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Chapter 45 - History and Adventures of a Cape Farmer and his Family by Mayne Reid

The Serpent-Eater

Jan’s danger was imminent. He was rushing impetuously forward upon the coiled serpent. He knew not that it was before him. No warning would reach him in time to stay his haste. In another moment he would be on the narrow path, and then no power could save him from the deadly bite. It would be impossible for him to leap aside or over the reptile, as the antelope had done; for even then Trüey had noticed that the cobra had darted its long neck several feet upwards. It would be certain to reach little Jan, perhaps, coil itself around him. Jan would be lost!

For some moments Trüey was speechless. Terror had robbed her of the power of speech. She could only scream, and fling her arms wildly about.

But these demonstrations, instead of warning Jan of the danger, only rendered it the more certain. He connected the cries which Trüey now uttered with that which had first summoned him. She was in some trouble—he knew not what; but as she continued to scream, he believed that something had attacked her. A snake he thought it might be; but whatever it was, his first impulse was to hurry up to her rescue. He could do no good until close to her; and, therefore, he did not think of halting until he should reach the spot where she stood.

Her screams, therefore, and the wild gestures that accompanied them, only caused him to run the faster; and as his eyes were bent anxiously on Trüey, there was not the slightest hope that he would perceive the serpent until he had either trodden upon it, or felt its fatal bite.

Trüey uttered one last cry of warning, pronouncing at the same time the words:—

“O, brother! back! The snake! the snake!”

The words were uttered in vain. Jan heard them, but did not comprehend their meaning. He heard the word “snake.” He was expecting as much; it had attacked Trüey; and although he did not see it, it was no doubt wound about her body. He hurried on.

Already he was within six paces of the dread reptile, that had erected its long spread neck to receive him. Another moment, and its envenomed fangs would pierce deep into his flesh.

With a despairing scream Trüey rushed forward. She hoped to attract the monster upon herself. She would risk her own life to save that of her brother!

She had got within six feet of the threatening reptile. Jan was about the same distance from it on the opposite side. They were equally in peril; and one or the other—perhaps both—would have fallen a sacrifice to the deadly cobra; but at that moment their saviour was nigh. A dark shadow passed under their eyes—in their ears was a rushing sound like the “whish” of a falling body—and at the same instant a large bird darted down between them!

It did not stay to alight. For a moment its strong broad wings agitated the air in their faces; but the next moment the bird made a sudden effort, and rose vertically upwards.

Trüey’s eyes fell upon the ground. The cobra was no longer there.

With an exclamation of joy she sprang forward, and, throwing her arms around Jan, cried out,—

“We are saved, brother!—we are saved!”

Jan was somewhat bewildered. As yet he had seen no snake. He had seen the bird dart down between them; but so adroitly had it seized the cobra and carried it off, that Jan, looking only at Trüey, had not perceived the serpent in its beak. He was bewildered and terrified, for he still fancied that Trüey was in danger.

When he heard her exclaim, “We are saved!” he was bewildered all the more.

“But the snake!” he cried out. “Where is the snake?”

As he put these questions, he kept examining Trüey from head to foot, as if expecting to see a reptile twined around some part of her body.

“The snake, Jan! Did you not see it? It was just there, at our feet; but now—see! yonder it is. The secretary has got it. See! They are fighting! Good bird! I hope it will punish the villain for trying to rob my pretty weavers. That’s it, good bird! Give it to him! See, Jan! What a fight!”

“Oh, ah!” said Jan, now comprehending the situation. “Oh, ah! Sure yonder is a snake, and a whopper, too. Ne’er fear, Trüey! Trust my secretary. He’ll give the rascal a taste of his claws. There’s a lick well put in! Another touch like that, and there won’t be much life left in the scaly villain. There again,—wop!”

With these and similar exclamations the two children stood watching the fierce conflict that raged between the bird and the reptile.

Now this bird was a very peculiar one—so much so, that in all the world there is no other of the same kind. In form it resembled a crane, having very long legs, and being about the height and size of a crane. Its head and beak, however, were more like those of an eagle or vulture. It had well-developed wings, armed with spurs, and a very long tail, with the two middle feathers longer than the rest. Its general colour was bluish grey, with a white throat and breast, and a reddish tinge upon the wing-feathers. But, perhaps, the most remarkable thing about the bird was its “crest.” This consisted of a number of long, blackish plumes growing out of its occiput, and extending down the back of its neck nearly to the shoulders. These gave the bird a very peculiar appearance; and the fancied resemblance to a secretary of the olden time with his long quill behind his ear—before steel pens came into fashion—is the reason why the bird has received the very inappropriate name of the “Secretary-bird.”

It is more properly named the “serpent-eater,” and naturalists have given it the title Gypogeranus, or “crane-vulture.” It is sometimes also called “the messenger,” from the staid solemn manner of its walk, as it stalks over the plain.

Of all its names that of “serpent-eater” is the best adapted to the character of the bird. It is true there are other birds that kill and eat serpents,—as the “guaco” bird of South America, and many hawks and kites,—but the secretary is the only winged creature that makes reptiles of this class exclusively its prey, and carries on a constant war against them. It is not strictly correct to say that it feeds exclusively upon snakes. It will also eat lizards, tortoises, and even locusts; but snakes are certainly its favourite food, and to obtain these it risks its life in many a deadly encounter with those of a very large kind. The serpent-eater is an African bird, and is not peculiar to South Africa alone, as it is found in the Gambia country. It is also a native of the Philippine Isles. There is some doubt whether the species of the Philippine Isles is identical with that of Africa. A difference is noted in the plumage, though very slight. The disposition of the crest-plumes differs in the two, and the tail-feathers are differently arranged. In the African species the two middle ones are the longest, while in the serpent-eater of the Philippines it is the two outside feathers that project—giving the bird the appearance of having a “fork” or “swallow” tail. Some points of distinction have also been observed between the South African bird and that of the Gambia.

The serpent-eater is, however, a very unique bird; and naturalists, failing to class it with either hawks, eagles, vultures, gallinae, or cranes, have elevated it, so as to form a distinct tribe, family, genus, and species, of itself.

In South Africa it frequents the great plains and dry karoos, stalking about in search of its prey. It is not gregarious, but lives solitary or in pairs, making its nest in trees,—usually those of a thick thorny species,—which renders the nest most difficult of approach. The whole edifice is about three feet in diameter, and resembles the nests of the tree-building eagles. It is usually lined with feathers and down, and two or three eggs are the number deposited for a single hatching.

The serpent-eater is an excellent runner, and spends more time on foot than on the wing. It is a shy wary bird, yet, notwithstanding, it is most easily domesticated; and it is not uncommon to see them about the houses of the Cape farmers, where they are kept as pets, on account of their usefulness in destroying snakes, lizards, and other vermin. They have been long ago introduced into the French West India Islands, and naturalised there—in order that they should make war upon the dangerous “yellow serpent” (Trigonocephalus lanceolatus), the plague of the plantations in those parts.

Now the bird which had so opportunely appeared between Jan and Trüey, and had no doubt saved one or the other, or both, from the deadly bite of the spuugh-slang, was a serpent-eater,—one that had been tamed, and that made its home among the branches of the great nwana-tree. The hunters had found it upon the plain, wounded by some animal,—perhaps a very large snake,—and had brought it home as a curiosity. In time it quite recovered from its wounds; but the kindness it had received, during the period when it was an invalid, was not thrown away upon it. When it recovered the use of its wings, it refused to leave the society of its protectors, but remained habitually in the camp—although it made frequent excursions into the surrounding plains in search of its favourite food. It always, however, returned at night, and roosted among the branches of the great nwana-tree. Of course it was Jan’s pet, and Jan was very good to it; but it now repaid all his kindness in saving him from the fangs of the deadly cobra.

The children, having recovered from their alarm, stood watching the singular conflict between serpent and serpent-eater.

On first seizing the reptile the bird had caught it by the neck in its beak. It might not have accomplished this so readily, had not the attention of the snake been occupied by the children, thus throwing it off its guard.

Having succeeded in seizing the reptile, the bird rose nearly in a vertical direction to a height of many yards, and then opening his beak permitted the serpent to fall to the ground. His object was to stun the latter by the fall; and the more effectually to do this, he would have carried the cobra still higher, had not the latter prevented it by attempting to coil itself around his wings.

Upon letting fall his prey the serpent-eater did not remain in the air. On the contrary, he darted after the falling reptile, and the moment the latter touched the ground, and before it could put itself in an attitude of defence, the bird “pounced” upon it with spread foot, striking it a violent blow near the neck. The snake was still but slightly damaged, and throwing itself into a coil stood upon its defence. Its mouth was opened to its widest extent, its tongue protruded, its fangs were erect, and its eyes flashing with rage and poison. A terrible antagonist it appeared, and for a moment the secretary seemed to think so, as he stood on the ground confronting it.

But the bird soon began to advance upon it for a renewal of the attack, though this advance was made in a cautious manner. With the pinions of one of his strong wings spread broadly out for a shield, he approached the reptile sideways, and, when near enough, suddenly wheeled, turning upon his leg as on a pivot, and struck sharply out with his other wing. The blow was delivered with good effect. It reached the head of the snake, and seemed to stun it. Its neck drooped, and the coils became loosened. Before it could recover itself it was once more in the beak of the serpent-eater, and trailing through the air.

This time the bird rose to a much greater height than before—as he was not hampered by the writhing of the serpent—and as before suffered the reptile to fall, and then darted suddenly after.

When the snake came to the ground a second time it lay for a moment stretched at full length, as if stunned or dead. It was not dead, however, and would once more have coiled itself; but, before it could do so, the bird had repeatedly “pounced” upon its neck with his spread and horny feet; and at length, watching his opportunity when the head of the serpent lay flat, he struck a blow with his sharp beak so violent, that it split the skull of the reptile in twain! Life was now extinct, and the hideous form, extended to its full length, lay lithe and motionless upon the grass.

Jan and Trüey clapped their hands, and uttered exclamations of joy.

The serpent-eater took no heed of their demonstrations, but, approaching the dead cobra, bent over it, and coolly set about making his dinner.

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