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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesDick Sands, The Boy Captain - Part The Second - Chapter 18. An Anxious Voyage
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Dick Sands, The Boy Captain - Part The Second - Chapter 18. An Anxious Voyage Post by :jsypolt Category :Long Stories Author :Jules Verne Date :May 2012 Read :1451

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Dick Sands, The Boy Captain - Part The Second - Chapter 18. An Anxious Voyage

PART THE SECOND
CHAPTER XVIII. AN ANXIOUS VOYAGE


Thus the canoe drifted on for a week, the forests that for many miles had skirted the river ultimately giving place to extensive jungles that stretched far away to the horizon. Destitute, fortunately for the travellers, of human inhabitants, the district abounded in a large variety of animal life; zebras, elands, caamas, sported on the bank, disappearing at night-fall before howling leopards and roaring lions.

It was Dick’s general custom, as he lay to for a while in the afternoon, to go ashore in search of food, and as the manioc, maize, and sorghum that were to be found were of a wild growth and consequently not fit for consumption, he was obliged to run the risk of using his gun. On the 4th of July he succeeded by a single shot in killing pokoo, a kind of antelope about five feet long, with annulated horns, a tawny skin dappled with bright spots, and a white belly. The venison proved excellent, and was roasted over a fire procured by the primitive method, practised, it is said, even by gorillas, of rubbing two sticks together.

In spite of these halts, and the time taken for the night’s rest, the distance accomplished by the 8th could not be estimated at less than a hundred miles. The river, augmented by only a few insignificant tributaries, had not materially increased in volume; its direction, however, had slightly changed more to the north-west. It afforded a very fair supply of fish, which were caught by lines made of the long stems of creepers furnished with thorns instead of fish-hooks, a considerable proportion being the delicate sandjtkas, which when dried may be transported to any climate; besides these there were the black usakas, the wide-headed monndés, and occasionally the little dagalas, resembling Thames whitebait.

Next day, Dick met with an adventure that put all his courage and composure to the test. He had noticed the horns of a caama projecting above the brushwood, and went ashore alone with the intention of securing it. He succeeded in getting tolerably close to it and fired, but he was terribly startled when a formidable creature bounded along some thirty paces ahead, and took possession of the prey he had just wounded.

It was a majestic lion, at least five feet in height, of the kind called káramoo, in distinction to the maneless species known as the Nyassi-lion. Before Dick had time to reload, the huge brute had caught sight of him, and without relaxing its hold upon the writhing antelope beneath its claws, glared upon him fiercely. Dick’s presence of mind did not forsake him; flight he knew was not to be thought of; his only chance he felt intuitively would be by keeping perfectly still; and aware that the beast would be unlikely to give up a struggling prey for another that was motionless, he stood face to face with his foe, not venturing to move an eyelid. In a few minutes the lion’s patience seemed to be exhausted; with a grand stateliness, it picked up the caama as easily as a dog would lift a hare, turned round, and lashing the bushes with its tail, disappeared in the jungle.

It took Dick some little time to recover himself sufficiently to return to the canoe. On arriving, he said nothing of the peril to which he had been exposed, but heartily congratulated himself that they had means of transport without making their way through jungles and forests.

As they advanced, they repeatedly came across evidences that the country had not been always, as now it was, utterly devoid oi population; more than once, they observed traces which betokened the former existence of villages; either some ruined palisades or the débris of some thatched huts, or some solitary sacred tree within an enclosure would indicate that the death of a chief had, according to custom, made a native tribe migrate to new quarters.

If natives were still dwelling in the district, as was just probable, they must have been living underground, only emerging at night like beasts of prey, from which they were only a grade removed.

Dick Sands had every reason to feel convinced that cannibalism had been practised in the neighbourhood, Three times, as he was wandering in the forest, he had come upon piles of ashes and half-charred human bones, the remnants, no doubt, of a ghastly meal, and although he mentioned nothing of what he had seen to Mrs. Weldon, he made up his mind to go ashore as seldom as possible, and as often as he found it absolutely necessary to go, he gave Hercules strict directions to push off into mid-stream at the very first intimation of danger.

A new cause of anxiety arose on the following evening, and made it necessary for them to take the most guarded measures of precaution. The river-bed had widened out into a kind of lagoon, and on the right side of this, built upon piles in the water, not only was there a collection of about thirty huts, but the fires gleaming under the thatch, made it evident that they were all inhabited. Unfortunately the only channel of the stream flowed close under the huts, the river elsewhere being so obstructed with rocks that navigation of any kind was impossible. Nothing was more probable than that the natives would have set their nets all across the piles, and if so, the canoe would be sure to be obstructed, and an alarm must inevitably be raised. Every caution seemed to be unavailing, because the canoe must follow the stream; however, in the lowest of whispers Dick ordered Hercules to keep clear as much as he could of the worm-eaten timber. The night was not very dark, which was equally an advantage and a disadvantage, as while it permitted those on board to steer as they wanted, it did not prevent them from being seen.

The situation became more and more critical. About a hundred feet ahead, the channel was very contracted; two natives, gesticulating violently, were seen squatting on the pilework; a few moments more and their voices could be heard; it was obvious that they had seen the floating mass; apprehending that it was going to destroy their nets, they yelled aloud and shouted for assistance; instantly five or six negroes scrambled down the piles, and perched themselves upon the cross-beams.

On board the canoe the profoundest silence was maintained. Dick only signalled his directions to Hercules, without uttering a word, while Jack performed his part by holding Dingo’s mouth tightly closed, to stop the low growlings which the faithful watch-dog seemed resolved to make; but fortunately every sound was overpowered by the rushing of the stream and the clamour of the negroes, as they hurriedly drew in their nets. If they should raise them in time, all might be well, but if, on the other hand, the canoe should get entangled, the consequences could hardly fail to be disastrous. The current in its narrow channel was so strong that Dick was powerless either to modify his course or to slacken it.

Half a minute more, and the canoe was right under the woodwork, but the efforts of the natives had already elevated the nets so that the anticipated danger was happily escaped; but it chanced that in making its way through the obstacle, a large piece of the grass-thatch got detached. One of the negroes raised a sudden shout of alarm, and it seemed only too probable that he had caught a sight of the travellers below and was informing his companions. This apprehension, too, was only momentary; the current had changed almost to a rapid, and carried the canoe along with such velocity that the lacustrine village was quickly out of sight.

“Steer to the left!” cried Dick, finding that the riverbed had again become clear.

A stiff pull at the tiller made the craft fly in that direction.

Dick went to the stern, and scanned the moonlit waters. All was perfectly still, no canoe was in pursuit; perhaps the natives had not one to use; but certain it was that when daylight dawned no vestige of an inhabitant was to be seen. Nevertheless Dick thought it prudent for a while to steer close under the shelter of the left-hand shore.

By the end of the next four days the aspect of the country had undergone a remarkable change, the jungle having given place to a desert as dreary as the Kalahari itself. The river appeared interminable, and it became a matter of serious consideration how to get a sufficiency of food. Fish was scarce, or at least hard to catch, and the arid soil provided no means of sustenance for antelopes, so that nothing was to be gained from the chase. Carnivorous animals also had quite disappeared, and the silence of the night was broken, not by the roar of wild beasts, but by the croaking of frogs in a discordant chorus, which Cameron has compared to the clanking of hammers and the grating of files in a ship-builder’s yard.

Far away both to the east and west the outlines of hills could be faintly discerned, but the shores on either hand were perfectly flat and devoid of trees. Euphorbias, it is true, grew in considerable numbers, but as they were only of the oil-producing species, and not the kind from which cassava or manioc is procured, they were useless in an alimentary point of view.

Dick was becoming more and more perplexed, when Hercules happened to mention that the natives often eat young fern-fronds and the pith of the papyrus, and that before now he had himself been reduced to the necessity of subsisting on nothing better.

“We must try them,” said Dick.

Both ferns and papyrus abounded on the banks, and a meal was prepared, the sweet soft pith of the papyrus being found very palatable. Jack in particular appeared to enjoy it extremely, but it was not in any way a satisfying diet.

Thanks to Cousin Benedict, a fresh variety in the matter of food was found on the following day. Since the discovery of the “Hexapodes Benedictus” he had recovered his spirits, and, having fastened his prize safely inside his hat, he wandered about, as often as he had a chance, in his favourite pursuit of insect-hunting. As he was rummaging in the long grass, he put up a bird which flew but a very short distance. Benedict recognized it by its peculiar note, and, seeing Dick take his gun to aim at it, exclaimed,—

“Don’t fire, don’t fire! that bird will be worth nothing for food among five of us.”

“It will be dinner enough for Jack,” said Dick, who, finding that the bird did not seem in a hurry to make its escape, delayed his shot for a moment, without intending to be diverted from his purpose of securing it.

“You mustn’t fire,” insisted Benedict, “it is an indicator; it will show you where there are lots of honey.”

Aware that a few pounds of honey would really be of more value than a little bird, Dick lowered his gun, and in company with the entomologist set off to follow the indicator, which seemed, by alternately flying and stopping, to be inviting them to come on, and they had but a little way to go before they observed several swarms of bees buzzing around some old stems hidden amongst the euphorbias. Notwithstanding Benedict’s remonstrances against depriving the bees of the fruits of their industry, Dick instantly set to work, and without remorse suffocated them by burning dry grass underneath. Having secured a good amount of honey, he left the comb to the indicator as its share of the booty, and went back with his companion to the canoe.

The honey was acceptable, but it did not do much to alleviate the cravings of hunger.

Next day it happened that they had just stopped for their accustomed rest, when they observed that an enormous swarm of grasshoppers had settled at the mouth of a creek close by. Two or three deep they covered the soil, myriads and myriads of them adhering to every shrub.

“The natives eat those grasshoppers,” said Benedict, “and like them too.”

The remark produced an instant effect; all hands were busied in collecting them, and a large supply was quickly gathered: the canoe might have been filled ten times over.

Grilled over a slow fire, they were found to be very palatable eating, and, spite of his qualms of conscience, Benedict himself made a hearty meal.

But although the gnawings of absolute hunger were thus assuaged, all the travellers began to long most anxiously for the voyage to come to an end. The mode of transit indeed might be less exhausting to the bodily powers than a land march would have been, but the excessive heat by day, the damp mists at night, and the incessant attacks of mosquitoes, all combined to render the passage extremely trying. There was no telling how long it would last, and Dick was equally uncertain whether it might end in a few days, or be protracted for a month. The direction which the stream was taking was itself a subject of perplexity.

A fresh surprise was now in store.

As Jack, a few mornings afterwards, was standing at the bow peering through an aperture in the grass canopy above him, he suddenly turned round and cried,—

“The sea! the sea!”

Dick started forwards, and looked eagerly in the same direction.

A large expanse of water was visible in the horizon, but after having surveyed it for a moment or two, he said,—

“No, Jack, it is not the sea, it is a great river; it is running west, and I suppose this river runs into it. Perhaps it is the Zaire.”

“Let us hope it is,” said Mrs. Weldon earnestly.

Most cordially did Dick Sands re-echo her words, being well aware that at the mouth of that river were Portuguese villages, where a refuge might assuredly be found.

For several succeeding days the canoe, still concealed by its covering, floated on the silvery surface of this new-found stream. On either side the banks became less arid, and there seemed everything to encourage the few survivors of the “Pilgrim” to believe that they would soon see the last of the perils and toils of their journey.

They were too sanguine. Towards three o’clock on the morning of the 18th, Dick, who was at his usual post at the bow, fancied he heard a dull rumbling towards the west. Mrs. Weldon, Jack, and Benedict were all asleep. Calling Hercules to him, he asked him whether he could not hear a strange noise. The night was perfectly calm, and not a breath of air was stirring. The negro listened attentively, and suddenly, his eyes sparkling with delight, exclaimed,—

“Yes, captain, I hear the sea!”

Dick shook his head and answered,—

“It is not the sea, Hercules.”

“Not the sea!” cried the negro, “then what can it be?”

“We must wait till daybreak,” replied Dick, “and meanwhile we shall have to keep a sharp look-out.”

Hercules returned to his place, but only to continue listening with ever-increasing curiosity. The rumbling perceptibly increased till it became a continued roar.

With scarcely any intervening twilight night passed into day. Just in front, scarcely more than half a mile ahead, a great mist was hanging over the river; it was not an ordinary fog, and when the sun rose, the light of the dawn caused a brilliant rainbow to arch itself from shore to shore.

In a voice so loud that it awoke Mrs. Weldon, Dick gave his order to Hercules to steer for the bank:—

“Quick, quick, Hercules! ashore! ashore! there are cataracts close ahead!”

And so it was. Within little more than a quarter of a mile the bed of the river sank abruptly some hundred feet, and the foaming waters rushed down in a magnificent fall with irresistible velocity. A few minutes more and the canoe must have been swallowed in the deep abyss.

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