CHAPTER VIII. IBRAHIM's RETURN.
I sent my men to camp, and, accompanied by Richarn, mounted on my horse "Mouse," I rode through the park-like ground in quest of game. I saw varieties of antelopes, including the rare and beautiful maharif; but all were so wild, and the ground so open, that I could not get a shot. This was the more annoying, as the maharif was an antelope that I believed to be a new species. It had often disappointed me; for although I had frequently seen them on the south-west frontier of Abyssinia, I had never been able to procure one, owing to their extreme shyness, and to the fact of their inhabiting open plains, where stalking was impossible. I had frequently examined them with a telescope, and had thus formed an intimate acquaintance with their peculiarities. The maharif is very similar to the roan antelope of South Africa, but is mouse colour, with black and white stripes upon the face. The horns are exactly those of the roan antelope, very massive and corrugated, bending backwards to the shoulders. The withers are extremely high, which give a peculiarly heavy appearance to the shoulders, much heightened by a large and stiff black mane like that of a hog-maned horse. I have a pair of horns in my possession that I obtained through the assistance of a lion, who killed the maharif while drinking near my tent; unfortunately, the skin was torn to pieces, and the horns and skull were all that remained.
Failing, as usual, in my endeavours to obtain a shot, I made a considerable circuit, and shortly observed the tall heads of giraffes towering over the low mimosas. There is no animal in nature so picturesque in his native haunts as the giraffe. His food consists of the leaves of trees, some qualities forming special attractions, especially the varieties of the mimosa, which, being low, permit an extensive view to his telescopic eyes. He has a great objection to high forests. The immense height of the giraffe gives him a peculiar advantage, as he can command an extraordinary range of vision, and thereby be warned against the approach of his two great enemies, man and the lion. No animal is more difficult to stalk than the giraffe, and the most certain method of hunting is that pursued by the Hamran Arabs, on the frontiers of Abyssinia, who ride him down and hamstring him with the broadsword at full gallop. A good horse is required, as, although the gait of a giraffe appears excessively awkward from the fact of his moving the fore and hind legs of one side simultaneously, he attains a great pace, owing to the length of his stride, and his bounding trot is more than a match for any but a superior horse.
The hoof is as beautifully proportioned as that of the smallest gazelle, and his lengthy legs and short back give him every advantage for speed and endurance. There is a rule to be observed in hunting the giraffe on horseback: the instant he starts, he must be pressed - it is the speed that tells upon him, and the spurs must be at work at the very commencement of the hunt, and the horse pressed along at his best pace; it must be a race at top speed from the start, but, should the giraffe be allowed the slightest advantage for the first five minutes, the race will be against the horse.
I was riding "Filfil," my best horse for speed, but utterly useless for the gun. I had a common regulation-sword hanging on my saddle in lieu of the long Arab broadsword that I had lost at Obbo, and starting at full gallop at the same instant as the giraffes, away we went over the beautiful park. Unfortunately Richarn was a bad rider, and I, being encumbered with a rifle, had no power to use the sword. I accordingly trusted to ride them down and to get a shot, but I felt that the unsteadiness of my horse would render it very uncertain. The wind whistled in my ears as we flew along over the open plain. The grass was not more than a foot high, and the ground hard; the giraffes about four hundred yards distant steaming along, and raising a cloud of dust from the dry earth, as on this side of the mountains there had been no rain. Filfil was a contradiction; he loved a hunt and had no fear of wild animals, but he went mad at the sound of a gun. Seeing the magnificent herd of about fifteen giraffes before him, the horse entered into the excitement and needed no spur - down a slight hollow, flying over the dry buffalo holes, now over a dry watercourse and up the incline on the other side - then again on the level, and the dust in my eyes from the cloud raised by the giraffes showed that we were gaining in the race; misericordia! - low jungle lay before us - the giraffes gained it, and spurring forward through a perfect cloud of dust now within a hundred yards of the game we shot through the thorny bushes. In another minute or two I was close up, and a splendid bull giraffe was crashing before me like a locomotive obelisk through the mimosas, bending the elastic boughs before him in his irresistible rush, which sprang back with a force that would have upset both horse and rider had I not carefully kept my distance. The jungle seemed alive with the crowd of orange red, the herd was now on every side, as I pressed the great bull before me. Oh for an open plain! I was helpless to attack, and it required the greatest attention to keep up the pace through the thick mimosas without dashing against their stems and branches. The jungle became thicker, and although I was in the middle of the herd and within ten yards of several giraffes, I could do nothing. A mass of thick and tangled thorns now received them, and closed over the hardly-contested race - I was beaten.