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A Vendetta of the Desert
By William Charles Scully
Published by Methuen and Co, London.
This edition dated 1898.
A Vendetta of the Desert, by William Charles Scully.

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A VENDETTA OF THE DESERT, BY WILLIAM CHARLES SCULLY.



CHAPTER ONE.

THE POWER OF THE DOG.

Old Tyardt van der Walt, head of the family of that name, came of good
Netherlands stock. His grandfather had emigrated from Holland with his
family in the middle of the Eighteenth Century and settled at the Cape.
He bought a farm in the Stellenbosch district and there commenced life
anew as a wine farmer. The family consisted of his wife, a son and
several daughters - all of whom married early. At his death the farm
descended to his son Cornelius from whom, in course of time, another
Tyardt inherited it.

The last-mentioned Tyardt forsook the settled and fertile environs of
Stellenbosch and trekked forward to seek his fortune in the unknown and
perilous wilderness. A story is told as to the reason for this
migration which, though it has no direct bearing on the story which is
to be recorded in this volume, is interesting enough in itself to merit
relation.

There was, it is said, a gruesome legend connected with the van der
Walts. It dated from the times of William the Silent and was to the
following effect: - The head of the van der Walt family of that period
lived in the town of Maestricht. He was a man of solitary habits. In
his youth his wife had deserted him for another. He had been
passionately attached to her, and he never recovered from the blow, but
lived the rest of his days in solitude.

Years afterwards, when he was quite an old man, a son of the man who had
wronged him - a young and zealous Lutheran preacher, came to live in his
vicinity. This preacher was in the habit of visiting in disguise
families of his co-religionists in the Provinces where the Spaniards
held complete dominion. He had a dog that had been trained to convey
cypher messages from place to place. Van der Walt betrayed this
preacher to the authorities, with the result that he was captured and
sentenced to be burnt alive. The betrayer was among those who crowded
round the stake to gloat over the agonies of the victim. The dog had
followed its master and, seeing his evil case, set up a piteous howling.
The Spaniards, judging the heretic to be a wizard, and the dog his
familiar spirit, caught the unhappy animal and bound it among the
faggots at its master's feet. Just as the pile was lit the preacher
lifted up his voice and cried aloud: -

"Gerrit van der Walt, - for thy black treachery to a servant of the Lord,
thou shalt die in misery within a year and a day. Thy soul shall wander
homeless for ever and shall howl like a dog as the harbinger of
misfortune whenever it is about to fall upon one of thy blood."

It has been declared on respectable authority that from and after the
death of Gerrit, which took place under miserable circumstances within
the period named by his victim, a dog which was never seen would howl
around the dwelling of any van der Walt about to die, for the three
nights previous to the passing of his soul. Thus a new terror was added
to the death-bed of any member of the family.

The following account of the last occasion when this warning howl was
heard is firmly believed by the few surviving descendants in the direct
line. It is taken from an old manuscript which purports to date from
the year in which the incidents related are alleged to have taken place.

Towards the end of the last century, Tyardt's father, Cornelius van der
Walt, lay ill in bed, but no one imagined that his illness was likely to
be fatal, until one night after supper the dreaded howl was heard under
his window. The sick man, filled with terror, arose to a sitting
posture in his bed, and called Tyardt, who was his eldest son, before
him.

"If that dog be not shot by you before the day after to-morrow," he
said, "I will make my will anew and dispossess you of everything that
the law will allow me to leave to others."

Next day Tyardt brooded long and deeply over the occurrence. He did not
love his father, so the old man's death would have caused him no regret,
but he knew that the threat would be carried out.

There was an old and tattered family Bible on the loft, with a strong
and heavy metal clasp. This clasp Tyardt broke into fragments about the
size of ordinary slugs, and with them he loaded his gun, using portions
of the leaves as wadding.

As soon as night fell he stole quietly out and posted himself among the
branches of a small tree which grew just in front of the window of the
room in which his father lay.

The night was pitch dark; a damp fog had rolled in from the sea and
covered everything. Tyardt had not long to wait before a long, low
howl, which curdled his blood with dread, arose from just beneath him.
Terrified as he was, he thought of the property at stake, so he hardened
his will to the purpose and carefully cocked his gun.

There could be no mistaking the exact locality from which the howling
came; it was almost at his feet. He fired, and a horrible, half-human
yell followed the report of the gun. Then came a sound of scuffling
upon the ground. Soon a light was brought from the house, and then
Tyardt descended from the tree.

Beneath lay the huddled, bleeding figure of an old man of hideous
aspect, clad in a garb unknown at the Cape but which, it was afterwards
thought, suggested some wood-cuts in an old book brought out by the
last-deceased van der Walt from Holland. A sheet was thrown over the
horror, and the trembling family sat up, waiting for, but dreading, the
light of day. It was not until after the sun had arisen that they
ventured to go out and visit the scene of the tragedy, - but no trace of
the body could be seen; nor was there any sign of the blood which had so
much horrified the beholders on the previous night.

There appeared to have been no doubt as to the main facts having
occurred; slaves, servants, and, in fact, every member of the household
except the sick man, had seen the body. The mystery was never solved;
no body was ever found; no one from the neighbourhood was missed, nor,
so far as could be ascertained, had any man resembling the description
of the body ever been seen in the neighbourhood.

Cornelius van der Walt died during the following night, but without
altering his will. Tyardt, however, took the matter so much to heart
that he became a changed man. He came to hate the neighbourhood, and,
leaving the farm in the hands of his mother and a younger brother, he
set his face to the northward. He purchased two wagons, packed them
with his goods, and, with his young wife and three small children,
plunged into the unknown wilderness. After having passed some distance
beyond the farthest outposts of civilisation, he at length halted high
up near the head of a valley where the Tanqua River gorge cleaves the
southern face of the Roggeveld mountain range. Here he built a
homestead and took possession of the ground surrounding it for some
miles. From the large numbers of elands which haunted the hills he
named his new home "Elandsfontein."

For some time he was left to enjoy the solitude for which his nature
craved; but he lived long enough to feel himself inconveniently crowded
when neighbours established themselves at distances of from fifteen to
twenty miles from him on each side. However, he still drew comfort from
the thought that beyond the mountain chain which frowned down upon his
homestead on the northward, the vast, unoccupied desert lay - and
appeared likely to lie for ever unappropriated. Moreover, it was
certainly convenient to have the assistance of the aforesaid neighbours
in hunting Bushmen, with whom the surrounding mountains were infested.

The occurrence of the night before his father's death affected the
character of Tyardt van der Walt permanently. For years he could never
bear to be alone in the dark; - he suffered from the dread that the
horrible creature he had shot would re-appear to him. This man, who did
not know what fear of any material thing meant, was for long an abject
slave to dread of the supernatural, and fell into a state of piteous
terror if a dog howled within his hearing after dark.

It is said that his death was, after all, caused by the howling of a
dog. During one of his periodical fits of nervous depression he felt
unwell and, under his wife's persuasion, went to his bed one day a few
hours before the usual time. That night a dog howled on the hill across
the valley; the sick man, as soon as he heard it, turned his face to the
wall, saying that his summons had come. He refused to take any
nourishment, and died in the course of a few days.

Strange, - that the crime of over two centuries back should have sent its
baleful influence across the ocean wastes and the desert sands to drag a
man who was blameless in it to his doom.

No stouter-hearted men than those of the van der Walt stock ever took
their lives into their hands and faced, with unflinching eye, the
dangers of the desert which they helped so mightily to reclaim. It is,
however, an extraordinary fact that no member of this family in the
direct line could ever hear the howling of a dog after nightfall without
being reduced to abject terror.



CHAPTER TWO.

HOW THE BROTHERS QUARRELLED.

Tyardt van der walt left a widow, two sons - Stephanus and Gideon - who
were twins, and three daughters. As is usual among the Boers, the
daughters married early in life; they have nothing to do with this
story.

The beginning of the quarrel between the twin-brothers dated from years
back - from the time when they went down with a wagon load of game
peltries and other produce to Stellenbosch and there fell in love,
instantaneously and unanimously, with Marta Venter, their fair-haired
cousin, whom they met in the street, coming from Confirmation class.
Stephanus, the elder twin, had a slightly looser and glibber tongue than
Gideon; besides, he was probably not so much in earnest as the latter;
so, other things being equal, his suit was practically bound to prosper.
When, after advantageously selling their load in Cape Town, the
brothers inspanned their wagon and started for home, Stephanus and
fair-haired Marta were engaged to be married and the darkened heart of
Gideon was filled with a love which, in spite of many shocks and
changes, never wholly died out of it.

The wedding took place at the next _Nachtmaal_, Gideon managing, by
means of some pretext, to avoid being present. Soon afterwards old
Tyardt cut off a portion of the farm and handed it over to his married
son, who thereupon built a homestead and began farming on his own
account.

It was some time before Gideon could bring himself to meet his
sister-in-law without embarrassment; however, an accidental event
cleared the way for what appeared to be a complete reconciliation. One
day, when the brothers happened to be camped with their wagons on the
southern bank of the swollen Tanqua River, waiting for the flood to
subside, Stephanus, against his brother's advice, ventured into the
current and was swept away. Gideon dashed in to the rescue and saved
his brother's life at the risk of his own. After this the old friendly
relations were, to all appearances, firmly re-established.

These brothers strikingly resembled each other in both disposition and
appearance. Both were large, handsome, keen-featured men, with flashing
black eyes and choleric tempers. There was only one slight difference
apparent: under strong excitement or deep feeling Gideon became morose
and taciturn, - Stephanus excited and talkative.

Shortly after old Tyardt's death the quarrel broke out afresh. The
portion of the farm assigned to Stephanus was secured to him by will;
the remaining extent was bequeathed to Gideon. The shares of the
daughters in the estate were paid out in stock. Elandsfontein was a
large farm and was naturally divided into two nearly equal parts by a
deep kloof running almost right through it. In dry seasons this kloof
contained no water, but on the side which had been assigned to Stephanus
there was a small spring situated in a rocky depression which was filled
with scrubby bush. From this a pure, cool stream flowed. Immediately
after issuing from the scrub this stream lost itself in a swamp; near
its source, however, it had never been known to fail in the most severe
drought.

Although the spring was about a hundred paces from the dividing line, a
clause had been inserted in the will of old Tyardt, in terms of which
the water was to be held as common property between the owners of the
farm; thus stock from Gideon's land were to be allowed to drink at the
spring whenever circumstances required.

Within a very few years after old Tyardt's death the land was smitten by
a heavy drought and the Elandsfontein spring soon proved unequal to the
demands made upon it from both sides. Then strife of the most
embittered description resulted between the brothers. The dispute was
the subject of a law suit before the Supreme Court at Cape Town, but no
satisfactory settlement was arrived at. As a matter of fact - owing to
the clumsiness with which the will was drawn - no settlement was possible
without concessions on both sides, and neither brother would concede so
much as a hair's breadth.

The feud between the brothers became a scandal to the neighbourhood; in
fact they could hardly meet without insulting each other grossly. On
several occasions they had come to blows. The climax was reached when,
in response to a formal call, they appeared before the court of elders
of the Dutch Reformed Church at Stellenbosch. After due enquiry had
been made into the causes of the quarrel the brothers were called upon
to tender hands to each other in token of reconciliation. This they
both refused, in insulting terms, to do. Then the sacred and highly
respectable precincts of the vestry became the scene of an unseemly
brawl, and the brothers were formally excommunicated.

Some time before this, and shortly before matters became hopelessly
embittered, Gideon had married Aletta du Val, the daughter of a
neighbouring farmer. There was little love on Gideon's side, for he had
never got over his first passion for his fair-haired cousin.

One fateful morning in early summer Gideon placed the saddle upon his
horse, took down from the rack his long-barrelled "roer," his bandolier
of greased bullets and his powder-horn, and started for a ride along the
western boundary of his farm.

His flock of flat-tailed sheep were kraaled at an outpost which was in
charge of a Hottentot herd, and he wished to count them. This flock was
in the habit of drinking every morning at the stream which had caused so
much strife, for the weather had been dry for some months, and the
rivulet which sometimes ran in the dividing kloof had long since
disappeared.

The day was hot, but not oppressively so. Every now and then a breeze
sweet with suggestion of the distant western ocean would breathe
refreshingly over the arid land, acting like a tonic on all who inhaled
it.

The tulip-like cups of the sweet-scented gethyllis blossomed out in rich
masses from the hot sand on the wayside, the wild notes of the chanting
falcon seemed to fill the sky as the birds circled round the highest
points of the cliffs that flanked the valley; the hoarse call of the
sentinel baboons echoed from the black bluffs.

On reaching the kraal Gideon found that the sheep had been turned out
earlier than usual. Then he rode to the spring and found it evidenced
by the spoor, which lay thick about the water's edge, that the flock had
already been watered. Wondering at the reason for this manifestation of
activity on the part of the usually-lazy Hottentot herd, he lit his pipe
and stood for a moment or two enjoying the cool shade which surrounded
the spring, after the heat of the ride.

A slight sound caused him to turn his head and then he saw old Gert
Dragoonder, the herd, step out from the cover behind him. Gert had been
on the point of falling asleep when his master's arrival had startled
him.

After ascertaining from the Hottentot that the flock of sheep were
grazing safely behind the big bluff - well away from the dividing line -
Gideon handed over to him his horse and told him to take the animal up
to the sheep kraal and fasten it to a bush. The sea-breeze was
freshening and he meant, when the air became cooler, to take a turn on
foot among the rocks high up on the mountain side, in the hope of
getting a shot at a rhebok. Gideon lay back under a bush and finished
his pipe; then he turned upon his side and fell asleep.

He awoke to the sound of a foot step and opened his eyes. Before him,
on the other side of the spring, he could see Stephanus, who had just
dismounted from his horse. The animal began to graze, its bridle hung
and trailed upon the ground as it wandered on, cropping the herbage,
until it crossed the dividing kloof. When the animal had passed well
over the boundary Gideon arose stealthily, seized his gun and hurried
towards the horse with the intention of seizing it. But Stephanus, who
now noticed his brother for the first time, rushed forward and grappled
with him, and the two fell struggling to the ground.

Stephanus, being slightly the stronger of the two, managed to get Gideon
under; then he twisted the gun from his adversary's grasp, sprang away
to one side and looked back with a mocking smile.

Stephanus cocked the gun and again looked at Gideon who, having risen to
his feet, was trembling and livid with rage. Stephanus knew that he had
the law on his side; it had been laid down in the judgment of the court
that although Gideon had the right to drive his stock to drink at the
spring, he had no right to approach it for any other purpose. Up to
this not a word had been spoken; Gideon was foaming with impotent fury;
Stephanus, feeling that he was master of the situation, had managed to
keep his anger within bounds.

"See the Jackal caught in his own trap," he tauntingly shouted. "_My_
Hottentot wants an old gun to shoot baboons with; this one will just
do."

"You are nothing but a bastard jackal, yourself," yelled Gideon in
reply. "You are very brave because you have my gun in your hand; put it
down and I will take that dirty beard of yours to stuff my saddle with -
if it would not give the horse a sore back."

Stephanus, now in a transport of ungovernable fury, flung the gun away
from him, - into the scrub, - and sprang towards his brother. But the
gun, after crashing through the branches, went off, and Gideon fell to
the ground with his shoulder torn open by the bullet.

Stephanus, his anger now completely gone, and feeling as if the events
of the past few minutes had completely wiped out the black rancour which
had darkened so many years, knelt at the side of his unconscious brother
and cut away the coat and shirt from the neighbourhood of the wound.
Then he tried to staunch the flowing blood with strips of cloth which he
tore from his own garments.

The wound was a terrible one; the bone had been splintered, and portions
of it were visible at the spot where the bullet had emerged. Stephanus
made balls of moss which he tied up in linen rags and bound over the
gaping mouths of the hurt. Then he fetched water in his hat from the
spring and flung it into the pallid face of the sufferer, who thereupon
slowly began to revive.

When Gideon opened his eyes they rested upon his brother's face for a
few seconds without recognition, and then an expression of the most
bitter hatred dawned upon his countenance and gradually distorted his
features until they became almost unrecognisable. The sound of
approaching footsteps was heard, and immediately afterwards Gert
Dragoonder appeared. The Hottentot had seen Stephanus approach the
spring and then, after a short interval, heard the shot, so he returned
to see what had happened. When Gideon saw Gert, he raised himself
painfully on the elbow of his uninjured arm and gasped out in a voice
horrible to hear: -

"Gert - come here - you are my witness - the man, there - my brother - he
shot me. - There lies my gun in the bush - he threw it there to hide it - I
shall die of this. - Go to the Field Cornet - He tried to murder me - I am
already a dead man. - He must hang - "

Here he fell back once more in a faint Stephanus turned to the Hottentot
who, thinking that his master was dead, was stealing away with the
keenest terror depicted on his countenance.

"Here, Gert, - take my horse and ride to the homestead - tell your
mistress to send men with poles and sacks, and to send for Uncle
Diederick at once. Wait, - when you have told the mistress, ride off
yourself on my horse as fast as you can for Uncle Diederick."

Uncle Diederick was an old Boer who lived about half a day's journey
away, - to the westward, and who had a reputation which extended all over
the country side as a bone-setter and herbalist.

The Hottentot galloped off, and Stephanus again turned to the wounded
man, who by this time had recovered consciousness. When Gideon's glance
again fell upon his brother's face, his features, already twisted by the
agony which he endured, took on an expression of diabolical malice,
fearful to behold. Stephanus spoke gently to him once or twice, asking
if he were comfortable, but Gideon closed his eyes and maintained an
obstinate silence.

After about an hour had elapsed a party of people from the homestead
arrived, carrying poles, skins and sacks. Out of these a litter was
soon formed. When Gideon was lifted from the ground he groaned in
anguish and half-swooned. Again he rallied, and his eyes, blazing with
hate, fell again upon his brother.

"Remember" - he gasped - "if I die, he shot me. - There lies my gun - he
threw it there to hide it - "

Gideon insisted on the gun being sought for and removed from the scrub
before he was borne away, groaning and cursing, upon the improvised
litter. Stephanus attempted to accompany him, but was driven away with
imprecations.

Stephanus returned to the spring and sat down on a stone, his head bowed
over his clasped hands. He sat in this posture for some time; then he
arose, stood erect for a few moments and fell upon his knees. The
crisis of his life had come upon him; he stood upon that spiritual
eminence from which men see good and evil and must distinguish one from
another as clearly as one distinguishes night from day. The tangled
sophistry which his mixed motives weave to blind the wrong-doer, who
often would fain do right if he but knew how, was cut by the sword to
which the Apostle of the Gentiles likened the Word of God. It was his
Day of Judgment; he was the judge, the accuser and the accused.

When Stephanus van der Walt arose from his knees he felt that his sins
had fallen from him as the slough falls from a snake when the sun of
Spring wakens it from its winter sleep. His heart was burning with a
deep and fearful joy, - his brain was braced with giants' strength to a
sublime resolve.

In the exaltation of his newly acquired faith Stephanus knew for a
certainty that Gideon would not die of the accidentally inflicted wound,
and he thanked God for the agony that would purge his brother's soul of
its share in the mutual sin.

Then, with head erect and springing steps he wended his way homewards.



CHAPTER THREE.

BLIND ELSIE.

Stephanus had two children, both daughters. Sons had been born to him
but they died in infancy. His elder daughter, Sara, was seventeen years
of age at the time of the encounter at the spring; Elsie, the younger,
was eight. She had been blind from her birth.

Sara was comely to look upon. Tall and dark, with strongly marked
features, she resembled her father in appearance to a remarkable degree.
Little Elsie took after her mother; she was of fair complexion, with
long locks of dead-gold hair which took a wonderful depth of colour in
certain half-lights. Her eyes were very strange and in no way suggested
blindness. They were of a deep steel-blue colour, but in the lights
which made her hair wonderful an amber tone would shimmer up through the
blue and give forth startling gleams and flashes. This peculiarity was
especially noticeable when the child was under the influence of strong
excitement.


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