Chapter 23 - The Giraffe Hunters by Mayne Reid

From Bad to Worse.

On finding himself in the water as he parted from his companions, Hendrik had not much exertion to make.

A gentle motion of the limbs sustained him on the surface, and he was borne onward with a velocity that promised a speedy termination of his voyage.

Some place must soon be reached where the banks would be low enough to be ascended, and the current not too quick to hinder him from crossing to the shore. He was spirited past several rocks, one of which he only avoided with great difficulty, so swiftly did the current carry him along.

When about a mile from his companions, as he supposed himself, he saw that the banks on both sides were shelving and he tried to reach the shore.

The current was still rapid as ever, and for each foot made in the direction of the land, he was borne several yards down the channel of the stream.

The velocity with which he was moving awoke in his mind a vague sense of a danger not thought of before starting, and altogether different from those that had been taken into calculation. His voyage, so far, had been successful. He had escaped unharmed by rocks or crocodiles; but he had evidence that a danger, as much, if not more to be dreaded, now threatened him. The water seemed gliding down an inclined plane, so rapidly was it sweeping him on; and beyond this, directly before him, he could hear the roaring of a cataract! What had been at first only a conjecture, soon became a certainty. He was going at arrow-like speed towards the brow of a waterfall. Throwing all his energies into the effort, he struggled to reach the shore at a point where the bank was accessible.

He had nearly succeeded. Ten feet nearer, and he would have been able to grasp the o’erhanging bushes. But that distance, little as it was, could not be accomplished, and on he glided towards the engulfing fall.

On the brink of the water-precipice he saw the sharp point of a rock jutting about three feet above the water. More by good luck, than any guidance on his part, he came within reach of it as he was hurried onward. Reaching out, he caught hold; and hugging it with both arms, he was able to retain his hold. His body was swung around to the leeward of the rock, until his legs hung dangling over the fall. Although the force of the current was partly broken by the interposition of the rock, it required him to exert all his strength to save himself from being washed over. After a time, he succeeded in gaining a footing. There was a little ledge on the rock just large enough for one foot, while the other sought support on the pointed apex. To have attempted to swim ashore could only end in his destruction. Though almost within leaping distance of the bank, he had no place to spring from, and to have fallen short, would have been fatal. He could do nothing but remain as he was.

Hours passed, and the torture of standing in one position irksome at that, became unbearable. He could only obtain rest by getting into the water again and hugging the rock with both arms as he had done before. But this method of resting himself, if such it could be called, could not be endured longer than two or three minutes, and he was compelled soon to return to the upright attitude.

“There is not the least danger of crocodiles here,” thought he while in the water hanging on to the rock. “Should one pass this way, it would not have time for touching me, even if it were starving.” All night long did he continue in this dread position.

Morning dawned, and once more he had to endure the agony of gazing on the bank within a few feet of where he stood, though as unapproachable as if miles of moving water separated him from it.

Fortune seemed determined to torture him to the last extreme.

There was no hope of his gaining the bank above, and it now occurred to him to look below. Craning out as far as he could, he made an inspection of the fall. It was about thirty feet in clear descent. Below, the water ran frothing away and soon became smooth and tranquil, as if reposing after the violent leap.

Should he allow himself to be carried over the cataract? This was the question he now commenced considering. If he could only have assured himself that there was deep water underneath, he would at once have decided to commit himself to the descent. But there was the probability that he might be precipitated upon jagged rocks, and of course killed by the fall. Besides, he saw that the banks below were steep on both sides, and he might have to swim for a long distance before being able to land. After a descent of thirty feet he might be incapable of continuing above the surface of the water. At all events, he would be in no condition for a long swim.

After long and earnestly debating the question in his own mind he gave up the thought of making the too perilous attempt.

Notwithstanding the agony arising from his own position, he was not free from concern for his comrades left upon the rock.

Willem and Arend would in all likelihood come after him, if they had not already done so. One or the other, or both, might have left the rock and been carried over the cataract in the night, unseen by him during the darkness.

As the time passed on, his sufferings approached the point of despair. They at length became so great that once or twice was he tempted to put a termination to them by giving his body to the cataract, and his soul to Him who had bestowed it. But this demon of temptation was driven out of his mind by a mental vision of angelic loveliness.

The remembrance of Wilhelmina Van Wyk came before him like some fair angel, commanding him to hope and wait. He obeyed the command.