natural enough, and a few moments would have restored my equanimity; but it was something else that frightened me. It was something that moved under my feet as they touched bottom,—something that moved and heaved under them, and then passed quickly away, letting me still farther down!

“What could it be? Was it the great swarm of living ants that I pressed upon: I did not think it was. It did not feel like them. It seemed to be something bulky and strong, for it held up my whole weight for a moment or two, before it slipped from under me.

“Whatever it was, it frightened me very considerably; and I did not leave my feet in its company for five seconds time. No: the hottest furnace would scarce have scorched them during the time they remained inside the dark dome. In five seconds they were on the walls again—on the broken edges, where I had mounted up, and where I now stood quite speechless with surprise!

“What next? I could keep the ants off no longer. I gazed down the dark cavity; they were swarming up that way in thick crowds. I could brush them down no more.

“My eyes at this moment chanced to wander to the bull. He was standing at three or four paces distance from the base of the hill. He was standing sideways with his head turned to it, and regarding it with a wild look. His attitude was entirely changed, and so, I thought, was the expression of his eye. He looked as if he had just run off to his new position, and was ready to make a second start. He looked as if something had also terrified him!

“Something evidently had; for, in another moment, he uttered a sharp rout, galloped several paces farther out, wheeled again, halted, and stood gazing as before!

“What could it mean? Was it the breaking through of the roof and my sudden descent that had frightened him?

“At first I thought so, but I observed that he did not look upward to the top. His gaze seemed bent on some object near the base of the hill—though from where I stood I could see nothing there to frighten him.

“I had not time to reflect what it could be, before the bull uttered a fresh snort; and, raising his tail high into the air, struck off at full gallop over the plain!

“Rejoiced at seeing this, I thought no more of what had relieved me of his company. It must have been my curious fall, I concluded; but no matter now that the brute was gone. So seizing hold of my gun, I prepared to descend from the elevated position, of which I was thoroughly tired.

“Just as I had got half down the side, I chanced to look below; and there was the object that terrified the old bull. No wonder. It might have terrified anything,—the odd-looking creature that it was. From out a hole in the clay wall protruded a long naked cylindrical snout, mounted by a pair of ears nearly as long as itself, that stood erect like the horns of a steinbuck, and gave to the animal that bore them a wild and vicious look. It would have badly frightened me, had I not known what it was; but I recognised it at once as one of the most inoffensive creatures in the world—the ‘aard-vark.’

“His appearance accounted for the retreat of the bull, and also explained why the ants had been crawling about on my first reaching their hill.

“Without saying a word, or making the slightest noise, I clubbed my gun; and, bending downward, struck the protruded snout a blow with the butt. It was a most wicked blow; and, considering the service the creature had just done me in frightening off the wildebeest, a most ungrateful return. But I was not master of my feelings at the moment. I did not reflect—only that I liked aard-vark flesh—and the blow was given.

“Poor fellow! It did the job for him. With scarce a kick he dropped dead in the opening he had scraped with his own claws.

“Well—my day’s adventures were not yet ended. They seemed as though they were never to end. I had got the aard-vark over my shoulders, and was about heading homeward, when, to my astonishment, I observed that the bull-gnoo—not the one that had besieged me, but his late antagonist—was still out upon the plain where I had last seen him! I observed, moreover, that he was still in a sort of half-lying half-kneeling attitude, with his head close to the ground!

“His odd movements seemed stranger than anything else. I fancied he had been badly hurt by the other, and was not able to get away.

“At first I was cautious about going near him—remembering my late narrow escape—and I thought of giving him a wide berth, and leaving him alone. Even though wounded, he might be strong enough to charge upon me; and my empty gun, as I had already proved, would be but a poor weapon with which to defend myself.

“I hesitated about going near him; but curiosity grew strong within me, as I watched his queer manoeuvres; until at length I walked up within a dozen yards of where he was kneeling.

“Fancy my surprise on discovering the cause of his oblique movements. No hurt had he received of any kind—not even a scratch; but for all that, he was as completely crippled as if he had lost his best pair of legs.

“In a very singular manner was he rendered thus helpless. In his struggle with the other bull, one of his fore-legs had, somehow or other, got passed over his horn; and there it stuck—not only depriving him of the use of the limb itself, but holding his head so close to the ground that he was quite unable to stir from the spot!

“At first I designed helping him out of his difficulty, and letting him go. On second thoughts, I remembered the story of the husbandman and the frozen snake, which quite changed my intention.

“I next thought of killing him for venison; but having no bullet, I did not like to beat him to death with my gun. Besides the aard-vark was my load to camp, and I knew that the jackals would eat the bull up before we could go back for him. I thought it probable he would be safer left as he was—as these ravenous brutes, seeing him alive, might not so readily approach him.

“So I left him with his ‘head under his arm,’ in hopes that we may find him there to-morrow.”

So ended Hans’s narrative of his day’s adventures.