Chapter 4 - The Bad Roads Of Angola
At this moment little Jack awoke, and put his arms around his mother's neck. His eyes looked better. The fever had not returned.
"You are better, my darling," said Mrs. Weldon, pressing the sick child to her heart.
"Yes, mama," replied Jack, "but I am a little thirsty."
They could only give the child some fresh water, of which he drank with pleasure.
"And my friend Dick?" he said.
"Here I am, Jack," replied Dick Sand, coming to take the young child's hand.
"And my friend Hercules?"
"Hercules is here, Mr. Jack," replied the giant, bringing nearer his good face.
"And the horse?" demanded little Jack.
"The horse? Gone, Mr. Jack," replied Hercules. "I will carry you. Will you find that I trot too hard?"
"No," replied little Jack; "but then I shall no longer have any bridle to hold."
"Oh! you will put a bit in my mouth, if you wish," said Hercules, opening his large mouth, "and you may pull back so long as that will give you pleasure."
"You know very well that I shall not pull back."
"Good! You would be wrong! I have a hard mouth."
"But Mr. Harris's farm?" the little boy asked again.
"We shall soon arrive there, my Jack," replied Mrs. Weldon. "Yes, soon!"
"Will we set out again?" then said Dick Sand, in order to cut short this conversation.
"Yes, Dick, let us go," replied Mrs. Weldon.
The camp was broken up, and the march continued again in the same order. It was necessary to pass through the underwood, so as not to leave the course of the rivulet. There had been some paths there, formerly, but those paths were dead, according to the native expression - that is, brambles and brushwood had usurped them. In these painful conditions they might spend three hours in making one mile. The blacks worked without relaxation. Hercules, after putting little Jack back in Nan's arms, took his part of the work; and what a part! He gave stout "heaves," making his ax turn round, and a hole was made before them, as if he had been a devouring fire.
Fortunately, this fatiguing work would not last. This first mile cleared, they saw a large hole, opened through the underwood, which ended obliquely at the rivulet and followed its bank. It was a passage made by elephants, and those animals, doubtless by hundreds, were in the habit of traversing this part of the forest. Great holes, made by the feet of the enormous pachyderms, riddled a soil softened during the rainy season. Its spongy nature also prepared it for those large imprints.
It soon appeared that this passage did not serve for those gigantic animals alone. Human beings had more than once taken this route, but as flocks, brutally led to the slaughter-house, would have followed it. Here and there bones of dead bodies strewed the ground; remains of skeletons, half gnawed by animals, some of which still bore the slave's fetters.
There are, in Central Africa, long roads thus marked out by human débris. Hundreds of miles are traversed by caravans, and how many unhappy wretches fall by the way, under the agents' whips, killed by fatigue or privations, decimated by sickness! How many more massacred by the traders themselves, when food fails! Yes, when they can no longer feed them, they kill them with the gun, with the sword, with the knife! These massacres are not rare.
So, then, caravans of slaves had followed this road. For a mile Dick Sand and his companions struck against these scattered bones at each step, putting to flight enormous fern-owls. Those owls rose at their approach, with a heavy flight, and turned round in the air.
Mrs. Weldon looked without seeing. Dick Sand trembled lest she should question him, for he hoped to lead her back to the coast without telling her that Harris's treachery had led them astray in an African province. Fortunately, Mrs. Weldon did not explain to herself what she had under her eyes. She had desired to take her child again, and little Jack, asleep, absorbed all her care. Nan walked near her, and neither of them asked the young novice the terrible questions he dreaded.
Old Tom went along with his eyes down. He understood only too well why this opening was strewn with human bones.
His companions looked to the right, to the left, with an air of surprise, as if they were crossing an interminable cemetery, the tombs of which had been overthrown by a cataclysm; but they passed in silence.
Meanwhile, the bed of the rivulet became deeper and wider at the same time. Its current was less impetuous. Dick Sand hoped that it would soon become navigable, or that it would before long reach a more important river, tributary to the Atlantic.
Cost what it might, the young novice was determined to follow this stream of water. Neither did he hesitate to abandon this opening; because, as ending by an oblique line, it led away from the rivulet.
The little party a second time ventured through the dense underwood. They marched, ax in hand, through leaves and bushes inextricably interlaced.
But if this vegetation obstructed the ground, they were no longer in the thick forest that bordered the coast. Trees became rare. Large sheaves of bamboo alone rose above the grass, and so high that even Hercules was not a head over them. The passage of the little party was only revealed by the movement of these stalks.
Toward three o'clock in the afternoon of that day, the nature of the ground totally changed. Here were long plains, which must have been entirely inundated in the rainy season. The earth, now more swampy, was carpeted by thick mosses, beneath charming ferns. Should it be diversified by any steep ascents, they would see brown hematites appear, the last deposits of some rich vein of mineral.
Dick Sand then recalled - and very fortunately - what he had read in "Livingstone's Travels." More than once the daring doctor had nearly rested in these marshes, so treacherous under foot.
"Listen to me, my friends," said he, going ahead. "Try the ground before stepping on it."
"In fact," replied Tom, "they say that these grounds have been softened by the rain; but, however, it has not rained during these last days."
"No," replied Bat; "but the storm is not far off."
"The greater reason," replied Dick Sand, "why we should hurry and get clear of this swamp before it commences. Hercules, take little Jack in your arms. Bat, Austin, keep near Mrs. Weldon, so as to be able to help her if necessary. You, Mr. Benedict - Why, what are you doing, Mr. Benedict?"
"I am falling!" innocently replied Cousin Benedict, who had just disappeared as if a trap had been suddenly opened beneath his feet.
In fact, the poor man had ventured on a sort of quagmire, and had disappeared half-way in the sticky mud. They stretched out their hands, and he rose, covered with slime, but quite satisfied at not having injured his precious entomologist's box. Acteon went beside him, and made it his duty to preserve the unlucky, near-sighted man from any new disasters.
Besides, Cousin Benedict had made rather a bad choice of the quagmire for his plunge. When they drew him out of the sticky earth a large quantity of bubbles rose to the surface, and, in bursting, they emitted some gases of a suffocating odor. Livingstone, who had been sunk up to his chest in this slime, compared these grounds to a collection of enormous sponges, made of black, porous earth, from which numerous streams of water spouted when they were stepped upon. These places were always very dangerous.
For the space of half a mile Dick Sand and his companions must march over this spongy soil. It even became so bad that Mrs. Weldon was obliged to stop, for she sank deep in the mire. Hercules, Bat, and Austin, wishing to spare her the unpleasantness more than the fatigue of a passage across this marshy plain, made a litter of bamboos, on which she consented to sit. Her little Jack was placed in her arms, and they endeavored to cross that pestilential marsh in the quickest manner.
The difficulties were great. Acteon held Cousin Benedict firmly. Tom aided Nan, who, without him, would have disappeared several times in some crevice. The three other blacks carried the litter. At the head, Dick Sand sounded the earth. The choice of the place to step on was not made without trouble. They marched from preference on the edges, which were covered by a thick and tough grass. Often the support failed, and they sank to the knees in the slime.
At last, about five o'clock in the evening, the marsh being cleared, the soil regained sufficient firmness, thanks to its clayey nature; but they felt it damp underneath. Very evidently these lands lay below the neighboring rivers, and the water ran through their pores.
At that time the heat had become overwhelming. It would even have been unbearable, if thick storm clouds had not interposed between the burning rays and the ground. Distant lightnings began to rend the sky and low rollings of thunder grumbled in the depths of the heavens. A formidable storm was going to burst forth.
Now, these cataclysms are terrible in Africa: rain in torrents, squalls of wind which the strongest trees cannot resist, clap after clap of thunder, such is the contest of the elements in that latitude.
Dick Sand knew it well, and he became very uneasy. They could not pass the night without shelter. The plain was likely to be inundated, and it did not present a single elevation on which it was possible to seek refuge.
But refuge, where would they seek it in this low desert, without a tree, without a bush? The bowels of the earth even would not give it. Two feet below the surface they would find water.
However, toward the north a series of low hills seemed to limit the marshy plain. It was as the border of this depression of land. A few trees were profiled there on a more distant, clearer belt, left by the clouds on the line of the horizon.
There, if shelter were still lacking, the little band would at least no longer risk being caught in a possible inundation. There perhaps was salvation for all.
"Forward, my friends, forward!" repeated Dick Sand. "Three miles more and we shall be safer than in these bottom-lands."
"Hurry! hurry!" cried Hercules.
The brave black would have wished to take that whole world in big arms and carry it alone.
Those words inspired those courageous men, and in spite of the fatigue of a day's march, they advanced more quickly than they had done at the commencement from the halting-place.
When the storm burst forth the end to be attained was still more than two miles off. Now - a fact which was the more to be feared - the rain did not accompany the first lightnings exchanged between the ground and the electrical clouds. Darkness then became almost complete, though the sun had not disappeared below the horizon. But the dome of vapors gradually lowered, as if it threatened to fall in - a falling in which must result in a torrent of rain. Lightnings, red or blue, split it in a thousand places, and enveloped the plain in an inextricable network of fire.
Twenty times Dick and his companions ran the risk of being struck by lightning. On this plateau, deprived of trees, they formed the only projecting points which could attract the electrical discharges. Jack, awakened by the noise of the thunder, hid himself in Hercules' arms. He was very much afraid, poor little boy, but he did not wish to let his mother see it, for fear of afflicting her more. Hercules, while taking great steps, consoled him as well as he could.
"Do not be afraid, little Jack," he repeated. "If the thunder comes near us, I will break it in two with a single hand. I am stronger than it!"
And, truly, the giant's strength reassured Jack a little.
Meanwhile the rain must soon fall, and then it would in torrents, poured out by those clouds in condensing. What would become of Mrs. Weldon and her companions, if they did not find a shelter?
Dick Sand stopped a moment near old Tom.
"What must be done?" said he.
"Continue our march, Mr. Dick," replied Tom. "We cannot remain on this plain, that the rain is going to transform into a marsh!"
"No, Tom, no! But a shelter! Where? What? If it were only a hut - "
Dick Sand had suddenly broken off his sentence. A more vivid flash of lightning had just illuminated the whole plain.
"What have I seen there, a quarter of a mile off?" exclaimed Dick Sand.
"Yes, I also, I have seen - " replied old Tom, shaking his head.
"A camp, is it not?"
"Yes, Mr. Dick, it must be a camp, but a camp of natives!"
A new flash enabled them to observe this camp more closely. It occupied a part of the immense plain.
There, in fact, rose a hundred conical tents, symmetrically arranged, and measuring from twelve to fifteen feet in height. Not a soldier showed himself, however. Were they then shut up under their tents, so as to let the storm pass, or was the camp abandoned?
In the first case, whatever Heaven should threaten, Dick Sand must flee in the quickest manner. In the second, there was, perhaps, the shelter he asked.
"I shall find out," he said to himself; then, addressing old Tom: "Stay here. Let no one follow me. I shall go to reconnoiter that camp."
"Let one of us accompany you, Mr. Dick."
"No, Tom, I shall go alone. I can approach without being seen. Stay here."
The little troop, that followed Tom and Dick Sand, halted. The young novice left at once and disappeared in the darkness, which was profound when the lightning did not tear the sky.
Some large drops of rain already began to fall.
"What is the matter?" asked Mrs. Weldon, approaching the old black.
"We have perceived a camp, Mrs. Weldon," replied Tom; "a camp - or, perhaps, a village, and our captain wished to reconnoiter it before leading us to it."
Mrs. Weldon was satisfied with this reply. Three minutes after, Dick Sand was returning.
"Come! come!" he cried, in a voice which expressed his entire satisfaction.
"The camp is abandoned?" asked Tom.
"It is not a camp," replied the young novice; "it is not a village. They are ant-hills!"
"Ant-hills!" exclaimed Cousin Benedict, whom that word aroused.
"Yes, Mr. Benedict, but ant-hills twelve feet high, at least, and in which we shall endeavor to hide ourselves."
"But then," replied Cousin Benedict, "those would be ant-hills of the warlike termite or of the devouring termite. Only those ingenious insects raise such monuments, which the greatest architects would not disown."
"Whether they be termites or not, Mr. Benedict," replied Dick Sand, "we must dislodge them and take their place."
"They will devour us. They will be defending their rights."
"But, wait now!" said Cousin Benedict again. "I thought those ant-hills only existed in Africa."
"Forward!" exclaimed Dick Sand, for the last time, with a sort of violence. He was so much afraid that Mrs. Weldon might hear the last word pronounced by the entomologist.
They followed Dick Sand with all haste. A furious wind had sprung up. Large drops crackled on the ground. In a few moments the squalls of wind would become unbearable. Soon one of those cones which stood on the plain was reached. No matter how threatening the termites might be, the human beings must not hesitate. If they could not drive the insects away, they must share their abode.
At the bottom of this cone, made with a kind of reddish clay, there was a very narrow hole. Hercules enlarged it with his cutlass in a few moments, so as to give a passage even to a man like himself.
To Cousin Benedict's extreme surprise, not one of the thousands of termites that ought to occupy the ant-hill showed itself. Was, then, the cone abandoned?
The hole enlarged, Dick and his companions glided into it. Hercules disappeared the last, just as the rain fell with such rage that it seemed to extinguish the lightnings.
But those wind squalls were no longer to be feared. A happy chance had furnished this little troop with a solid shelter, better than a tent, better than a native's hut.
It was one of those termite cones that, according to Lieutenant Cameron's comparison, are more astonishing than the pyramids of Egypt, raised by the hands of men, because they have been built by such small insects.
"It is," said he, "as if a nation had built Mount Everest, the highest mountain of the Himalaya chain."