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THE FOREST TRACK CONTINUED
Once as they trotted by a pheasant rose screaming from the furze and flew before them down the track. Just afterwards Felix, who had been previously looking very carefully into the firs upon his right hand, suddenly stopped, and Oliver, finding this, pulled up as quickly as he could, thinking that Felix wished to tighten his girth.
"What is it?" he asked, turning round in his saddle.
"Hush!" said Felix, dismounting; his horse, trained to hunting, stood perfectly still, and would have remained within a few yards of the spot by the hour together. Oliver reined back, seeing Felix about to bend and string his bow.
"Bushmen," whispered Felix, as he, having fitted the loop to the horn notch, drew forth an arrow from his girdle, where he carried two or three more ready to hand than in the quiver on his shoulder. "I thought I saw signs of them some time since, and now I am nearly sure. Stay here a moment."
He stepped aside from the track in among the firs, which just there were far apart, and went to a willow bush standing by some furze. He had noticed that one small branch on the outer part of the bush was snapped off, though green, and only hung by the bark. The wood cattle, had they browsed upon it, would have nibbled the tenderest leaves at the end of the bough; nor did they usually touch willow, for the shoots are bitter and astringent. Nor would the deer touch it in the spring, when they had so wide a choice of food.
Nothing could have broken the branch in that manner unless it was the hand of a man, or a blow with a heavy stick wielded by a human hand. On coming to the bush he saw that the fracture was very recent, for the bough was perfectly green; it had not turned brown, and the bark was still soft with sap. It had not been cut with a knife or any sharp instrument; it had been broken by rude violence, and not divided. The next thing to catch his eye was the appearance of a larger branch farther inside the bush.
This was not broken, but a part of the bark was abraded, and even torn up from the wood as if by the impact of some hard substance, as a stone thrown with great force. He examined the ground, but there was no stone visible, and on again looking at the bark he concluded that it had not been done with a stone at all, because the abraded portion was not cut. The blow had been delivered by something without edges or projections. He had now no longer any doubt that the lesser branch outside had been broken, and the large inside branch bruised, by the passage of a Bushman's throw-club.
These, their only missile weapons, are usually made of crab-tree, and consist of a very thin short handle, with a large, heavy, and smooth knob. With these they can bring down small game, as rabbits or hares, or a fawn (even breaking the legs of deer), or the large birds, as the wood-turkeys. Stealing up noiselessly within ten yards, the Bushman throws his club with great force, and rarely misses his aim. If not killed at once, the game is certain to be stunned, and is much more easily secured than if wounded with an arrow, for with an arrow in its wing a large bird will flutter along the ground, and perhaps creep into sedges or under impenetrable bushes.
Deprived of motion by the blow of the club, it can, on the other hand, be picked up without trouble and without the aid of a dog, and if not dead is despatched by a twist of the Bushman's fingers or a thrust from his spud. The spud is at once his dagger, his knife and fork, his chisel, his grub-axe, and his gouge. It is a piece of iron (rarely or never of steel, for he does not know how to harden it) about ten inches long, an inch and a half wide at the top or broadest end, where it is shaped and sharpened like a chisel, only with the edge not straight but sloping, and from thence tapering to a point at the other, the pointed part being four-sided, like a nail.
It has, indeed, been supposed that the original spud was formed from a large wrought-iron nail, such as the ancients used, sharpened on a stone at one end, and beaten out flat at the other. This instrument has a handle in the middle, half-way between the chisel end and the point. The handle is of horn or bone (the spud being put through the hollow of the bone), smoothed to fit the hand. With the chisel end he cuts up his game and his food; the edge, being sloping, is drawn across the meat and divides it. With this end, too, he fashions his club and his traps, and digs up the roots he uses. The other end he runs into his meat as a fork, or thrusts it into the neck of his game to kill it and let out the blood, or with it stabs a sleeping enemy.
The stab delivered by the Bushman can always be distinguished, because the wound is invariably square, and thus a clue only too certain has often been afforded to the assassin of many an unfortunate hunter. Whatever the Bushman in this case had hurled his club at, the club had gone into the willow bush, snapping the light branch and leaving its mark upon the bark of the larger. A moment's reflection convinced Felix that the Bushman had been in chase of a pheasant. Only a few moments previously a pheasant had flown before them down the track, and where there was one pheasant there were generally several more in the immediate neighbourhood.
The Bushmen were known to be peculiarly fond of the pheasant, pursuing them all the year round without reference to the breeding season, and so continuously, that it was believed they caused these birds to be much less numerous, notwithstanding the vast extent of the forests, than they would otherwise have been. From the fresh appearance of the snapped bough, the Bushman must have passed but a few hours previously, probably at the dawn, and was very likely concealed at that moment near at hand in the forest, perhaps within a hundred yards.
Felix looked carefully round, but could see nothing; there were the trees, not one of them large enough to hide a man behind it, the furze branches were small and scattered, and there was not sufficient fern to conceal anything. The keenest glance could discern nothing more. There were no footmarks on the ground, indeed, the dry, dead leaves and fir needles could hardly have received any impression, and up in the firs the branches were thin, and the sky could be seen through them. Whether the Bushman was lying in some slight depression of the ground, or whether he had covered himself with dead leaves and fir needles, or whether he had gone on and was miles away, there was nothing to show. But of the fact that he had been there Felix was perfectly certain.
He returned towards Oliver, thoughtful and not without some anxiety, for he did not like the idea (though there was really little or no danger) of these human wild beasts being so near Aurora, while he should so soon be far away. Thus occupied he did not heed his steps, and suddenly felt something soft under his feet, which struggled. Instantaneously he sprang as far as he could, shuddering, for he had crushed an adder, and but just escaped, by his involuntary and mechanical leap, from its venom.
In the warm sunshine the viper, in its gravid state, had not cared to move as usual on hearing his approach; he had stepped full upon it. He hastened from the spot, and rejoined Oliver in a somewhat shaken state of mind. Common as such an incident was in the woods, where sandy soil warned the hunter to be careful, it seemed ominous that particular morning, and, joined with the discovery of Bushman traces, quite destroyed his sense of the beauty of the day.
On hearing the condition of the willow boughs Oliver agreed as to the cause, and said that they must remember to warn the Baron's shepherds that the Bushmen, who had not been seen for some time, were about. Soon afterwards they emerged from the sombre firs and crossed a wide and sloping ground, almost bare of trees, where a forest fire last year had swept away the underwood. A verdant growth of grass was now springing up. Here they could canter side by side. The sunshine poured down, and birds were singing joyously. But they soon passed it, and checked their speed on entering the trees again.
Tall beeches, with round smooth trunks, stood thick and close upon the dry and rising ground; their boughs met overhead, forming a green continuous arch for miles. The space between was filled with brake fern, now fast growing up, and the track itself was green with moss. As they came into this beautiful place a red stag, startled from his browsing, bounded down the track, his swift leaps carried him away like the wind; in another moment he left the path and sprang among the fern, and was seen only in glimpses as he passed between the beeches. Squirrels ran up the trunks as they approached; they could see many on the ground in among the trees, and passed under others on the branches high above them. Woodpeckers flashed across the avenue.
Once Oliver pointed out the long, lean flank of a grey pig, or fern-hog, as the animal rushed away among the brake. There were several glades, from one of which they startled a few deer, whose tails only were seen as they bounded into the underwood, but after the glades came the beeches again. Beeches always form the most beautiful forest, beeches and oak; and though nearing the end of their journey, they regretted when they emerged from these trees and saw the castle before them.
The ground suddenly sloped down into a valley, beyond which rose the Downs; the castle stood on a green isolated low hill, about half-way across the vale. To the left a river wound past; to the right the beech forest extended as far as the eye could see. The slope at their feet had been cleared of all but a few hawthorn bushes. It was not enclosed, but a neatherd was there with his cattle half a mile away, sitting himself at the foot of a beech, while the cattle grazed below him.
Down in the valley the stockade began; it was not wide but long. The enclosure extended on the left to the bank of the river, and two fields on the other side of it. On the right it reached a mile and a half or nearly, the whole of which was overlooked from the spot where they had passed. Within the enclosures the corn crops were green and flourishing; horses and cattle, ricks and various buildings, were scattered about it. The town or cottages of the serfs were on the bank of the river immediately beyond the castle. On the Downs, which rose a mile or more on the other side of the castle, sheep were feeding; part of the ridge was wooded and part open. Thus the cultivated and enclosed valley was everywhere shut in with woods and hills.
The isolated round hill on which the castle stood was itself enclosed with a second stockade; the edge of the brow above that again was defended by a stout high wall of flints and mortar, crenellated at the top. There were no towers or bastions. An old and ivy-grown building stood inside the wall; it dated from the time of the ancients; it had several gables, and was roofed with tiles. This was the dwelling-house. The gardens were situated on the slope between the wall and the inner stockade. Peaceful as the scene appeared, it had been the site of furious fighting not many years ago. The Downs trended to the south, where the Romany and the Zingari resided, and a keen watch was kept both from the wall and from the hills beyond.
They now rode slowly down the slope, and in a few minutes reached the barrier or gateway in the outer stockade. They had been observed, and the guard called by the warden, but as they approached were recognised, and the gate swang open before them. Walking their horses they crossed to the hill, and were as easily admitted to the second enclosure. At the gate of the wall they dismounted, and waited while the warden carried the intelligence of their arrival to the family. A moment later, and the Baron's son advanced from the porch, and from the open window the Baroness and Aurora beckoned to them.