Chapter 62 - The Giraffe Hunters by Mayne Reid

With the Hottentots.

On reaching the camp, Willem and Hendrik found their companions anxiously awaiting their return.

The horses and cattle had all been recovered, and the borelé that had caused their dispersion had been shot by Hans and Arend.

Its attack had caused a delay of two days, and the loss of an ox.

Again the journey towards Graaf Reinet was resumed, and day by day was prosecuted with all the speed that could be made in safety to their animals.

The return journey was not completed until they had suffered many hardships, and had more than once nearly lost the two young giraffes.

On passing through the Hottentot country, they saw many large plains from which the grass had lately been burnt; and not a morsel could be obtained for the subsistence of their animals. Amid the herbage charred by the fire, they frequently saw the remains of serpents and other reptiles, that had been scorched to death.

During the passage across these burnt tracts, the travellers suffered much from hunger and thirst, as did also their animals. Such hardships Groot Willem seemed not to heed. His only care was for the young giraffes; his only fear that they might not safely reach their destination. But each hour of the toilsome journey was cheered by the knowledge that they were drawing nearer home; and all that was disagreeable was endured with such patience as sprang from the prospect of a speedy termination to their toils.

The latter part of their route lay through a part of Southern Africa, farther to the west than any they had yet visited. They passed through lands inhabited by certain tribes of natives, of whom they had often heard and read, but had never seen.

Of some of the customs of those unfortunate people classed amongst that variety of the genus homo known as the “Hottentot,” they one afternoon became fully and painfully acquainted.

Beneath the shade of some stunted trees they found an aged man and a child not more than eighteen months old. The man, who could not have been less than seventy years of age, was totally blind; and by his side was an empty calabash, that had evidently once contained water.

With the assistance of Swartboy, as interpreter, it was ascertained that he had lately lost by death an only son and protector. There was no one now to provide for his wants, and he had been carried far-away from the home of his tribe, and left in the desert to die!

The child had lost its mother, its only parent, and had been “exposed” to death at the same time and for the same reason,—because there was no one to provide for it.

Both old man and infant had been thus left exposed to a death which must certainly ensue, either by thirst, hunger, or hyenas.

This horrid custom of the Hottentots was not entirely unknown to our adventurers. They had heard that the act, of which they now had ocular evidence, was once common among the inhabitants of the country, through which they were passing, but, like thousands of others, they had believed that such a barbarous custom had long ago been discontinued, under the precept and example of European civilisation.

They saw that they were mistaken; and that they were in the neighbourhood of a tribe that had either never heard these precepts of humanity, or had turned a deaf ear to them.

Knowing that a Hottentot kraal could not be many miles away, and unwilling to leave two human beings to such a fearful fate, the travellers determined to take the helpless creatures back to the people who, as Swartboy worded it, had “throwed ’um away.”

Strange to say, the old man expressed himself not only willing to die where he sat, but showed a strong disinclination to being returned to his countrymen!

He had the philosophy to believe that he was old and helpless,—a child for the second time,—and that by dying he was but performing his duty to society! To be placed again in a position where he would be an incumbrance to those whom he could not call kindred was, in his opinion, a crime he should not commit!

Our adventurers resolved upon saving him in spite of himself.

It was not until late in the afternoon that they reached the kraal from which the outcasts had been ejected. Not a soul could be found in the whole community who would admit that the old man had ever been seen there before, and no one had the slightest knowledge of the child!

The white men were advised to take the objects of their solicitude to the place where they properly belonged.

“This is interesting,” said Hendrik. “We might wander over all Southern Africa without finding a creature that will acknowledge having seen these helpless beings before. They are ours now, and we must provide for them in some way or other.”

“I do not see how we can do it,” rejoined Arend; “I’m quite sure that they are now with their own tribe, and it is they who should provide for them.”

A second effort was made to persuade the villagers to acknowledge some complicity in the attempt to starve two human beings. But they had already learned that their conduct in such a custom was considered by white people as a crime, and, ashamed of what they had done, they stoutly stood to the story they had first told.

Strangest of all, the feeble old man confirmed all their statements, and, as some proof of the truth of what they had said, he informed the travellers that the chief and several others whom he called by name, were men incapable of practising a deception!

This he professed to know from a long acquaintance with them.

The hunters were now within the territory over which the Colonial Government claimed and sometimes enforced dominion, and the Hottentots were threatened with the vengeance of English justice in the event of their not taking care of the old man and child, or should they again expose him as they had already done.

They were told that a messenger should be sent to them within a few weeks, to learn if their orders had been obeyed; and, having delivered up the two helpless beings to the headman of the village, the travellers once more proceeded on their way.