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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesIn The Wilds Of Africa - Chapter 16
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In The Wilds Of Africa - Chapter 16 Post by :mentor4u Category :Long Stories Author :William H. G. Kingston Date :May 2012 Read :3049

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In The Wilds Of Africa - Chapter 16

CHAPTER SIXTEEN. AMONG SAVAGES

"What can have become of them?" exclaimed Natty for the twentieth time as we stood examining the canoe. "But here come the blacks. Perhaps they will find out."

The chief and several of his followers assembled round the canoe, and began to talk eagerly to each other. They arrived at length at some conclusion, but what it was we could not divine. Then they examined the ground round, and seemed to discover certain marks, as one called the other to look at them. Then away they ran up the path, and began beating about in the surrounding wood. They came back shaking their heads, and when we by signs asked them what had happened, they pointed to the south.

"Depend upon it, Andrew," exclaimed Natty, "Leo and Mango have gone in that direction. Let us set off after them."

"I will try and make the blacks understand that we intend to do so," I answered.

I succeeded in explaining my wishes; but the blacks only shook their woolly pates, and made signs that if we did, we should be knocked on the head, or that daggers would be stuck into us.

"Oh, dear! Oh, dear!" cried Natty, "can that have been the fate of Leo and Mango?"

"I hope not," I said. "If anybody has carried them off, they would not have done so for the sake of killing them. What I suspect is, that the neighbouring tribe is at war with our present friends, and that they happened to be making a raid into the country, and falling in with Leo and Mango, carried them off captives. It was evident from the signs these people made to us that they did not wish us to cross the stream, which they probably considered the boundary line between their territory and that of the tribe with which they are at war. I may be mistaken, but we must try and return as soon as possible, and let Timbo and Igubo know what has occurred. If we can ascertain from them to what place Leo and Mango have been carried, we must lose no time in endeavouring to release them."

"Oh yes," said Natty, "I am nearly sure they must have been carried away prisoners, or they would have come up the river and endeavoured to release us, as I said they would do."

When, however, I explained to the chief that we wished to return to the part of the country from whence we had come, I found that he had no intention of letting us go. Still I hoped, of course, that we might find the means of escaping. At present, indeed, as we had no food, we were not unwilling to accompany the chief to his village, to which by signs he invited us. As we walked along I saw him eyeing my gun. I showed it him, holding it, however, pretty tightly, lest he should think fit to appropriate it. I saw by the way he looked at the weapon, that he was unacquainted with its use. First he examined the lock, and then put the muzzle to his eye and looked down the barrel. I hoped that before long, by means of my gun, I might be able to gain the respect of the people. I determined, therefore, not to fire until a favourable opportunity should occur. I in the meantime took great care that no one should wrest the weapon out of my hands. The people as we went along gathered round us, some coming up and touching our clothes, others putting their hands on our faces, evidently unable to understand the light colour of our skins. When the people began to press too closely round, the chief ordered them angrily to keep at a distance; and some still persevering, he swung his spear round and round, hitting them, without much ceremony, either on their shins or heads, when they quickly retreated to a more respectful distance.

I was very glad when at length the village appeared in sight. It was situated on the borders of a small gulf, I will call it, or the mouth of a stream near the lake, surrounded by a belt of elegant fan-palms and a number of gigantic wild fruit trees. Beyond it the lake was seen extending far as the eye could reach, though in some places the water was concealed from sight by vast masses of reeds and rushes of every shade and hue, several beautiful little islands being dotted over it, adorned with the richest vegetation, its many beauties heightened by the brilliant rays of a tropical sun, somewhat softened by the silvery mist which rose from the lake. The village was very similar in character to that which Stanley had visited,--so I concluded from his description. A plentiful repast was placed before us by the chief's wife and her attendants soon after we arrived. The principal dish consisted of hippopotamus flesh, but there were plantains and cassava porridge, with an abundance of wild fruits, the best of which was the moshoma, both fresh and dried. We had seen the tree growing outside the village. It grows to a great height. The trunk was beautifully straight, and the branches did not begin to spread out till very nearly at the summit. The fruit can thus only be gathered when it falls to the ground. It is then collected and exposed to the sun for some time. After it has been dried it is pounded in a mortar, when it is fit for use. In that state it will keep for some time. It is generally mixed with water, and made into a sort of jelly, which tastes and looks not unlike honey. It is especially useful for giving a flavour to the otherwise tasteless cassava porridge.

The chief seemed very well disposed towards us, and now, as the day was drawing to a close, he pointed to some mats in a corner of his hut, and signified that we might sleep there. Having been in exercise all the day, in spite of our anxiety we slept very soundly. The village was astir at an early hour. Though the appearance of the people was not attractive, they were more civilised than I had expected, and in the neighbourhood of the village we saw a wide extent of fairly cultivated ground. A bowl of cassava porridge, sweetened with moshoma, was placed before us for our morning meal, and Natty and I did ample justice to it. We now thought that we might let the chief know we were in a hurry to go away, but he shook his head, saying that that could not be. What his object was in keeping us we were unable to comprehend. It was very evident that he had made up his mind we should stay with him, for some time at least. The more we urged him to allow us to take our departure, the more determined he seemed to keep us. At last I thought it wise to give up the point for the present. We were allowed, however, to walk about, but were always accompanied by either the chief himself, or four or five of his attendants armed with spears, or bows and arrows. Some of the latter were blunt-headed, and others were barbed, and, I suspected, poisoned. We found a party of them setting out for the forest at a short distance, and wishing to see what they were about, we accompanied them. We found them engaged in making what we afterwards discovered to be bee-hives. They first took off the bark of some small trees, fifteen or eighteen inches in diameter and about five feet in width. They managed this by making two incisions right round, the trunk five feet apart. A longitudinal slit from one to the other enabled them to detach the bark from the trunk. The bark immediately assumed the shape it had before, and where the slit was made it was sewn together again with the fibre of a tree called the _motuia_. It thus formed a wooden cylinder. A top and bottom were next fixed in it, formed of grass rope, the lower one having a hole in the centre for the ingress and egress of the bees. When the hives, as I shall call them, were completed, they carried them off, and placed them high up in lofty trees in different parts of the forest. The bees which were flying about seeking habitations soon discovered them, and even while we were there some were already taken possession of. A piece of cloth was tied round the trunk of each tree, which, when I came to inquire about the matter, I learned was looked upon as a charm, and was sufficient to prevent any thieves robbing the hives. In the woods a number of beautiful yellow birds were flying about, some of which I afterwards saw in cages in the house of the chief and several of his people. The cages were very neatly made, and had traps on the tops to entice their still free companions. The chief called the birds _cabazo_, and I found that they were a species of canary. They fed them on a plant called the _lotsa_, of which they cultivate a considerable quantity for food, and wild canaries come and help themselves, much as sparrows do to the seeds which the gardeners have sown at home. I saw also several tame pigeons. Early in the morning numerous other little songsters were chirruping merrily away, some singing quite as loudly as our English thrushes; and one, the king-hunter, _Halcyon senegalensis_, makes a clear whirring sound like that of a whistle with a pea in it. As we were returning, suddenly we saw streaming out of a hole innumerable flying creatures. They formed a dense column. Out they came; there seemed to be no end of them. No sooner did our companions catch sight of them than they made chase. As the insects began to scatter, they appeared like snow-flakes floating about in the air. They were, I suspected, white ants. After flying a considerable distance they alighted on the ground, when, as we watched them, they bent up their tails, unhooked their wings, and began immediately digging away with wonderful rapidity into the earth. They had good need of haste, for birds were seen assembling from all quarters, numerous hawks being among them, who began snapping them up with the greatest avidity. The natives, too, immediately set to work to collect them, giving them a pinch and putting them into baskets which they carried at their sides. They were quite as eager to obtain them as the birds were. On picking some of them up I found that they were fully half an inch long, as thick as a crow-quill, and very fat. One I caught had its wings on, and fancying from the ease with which its fellows got rid of these appendages themselves that I could help it, I made the attempt, but the wings appeared to me as if hooked into the body, and I tore away a piece of the flesh at the same time. As long as an ant was to be found, the natives continued picking them up; and I suspect, out of the whole brood but a small number could have reached places of safety beneath the earth.

Our companions hurried home with their prizes, when they immediately lighted fires, and roasted the ants, much as they might have done chestnuts. All hands gathered round and ate them eagerly, evidently considering them among the greatest of delicacies. When they saw us watching them, they offered us some. "No, no," said Natty; "I do not know what I may do, but I have not come to that yet." The chief, who had the larger share brought to him, sat on the ground, rolling his eyes round as he dropped insect after insect into his mouth, evidently enjoying the repast, and seemed to look with an eye of pity on us when we declined partaking of it.

Soon after this we observed a number of the men dressing themselves up in a curious manner. Some had covered their heads with caps made of the skins of water-antelopes, with the horns still attached, part of the skin hanging down over their shoulders so as to conceal the upper part of their bodies. Others had manufactured the heads and beaks and long necks of white cranes into coverings for their heads. Carrying their bows and arrows in their hands, and quivers and darts at their backs, they set forth to the bank of the lake. We watched them crawling along amid the reeds, their heads alone being visible, and looking very like the animals they intended to represent. I could see in the distance on a sedgy bank several dark objects, which I guessed were crocodiles. The hunters approached them cautiously, now stopping, just as an antelope or crane would do to feed, now advancing again, now stopping, till they had got within bow-shot of the creatures. Then, quickly raising their weapons, they let fly at the same moment. The result at that distance I could not ascertain, but it appeared to me that, although I saw some movement among the objects, yet two or more remained on the bank. The hunters rushed on, now careless of exhibiting themselves, and in a short time returned with some of the flesh of the creatures they had killed. They immediately set out again, and as I watched to ascertain the direction they took, I saw in the far distance several buffaloes going down to drink at the lake. They were not back till dark; but, from the quantity of buffalo flesh they brought with them, I had no doubt they had killed one or two of the animals. Their plump cheeks and bodies showed that they had an abundance of food; and they were liberal in bestowing on us as much as we could desire.

Our friends remained for a couple of days, enjoying, after the African fashion, the abundance of food they had collected. Whenever we signified our wish to depart, the chief, as before, strenuously opposed it. In vain I protested against being detained, and made signs that we were determined to go, whether he wished it or not. This made him very angry, and from his manner when he left us, we feared that, should we really make the attempt, he would use force to prevent us. We therefore, as other people have done, had to yield to circumstances, and to make the best of our position. At last we agreed that we would appear to be contented with our lot, so as, if possible, to throw our captors off their guard. They were the most active and persevering hunters of any people we had yet met with. The morning after the last piece of buffalo flesh had been eaten (it had been rather too high for our stomachs), we found that they were preparing to set off on a hunting expedition, and we were not sorry to find that they expected us to accompany them. I carried my gun: I should have said I never let it out of my hand by day, and always placed it under my mat by night, that no one might take it from me. The chief, I fancy, looked upon it as my fetish, and certainly regarded it with considerable awe. Whether or not he had discovered that it had made the noise he had heard, I could not as yet ascertain. Among the hunters was a young man, whom we found to be the chief's son. He was one of the best-looking of the tribe, though that is not saying much for him. He was, however, good-natured, and seemed inclined to make friends of us. We therefore kept by his side. About thirty hunters set out, headed by the young chief. They were armed with long spears and bundles of javelins, on which they appeared to depend for killing their prey, trusting to their activity and the knowledge of the animals they might attack to get out of their way. We passed through the wood we had before visited, and continued across an open prairie till we arrived at a forest of considerable size, extending on either hand as far as the eye could reach. The band at once entered it, spreading themselves out so as to beat a large part of the wood, but yet continuing within call, if not always within sight of each other. Natty and I followed the young chief. After proceeding some way one of the men came up, and presently we saw that they were all closing in towards a point a little way ahead. As we advanced I saw, just over the bushes, the back of a large white rhinoceros. The monster had come there probably to enjoy the shade of the wood. It seemed to be alone. The men all approached cautiously, concealing themselves under the brushwood till they were close upon the creature, then, starting up, they hurled their darts at it. The rhinoceros started forward, pursued by the hunters, the young chief taking the lead. Suddenly the creature seemed to stagger forward. Its front feet had sunk into a hole or artificial pit, I could not ascertain which. As it did so, instead of struggling, it remained perfectly quiet. At this juncture the young chief, with his spear in his hand, leaped on the animal's back, intending apparently to plunge the spear into its head behind the ear. At that moment it suddenly reared itself up, and before our friend could leap off again began tearing away at a rapid rate through the forest. He clung to his seat in a wonderful way. His spear, however, before he could strike it into the animal's neck, was hurled by a bough from his hand. The hunters pursued, shrieking loudly through fear of the life of their young chief. I too dreaded lest he should be thrown off, when the animal would too probably turn round upon him, and, before assistance could arrive, might transfix him with its terrible horn. I was also afraid to fire, lest I might wound the young man. His companions followed, shrieking and shouting as fast as they could. Natty and I followed after, but could not make way through the thick and tangled underwood so rapidly as the blacks. We were therefore left behind. Presently the rhinoceros turned, and came tearing towards us, forcing its way through the underwood. Still the black kept his seat, when the rhinoceros, swerving on one side, passed under the bough of a tree, and in the same manner that he had lost his spear he himself was hurled to the ground. He attempted to rise, but his ankle had apparently been sprained, and before he had gone many paces down he fell. The enraged creature seemed aware that it had got rid of its rider. It stopped, and eyeing him with a savage glance, rushed towards him with its horn pointed at his body. Now, I felt, was the time for me to fire, or the young man would certainly be killed. I had, providentially, a rest for my gun, and pulling the trigger, my bullet hit the rhinoceros directly behind the ear. The impetus it had gained sent it on several paces. A loud shriek rent the air; but just before it reached the young chief over it fell, and lay perfectly still. We ran forward to help up our young friend. He glanced up in my countenance with a look which showed that he was grateful for the service I had rendered him. He then took my hand and pressed it to his lips. In a few minutes the rest of the hunters came up, when he addressed them, and, I concluded, was telling them what I had done. I certainly never fired a shot with so much satisfaction. The men came round Natty and I, their whole demeanour completely changed, evidently looking upon us as heroes worthy of renown, while some begged to examine the wonderful weapon which had done the deed.

As soon as the hunters had cut up the rhinoceros, we returned in triumph to the village. The chief showed that he appreciated the service I had rendered him in saving the life of his son by warmly embracing us--a ceremony, by-the-by, with which we would gladly have dispensed. We were now, instead of being looked upon as prisoners at large, treated with every consideration; and when I signified that the only reward we required was to be allowed to return to our homes, I understood him to beg that we would remain one day longer, when he would accompany us as far as he could venture to go.

I suspected that his tribe were at war with their neighbours, as scouts were constantly coming and going, and that this was the reason why he could not accompany us in our search for Leo and Mango. We would gladly at once have set off to look for them; but when we showed a wish to go to the south, he made us understand that they were already carried a long way off, and that, coming from his village, we should be looked upon as enemies, and probably murdered. This we thought so likely, that we agreed it would be prudent to return home to obtain the assistance of our friends.

There was a grand feast at night on the flesh of the rhinoceros, and dancing and singing were kept up till a late hour--an amusement we would willingly have avoided.

Natty and I talked over the possibility of returning in the canoe, but there were no paddles; and we could scarcely have propelled her, even had we made some. We begged the chief to take care of her till our return, and this he promised, as far as we could understand, faithfully to do.

Next morning we again expressed our anxiety to set off, but the chief showed no inclination to let us go; and each time that we pressed him, he signified that we must remain a little longer. We were the less unwilling to do this, in the hope that we might, in the meantime, gain some news of Leo and Mango, and we once more urged the chief to try and discover where they were. He let us understand that he wanted first to have another hunt, and that I must bring my gun to assist him. I, of course, expressed my readiness to comply with his wishes, but resolved not to expend much of our powder, as we should require it on our return home. We were allowed to wander about the village wherever we liked, but we observed that all the time we were carefully watched. The women and children always started up with looks of astonishment when we came near them, the young ones running away, frightened at our white skins, just as European children would be alarmed at the sudden appearance of a black man among them. On the outskirts of the village, near the river, we came upon a group of people employed in burning large quantities of a coarse-looking rush and stalks of a plant which I had seen growing in a marsh near at hand. I had, the day before, by chance tasted the water in the march, and found it slightly brackish. On examining the proceedings of the people, I found that they were employed in manufacturing salt. Before them were a number of funnel-shaped baskets formed of grass rope. These were filled with the ashes, and water being poured into them, percolated through the basket-work into calabashes placed below to receive it. They were then put out in the sun, and the water evaporating, left a small amount of salt in each. Although there was not a sufficient quantity for salting fish or meat, the supply was ample for ordinary use, and we were glad to purchase some with a few beads which we had remaining in our pockets. Amply supplied as we are in England with that necessary article, we can scarcely appreciate its value in a country where it is not to be obtained without great difficulty. Natty and I agreed to husband our little stock carefully, as for the last few days we had felt the want of it when eating rhinoceros flesh. We had observed several animals coming down to this salt marsh to chew the coarse grass or to lick up the salt collected on the reeds.

As we were walking along we heard the chief calling to us, and found that he was prepared to set out on his proposed expedition. We saw as we proceeded many large animals in the distance, but they had evidently learned caution from the attacks made on them by the natives, and would not approach the village. As we appeared they took to flight, keeping always a long way out of range of our companions' arrows. Once I got near a rhinoceros, but was unwilling to fire without feeling tolerably sure of hitting the animal, as I had determined not to throw away a shot if I could help it. At length we got into a region where we could obtain cover among low bushes, and occasionally clumps of trees. The natives took advantage of this, and hiding themselves under bushes, clumps of tall reeds or grass, proceeded for some distance. Natty and I followed their example. At last I saw, a little way from a grove of trees, a herd of cameleopards quietly feeding. The blacks lay like logs of wood on the ground, every now and then creeping slowly on when the heads of the animals were turned away from them. Still they were too far off for me to make sure of a shot. I saw, a little way on, a solitary bush. I thought if I could reach it I might be able to bring down one of the nearest giraffes. The natives watched me eagerly as, trailing my gun after me, I cautiously approached the bush. I was very anxious to kill an animal, in order still further to establish our credit, hoping thereby also more speedily to obtain permission to depart. I could not help constantly thinking of the alarm our prolonged absence would cause our friends.

As I crept on I saw the giraffes turning their heads, raised high in air, now in one direction, now in the other, as if they suspected danger. I should have said that they were near a small grove of trees, from the branches of which some of the herd were plucking the leaves. This grove had partly concealed our party, or we should not have approached so easily. I had never prided myself on being a sportsman; but I had steady nerves, and of late had given good practice to my eye, and thoroughly knew the range of my rifle. The bush was gained. A large bull cameleopard stood the nearest, every now and then turning his head to pluck a bunch of leaves from a branch which no other animal could have reached, but still apparently on the watch for danger. I raised myself on my knee, and lifting my rifle, took a steady aim at his breast. At the report the whole herd moved off, swinging their legs over the plain at a rapid rate. I thought that I must have missed, and yet my bullet seemed to strike the creature at whom I had aimed. Away he went with the rest. Before, however, he had proceeded fifty yards down he suddenly fell, and lay prostrate on the earth. The blacks, with loud shrieks and shouts, rose from their hiding-places and darted forward, and in a few minutes the wounded giraffe was surrounded by a band of dancing, shrieking, shouting blacks, delighted at the thought of the meal he was about to afford them. Natty and I stood at a little distance, when suddenly we saw the giraffe raise his neck high above the heads of the shrieking band. Presently out went his legs, and the chief and his followers were seen scattered here and there on every side, some prostrate on the ground, others scampering off to avoid the fury of the kicks of the dying animal. I thought some of them must have been killed. It was his last effort, however, and again sinking down, he lay perfectly quiet. The blacks picked themselves up, showing that at all events no mortal injury had been done, and again assembled round the body of the animal, though keeping at a more cautious distance till they had ascertained that he was really dead. On finding this to be the case, they sprang on the body, and began hacking away at it with their knives, till, in a short time, it presented nothing but a mass of mutilated flesh. The chief seemed highly delighted at our success, and I took the opportunity of again urging him to allow us to go, trying to make him understand that I would return, if he wished it, with companions who were still better able to kill game for him than I was.

As a large portion of the day had been expended, without attempting to seek for more game the chief led us back to the village.

"What do you think he will do?" asked Natty as we walked along. "If he will not let us go willingly, I propose that we take French leave, as Leo would say, and I do not think he will attempt to stop us by force."

At a little distance from the village there stood, under a grove of trees, a hideous idol, at the top of a stout post. It was elaborately carved, representing rather the face of an ape than that of a man, and covered with red, yellow, and black paint. The hunters placed some of the meat of the giraffe before it, on a block of stone; but only a small quantity, and that of the least valuable parts. I guessed by this that they had no great respect for their idol. "Poor people," said Natty, "perhaps they guess that they can cheat even it, and that it will not be able to distinguish between the best and worst parts." Natty and I were also tempted to stop. He made signs to the chief, touching his own ears, and then shaking his head and pointing to the ears of the idol, to signify that it could not hear. Then he pointed to its mouth, and in the same way tried to explain that it could not eat the meat placed before it. Then he touched its head, to show that it could not understand. We fancied that the chief comprehended his meaning, for he laughed, and cast a contemptuous look at the ugly block. Although he did this, however, in our presence, it is possible that he still had some superstitious fear of the idol, or of the evil spirit it might have been intended to represent.

"The poor Africans have no knowledge of the powerful, kind, and merciful God," observed Natty. "The beings to whom they pay respect they believe to be malign spirits, who will do them harm if they do not attempt to propitiate them by gifts and observances."

I may observe here that we never paid the slightest respect to the negro idols, and never were treated worse in consequence; indeed, I believe that they would have despised us if we had done so, for though they may fancy that their idols have something to do with them, they believe that they have no power over the white men.

There was great rejoicing in the village on the arrival of the flesh of the giraffe, the greater portion of which was consumed long before the night was over. While seated with the chief, I again asked him to let us go, and he seemed to intimate that he would do so the following morning. While we were at supper, Natty proposed that we should hide as much food as would last us for the following day. "A good idea," I observed. The pockets of our shooting-jackets were capacious. Whenever the chief was looking another way, we contrived to slip in large pieces of meat and cassava cake, besides pieces of plantain. They made somewhat of a mess in our pockets, but we could not be particular. As the chief consumed double as much as we hid away he was not surprised at the rapid disappearance of the food, and had not observed our manoeuvre.

Natty and I lay down to rest, hoping that before another sunset we might be far on our way homewards.

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