Benighted In The Jungle
Mercy o’ me, what a multitude are here! They grow still,
too; from all sides they are coming
King Henry VIII
O, I have passed a miserable night,
So full of ugly sights, of ghostly dreams
King Richard III
One of our hunters, a melancholy-visaged individual, was a very amusing personage to go out with alone. He always acted like the guide of a Cook’s personally conducted tour. Not a tree, or twig, or water-hole was left to be seen or not seen by us. All must be brought to the notice of the Mem-sahibs. It reduced the tracking of game to a delicious farce. If we sighted an antelope he would first point it out to me most carefully, telling me about the distance the creature was from us, perhaps saying commandingly, “You shoot um,” handing me my own rifle as though he were giving me a valuable present.
Sometimes he even went the length of putting it to my shoulder and cocking it for me, and was a grandmotherly hunter indeed! He spoiled a glorious chance for me one day with his chaperoning me through tactics, actually telling me the precise moment to fire, and when I did, at my own moment, and—through his rattling me so—missed ignominiously, he whispered to himself, with a whole world of resignation in his tone, “Mem-sahib no shoot, Mem-sahib no shoot!”
Mem-sahib turned round and gave the idiot a bit of her mind. I had had enough of being hurried and flurried by his ways. I learned early on to take no notice of my shikari. Clarence never made the egregious mistake of obtruding himself. Some of the others were not so cautious, and were very quick with their ideas and remarks. It is very easy to rattle a person after a tiring crawl, and throw the whole scheme out of gear to fall about your ears like an evanescent card-house. One asks time to recover breath and balance, taking one’s own way. Then on occasion it is necessary to shoot from all sorts of positions, and it is disconcerting to have anyone commenting. I prefer to be able to sit down fair and square so that both knees may be elbow rests; but, alas, not often the opportunity is given in big game shooting to choose your position. You seize the moment, and the moment may find you placed very awkwardly.
We were now again in the most wonderful region for game that the heart of the most grasping sportsman could desire. Herds of buck were met with on every march we made, and galloping forms were outlined on every horizon. If there were more aoul to be seen in the early days of the discovery of Somaliland as a Land of Promise for the hunter, I do not know how the ground supported them. If the larger and more dangerous fauna has been thinned almost to extinction, it would seem that the lesser has thriven. Fewer lions to find food means more buck to live.
You never find aoul in jungle country, and consequently, they are of gazelle the most easily seen. Frequenting the grass plateaus and flat sandy wastes, as they do, whereon a few straggling bushes try to grow, the white hindquarters stand out clear and distinct as a target. When going off, startled, they stretch out, seeming to gain many inches in length, and when wounded an aoul never creeps off to die in impenetrable bush where the hunter has a difficulty in locating the hiding creature. Sensibly he selects the open “bun,” and there is despatched the quicker.
On coming to one open space of country I rubbed my eyes to see if I were awake or dreaming. The place swarmed with aoul. It was like some field at home, full of cows before milking time, except that these were very animated creatures, fighting battles together, and making the history for buckland. I lay down in a tuft of grass for an hour or more, watching the pantomime. The aoul were in two great herds, separate and distinct. Each was in the charge of a war-like old buck who had drilled his does into fine order, and vigilantly saw that they kept a fair distance from the rival herd. Sometimes a doe of frivolous propensities would essay to seek fresh fields and pastures new, edging away in the direction of the other harem. Nemesis was after her on the instant, in the person of her outraged lord, who gave chase, and cuffing her about most vigorously, soon showed her the error of such ways, restoring her to his charmed circle again. On the outskirts of both well-guarded harems there were many likely-looking young bucks, who were kept at a respectful distance from the does they admired so much by the flying charges and battering onslaughts of each boss buck. To say their lives were strenuous is to convey nothing. They had no time to eat, or rest, or sleep.
Then, by a hideous mischance, the two parties of aoul converged, and the strain was at breaking-point. For the system of all things was disturbed, and worse than all, the two old bucks met face to face. Now fight they must for the mastery, or be shamed forever in the soft eyes of all their feminine kind. At it they went, hammer and tongs, clawing with razor hoofs, circling round each other, clashing, crashing. Meanwhile—but we all know what the mice do when the cat’s away! And this golden moment was the young bucks’ opportunity. Every Jack found a Jill, and some fortunate ones many Jills, and ran off promptly with their loot. Then when the old bucks had fought till they were dripping with foam and blood-flecked muzzles, the one slightly the stronger would end the fray with a terrific drive, and send his vanquished foe bellowing back to—nothing. The harem had all eloped.
One might lie and watch a herd of aoul for hours, really in full view, and not cause them any great anxiety. We never talked save in whispers, and it was really amazing to see how very indifferent the creatures grew to our presence. If they did take it into their heads to feign alarm, remaining quite still seemed to restore confidence in us. The old bucks and does were the most suspicious; the young were far more trusting. Just as it is with we human things. Illusions are smashed in buck land as in England.
The ridiculous inquisitiveness of the aoul makes him easy to stalk. The glinting of a rifle barrel seems to charm him rather than frighten him, as it would one of our Scotch deer. Sense of smell in the buck of the wild is even more marvelously marked than in the case of our home deer, and it must be so when we consider the added dangers. Death lurks on every side, but for one gerunük that falls a victim to King Leo’s appetite, I should imagine five aoul run into his very jaws in a mistaken endeavor to see how many teeth in working order the fearsome enemy has. Never did I see such an inquisitive genus!
I found one or two newly born kids by watching the mother’s movements. I would mark the place in my mind to which she kept trotting away, then go later. It needed so careful a hunt before one would come on the little kid, covered up so ingeniously, in its cradle in a thorn brake. In a very short time though the babies get their jungle legs and can follow the mother at her own pace. I don’t know of any very much prettier sight than an aoul nursery full of kids playing. They are such sportive little creatures, just like lambs at home—jumping imaginary obstacles, running races, mimicking their elders in childish battle. Any little alarm, crack of twig, or fearsome rustle sends them all, on the instant, dashing back to the realm of safety by the side of the watchful parent.
As I have said elsewhere, the horns of the aoul differ considerably, and some otherwise well-fitted-out bucks have no horns at all. These bucks are often as well able to hold their own as their more perfectly equipped (so-called) betters, frequently bossing a herd. Others again have but one horn, and that deformed.
It was near this place of the aoul that a most amusing thing happened. Clarence and I got benighted in the jungle, and didn’t get home until morning. I know that this sounds just like the plot for a fashionable problem novel, but there wasn’t much problem about it really; it all came about as a very natural consequence and happened mostly through my enthusiasm over another splendid oryx. I stalked this one for hours and hours, and the mosquitoes and heat seemed but to sting him into keener alertness. I could not get within range. I tried on foot, I tried squirming along the ground flat, and then, when there was nothing else for it, I’d mount my little pony once again and furiously dash off in pursuit. When within range I only got the oryx in the leg, a slight wound merely, and I had to try and ride the wounded buck down. A desperate business in this case, for he was not hard hit. I did not like the idea of leaving a hurt creature to die miserably after prolonged torture, so we let him lead us on and on, and it was very nearly dark before I gave that animal the coup-de-grâce. By the time we had secured his head, a fine one indeed, his shield and skin, it was dark. Night had descended upon the jungle. We fired three times in quick succession, a signal agreed on in case we ever got bushed, but we knew the wind was blowing away from the very distant camp.
I told Clarence we would get away as far as possible from the dead oryx, or we should find ourselves in for a livelier night than we bargained for, and have a regular at-home day of most unwelcome callers. We led our ponies and pushed and scrubbed our way through dense undergrowth, ominous rents in my poor coat greeting me as the vicious wait-a-bit thorn held me back. We found the darkness impenetrable in parts, and then in kind of drifts it would lighten a little. At last we made out a small patch of clearing, and decided on camping. The first thing to do was to collect wood for a fire, and as this was a difficult job on so dark an evening, Clarence just grabbed what sticks he could, lighted them, and the welcome glare enabled us to amass a great supply of firewood. I worked hard at this, for I had no mind to be among the jungle folk in darkness. We tethered the ponies as near the fire as possible, where we could see them, and I took the precaution to move the oryx head, &c., from my steed, and place them where I could carefully guard them. I did not want to run the risk of losing the trophies. Besides, it was rather rough on the pony to leave him all baited as it were to attract some hungry beast.
I should, I think, have preferred to lose the pony rather than the oryx, but wanted, if possible, to keep both.
Next came our little supper, and this was quite excellently managed. I always carried an enamel cup and many of Lazenby’s soup squares, together with a supply of biscuits. We had water too in a bottle on Clarence’s saddle, so, filling the cup carefully, I stuck it into the glowing embers. When it boiled in went my compressed tablet of ox-tail, and, after stirring it all with a stick, I had a supper fit for a queen. I made Clarence a brew of mock-turtle next. He said it was very good, and finished off all the biscuit. He then suggested he should keep guard and I might try to sleep. I said we would divide the night, he playing guardian angel the first half and I taking duty for the rest. I showed him my Waterbury, and explained that when the hands stood both together at twelve he was to call me. He seemed to understand. Then I laid me down, but not to rest. I could not help the fear haunting me that my shikari might nod, and in that moment of unconsciousness what awful thing might not happen! Such strange imaginings trouble a semisleeping mind at night that with daylight would cause us no concern at all. I lay and gazed at the stars. Sirius was shining away, and Venus was as beautiful a fraud as ever. I dozed awhile, I suppose, but the strange sounds around me kept my senses more or less awake. The jungle at night! The most eerie thing in the world, with strange short rustlings in the undergrowth, the furtive pad, pad, pad of some soft-footed creature, and ever and again a sound as though some man passed by, laggingly, and dwelling on his steps.
The jungle at night is a world unknown to most shikaris. Even Clarence was not familiar here.
At twelve he called me, furtively pulling my coat sleeve, and saying, “Wake! wake! wake!” I “awakened,” and took the watch. My rifle lay beside me on my right, the oryx trophies on my left. The fire was piled up, shedding shafts of light into the fearsome darkness. The ponies stood dejectedly. This tense silent watching is more of a trial than playacting sleep. I fixed my eyes on the inky blackness ahead, and it was not long before my fancy peopled the shadows with lurking forms. I chid myself. Suddenly I could make out two blazing lights, gleaming like little lamps. The eyes of some preying animal. I sidled over to the sleeping Clarence, and pushed him. He wakened instantly. I told him of the eyes. “Shebel,” he said. A leopard! This was nice, but why bother us when the remains of a whole oryx was so close to hand. We sat and waited. The eyes again—sometimes at a lower level than others, as though the beast crouched as he gazed. “Let us fire together,” I said.
At my soft “One, two, three,” we blazed away at the twin specks of light. A scuffle, then a hideous screaming cry, that echoed again in the stillness. Worse remains behind. The ponies thoroughly upset by the unusual sounds of the jungle at night, and not expecting the enormous report, simply stampeded before we had time to get to them. They made off in mad terror, and there we were in a worse hole than ever. Sleep was out of the question. We made some more soup to pass the hours, julienne and mulligatawny this time, and after that I fell to talking to Clarence about England. He asked many questions that he evidently badly wanted answered. One was to know if these trophies had some great intrinsic value there that so many people come at such trouble and danger to themselves to get them? He evidently was much puzzled.
At last, the dawn came, and at the first hint of it we prepared to move. The scene was of rare beauty. In the dense undergrowth that hid the trees to the height of several feet was a wonder world of mystery. Webs of Arachne’s weaving made bars of silver gossamer from bush to bough. ’Twas like a scene from Shakespeare’s woodlands. The same thrill and marvel, joy, happiness and pain. For life is not all a song. Fierce burning strife comes oft to mar the stillness, death, too, in crudest form. In the jungle all is one long struggle for survival; no excuses are made, none wanted, they kill to live, just as we human things kill each other every day; only in civilization it is done more delicately.
First we investigated the place of the eyes, and there, sure enough, was a blood trail. We followed but a few yards to find a large striped hyæna—a magnificent beast, yellow-gray, with black stripes on his shoulders, and a beautiful mane and bushy gray tail. He measured from nose to tail four feet eight inches. We skinned and decapitated him, a long and horrid business, and then took up our none-too-pleasant loads and departed. We passed the remains of the dead oryx, but there was little left of him. The hyænas had been feasting all the night, and now the vultures were picking his bones. It was still darkish as we took our way campwards, the mad rush of the ponies being clearly visible to us. Through bushes, anyhow, helter skelter they had pelted.
I had to stop and rest frequently, as my load was more than a little heavy, though Clarence carried as much, and more, than he ought. The rifles alone were no lightweight, and when it came to the slain animals as well we found them all a bit of a trial.
In some thick grass a great wart-hog rose up before me, and after giving me a look from his tiny fierce eyes, lost himself again. I flung my load down, all but the very necessary rifle, and went after him. He made some ugly rushes in the long grass, but I dodged and chased him to clearer country, until I could get in a shot which, raking him, ended his career as a perfect king of his kind. I did not want to take his tusks merely, as I desired his head to be a complete trophy. But when Clarence strenuously refused to touch the creature I knew I could not then, tired as I was, play butcher myself. So I had to be contented with digging out his huge tushes. And a very messy job it was too.
We took up our loads again, and went back over the ground over which we had chased the oryx the evening before. I was progressing wearily enough when I almost stepped on a yellow snake, with a dark head, lying near a thorn bush. It was only about eighteen inches long, but quite long enough to make me jump some feet, all encumbered as I was. Clarence looked genuinely surprised.
“You not afraid of aliphint,” he said, a thing we had about as much chance of meeting as the man in the moon; “what for you ’fraid now?”
I told him women have a long-standing quarrel with serpents: that a serpent once spoiled the happiness of a woman and turned her out of a garden where she fain would be.
“She cousin of yours?” he asked, with true Somali inquisitiveness.
“Very distant,” I answered.
Cecily and a couple of hunters met us quarter way. She told us the ponies rushed into camp in the early morning, as I had thought they would. She had not been unduly anxious about me, knowing I was with Clarence, and guessing we were bushed. They never heard the shots at all.
I did enjoy my breakfast, and never had a cup of tea that tasted half so good.
The thought of all that pork wasting in the near vicinity bothered us no end. Very greedy, I know. But, you see, dainties were not often to be had. We ordered out a couple of ponies, and rode back to the scene of my early morning encounter with the wart-hog to find him, marvel of marvels, intact. Though a thwarted-looking vulture of business-like appearance flapped off and sat down in stone’s throw. They have a mighty contempt for man, these birds, or else it is they recognize they aren’t worth powder and shot.
Cecily evolved the idea of converting half the wart-hog into bacon, putting it into pickle, and promising it would equal the finest home-cured. The ham was to be a treat to which we should look forward for weeks.
We pickled it all right, or what seemed like all right to us, rubbing it daily with handfuls of salt as we had seen ham cured at home. And then one day, when a meal was badly wanted, and the larder was empty of all else, we essayed to cut the treasured ham and fry it in slices. Cecily inserted a knife. The resultant odour was appalling. So were the awful little maggots that rose in hundreds. Clearly we didn’t know how to pickle ham, or else the ham of wart-hog would not take salt as our pig at home does. We could see the line to where the pickle had penetrated. Below chaos! Ruefully we had a funeral of our looked-for supper, and fell back on the never-failing “Elizabeth Lazenby.”
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