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A classic example of early "lost race" science-fiction.
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It is a curious story, full of exciting adventures, extraordinary discoveries, and mysteries amazing.
Strange, too, that I, Richard Scarsmere, who, when at school hated geography as bitterly as I did algebraic problems, should even now, while just out of my teens, be thus enabled to write down this record of a perilous journey through a land known only by name to geographers, a vast region wherein no stranger had ever before set foot.
The face of the earth is well explored now-a-days, yet it has remained for me to discover and traverse one of the very few unknown countries, and to give the bald-headed old fogies of the Royal Geographical Society a lesson in the science that I once abominated.
I have witnessed with my own eyes the mysteries of Mo. I have seen the Great White Queen!
Three years ago I had as little expectation of emulating the intrepidity of Stanley as I had of usurping the throne of England. An orphan, both of whose parents had been drowned in a yachting accident in the Solent and whose elder brother succeeded to the estate, I was left in the care of a maternal uncle, a regular martinet, who sent me for several long and dreary years to Dr. Tregear's well-known Grammar-school at Eastbourne, and had given me to understand that I should eventually enter his office in London. Briefly, I was, when old enough, to follow the prosaic and ill-paid avocation of clerk. But for a combination of circumstances, I should have, by this time, budded into one of those silk-hatted, patent-booted, milk-and-bun lunchers who sit on their high perches and drive a pen from ten till four at a salary of sixteen shillings weekly. Such was the calling my relative thought good enough for me, although his own sons were being trained for professional careers. In his own estimation all his ideas were noble and his generosity unbounded; but not in mine.
But this is not a school story, although its preparatory scenes take place at school. Some preparatory scenes must take place at school; but the drama generally terminates on the broader stage of the world. Who cares for a rehearsal, save those who have taken part in it? I vow, if I had never been at Tregear's I would skip the very mention of his name. As it is, however, I often sigh to see the shadow of the elms clustering around the playground, to watch the moonbeans illumine the ivied wall opposite the dormitory window. I often dream that I am back again, a Cæsar-hating pupil.
Dr. Tregear, commonly called "Old Trigger," lived at Upperton, a suburb of Eastbourne, and had accommodation for seventy boys, but during the whole time I remained there we never had more than fifty. His advertisements in local and London papers offering "Commercial training for thirty guineas including laundress and books. Bracing air, gravel soil, diet best and unlimited. Reduction for brothers," were glowing enough, but they never whipped up business sufficiently to attract the required number of boarders. Nevertheless, I must admit that old Trigger, with all his faults and severity, was really good-hearted. He was a little sniffing, rasping man, with small, spare, feeble, bent figure; mean irregular features badly arranged round a formidable bent, broken red nose; thin straggling grey hair and long grey mutton-chop whiskers; constantly blinking little eyes and very assertive, energetic manners. He had a constant air of objecting to everything and everybody on principle. Knowing that I was an orphan he sometimes took me aside and gave me sound fatherly advice which I have since remembered, and am now beginning to appreciate. His wife, too, was a kindly motherly woman who, because being practically homeless I was often compelled to spend my holidays at school, seemed better disposed towards me than to the majority of the other fellows.
Yes, I got on famously at Trigger's. Known by the abbreviated appellation of "Scars," I enjoyed a popularity that was gratifying, and, bar one or two sneaks, there was not one who would not do me a good turn when I wanted it. The sneaks were outsiders, and although we did not reckon them when we spoke of "the school," it must not be imagined that we forgot to bring them into our calculations in each conspiracy of devilment, nor to fasten upon them the consequences of our practical jokes.
My best friend was a mystery. His name was Omar Sanom, a thin spare chap with black piercing eyes set rather closely together, short crisp hair and a complexion of a slightly yellowish hue. I had been at Trigger's about twelve months and was thirteen when he arrived. I well remember that day. Accompanied by a tall, dark-faced man of decided negroid type who appeared to be ill at ease in European clothes, he was shown into the Doctor's study, where a long consultation took place. Meanwhile among the fellows much speculation was rife as to who the stranger was, the popular opinion being that Trigger should not open his place to "savages," and that if he came we would at once conspire to make his life unbearable and send him to Coventry.
An hour passed and listeners at the keyhole of the Doctor's door could only hear mumbling, as if the negotiations were being carried on in the strictest secrecy. Presently, however, the black man wished Trigger good-day, and much to everyone's disgust and annoyance the yellow-faced stranger was brought in and introduced to us as Omar Sanom, the new boy.
The mystery surrounding him was inscrutable. About my own age, he spoke very little English and would, in conversation, often drop unconsciously into his own language, a strange one which none of the masters understood or even knew its name. It seemed to me composed mainly of p's and l's. To all our inquiries as to the place of his birth or nationality he remained dumb. Whence he had come we knew not; we were only anxious to get rid of him.
I do not think Trigger knew very much about him. That he paid very handsomely for his education I do not doubt, for he was allowed privileges accorded to no one else, one of which was that on Sundays when we were marched to church he was allowed to go for a walk instead, and during prayers he always stood aside and looked on with superior air, as if pitying our simplicity. His religion was not ours.
For quite a month it was a subject of much discussion as to which of the five continents Omar came from, until one day, while giving a geography lesson the master, who had taken the West Coast of Africa as his subject, asked:
"Where does the Volta River empty itself?"
There was a dead silence that confessed ignorance. We had heard of the Russian Volga, but never of the Volta. Suddenly Omar, who stood next me, exclaimed in his broken English:
"The Volta empties itself into the Gulf of Guinea. I've been there."
"Quite correct," nodded the master approvingly, while Baynes, the fellow on my left, whispered:—
"Yellow-Face has been there! He's a Guinea Pig—see?"
I laughed and was punished in consequence, but the suggestion of the witty Baynes being whispered round the school was effective. From that moment the yellow-faced mysterious foreigner was commonly known as "the Guinea Pig."
We did our best to pump him and ascertain whether he had been born in Guinea, but he carefully avoided the subject. The information that he came from the West Coast of Africa had evidently been given us quite involuntarily. He had been asked a question about a spot he knew intimately, and the temptation to exhibit his superiority over us had proved too great.
Not only was his nationality a secret, but many of his actions puzzled us considerably. As an instance, whenever he drank anything, water, tea, or coffee, he never lifted his cup to his lips before spilling a small quantity upon the floor. If we had done this punishment would promptly have descended upon us, but the masters looked on at his curious antics in silence.
Around his neck beneath his clothes he wore a sort of necklet composed of a string of tiny bags of leather, in which were sewn certain hard substances that could be felt inside. Even in the dormitory he never removed this, although plenty of chaff was directed towards him in consequence of this extraordinary ornament. It was popularly supposed that he came from some savage land, and that when at home this string of leather bags was about the only article of dress he wore.
If rather dull at school, he very soon picked up our language with all its slang, and quickly came to the fore in athletics. In running, swimming and rowing no one could keep pace with him. On foot he was fleet as a deer, and in the water could swim like a fish, while at archery he was a dead shot. Within three months he had lived down all the prejudices that had been engendered by reason of his colour, and I confess that I myself, who had at first regarded him with gravest suspicion, now began to feel a friendliness towards him. Once or twice, at considerable inconvenience to himself he rendered me valuable services, and on one occasion got me out of a serious scrape by taking the blame himself, therefore within six months of his arrival we became the firmest of chums. At work, as at play, we were always together, and notwithstanding the popular feeling being antagonistic to my close acquaintance with the "Guinea Pig," I nevertheless knew from my own careful observations that although a foreigner, half-savage he might be, he was certainly true and loyal to his friends.
Once he fought. It was soon after we became chums that he had a quarrel with the bully Baynes over the ownership of a catapult. Baynes, who was three years older, heavier built and much taller, threatened to thrash him. This threat was sufficient. Omar at once challenged him, and the fight took place down in the paddock behind a hedge, secure from Trigger's argus eye. As the pair took off their coats one of the fellows jokingly said—
"The Guinea Pig's a cannibal. He'll eat you, Baynes."
Everybody laughed, but to their astonishment within five minutes our champion pugilist lay on the ground with swollen eye and sanguinary nose, imploring for mercy. That he could fight Omar quickly showed us, and as he released the bully after giving him a sound dressing as a cat would shake a rat, he turned to us and with a laugh observed—
"My people are neither cowards nor cannibals. We never fight unless threatened, but we never decline to meet our enemies."
No one spoke. I helped him on with his coat, and together we left the ground, while the partisans of Baynes picked up their fallen champion and proceeded to make him presentable.
Like myself, Omar seemed friendless, for when the summer holidays came round both of us remained with the Doctor and his wife, while the more fortunate ones always went away to their homes. At first he seemed downcast, but we spent all our time together, and Mrs. Tregear, it must be admitted, did her best to make us comfortable, allowing us to ramble where we felt inclined, even surreptitiously supplying us with pocket-money.
It was strange, however, that I never could get Omar to talk of himself. Confidential friends that we were, in possession of each other's secrets, he spoke freely of everything except his past. That some remarkable romance enveloped him I felt certain, yet by no endeavour could I fathom the mystery.
Twice or thrice each year the elderly negro who had first brought him to the school visited him, and they were usually closeted a long time together. Perhaps his sable-faced guardian on those occasions told him news of his relatives; perhaps he gave him good advice. Which, I know not. The man, known as Mr. Makhana, was always very pleasant towards me, but never communicative. Yet he made up for that defect by once or twice leaving half-a-sovereign within my ready palm. He appeared suddenly without warning, and left again, even Omar himself being unaware where he dwelt.
Truly my friend was a mystery. Who he was, or whence he had come, was a secret.
Omar had been at Trigger's a little over two years when a strange incident occurred. We were then both aged about sixteen, he a few months older than myself. The summer holidays had come round again. I had a month ago visited my uncle in London, and he had given me to understand that after next term I should leave school and commence life in the City. He took me to his warehouse in Thames Street and showed me the gas-lit cellar wherein his clerks were busy entering goods and calling out long columns of amounts. The prospect was certainly not inviting, for I was never good at arithmetic, and to spend one's days in a place wherein never a ray of sunshine entered was to my mind the worst existence to which one could be condemned.
When I returned I confessed my misgivings to Omar, who sympathised with me, and we had many long chats upon the situation as during the six weeks we wandered daily by the sea. We cared little for the Grand Parade, with its line of garish hotels, tawdry boarding-houses and stucco-fronted villas, and the crowd of promenaders did not interest us. Seldom even we went on the pier, except to swim. Our favourite walks were away in the country through Willingdon to Polegate, over Beachy Head, returning through East Dean to Litlington and its famed tea-garden, or across Pevensey Levels to Wartling, for we always preferred the more unfrequented ways. One day, when I was more than usually gloomy over the prospect of drudgery under my close-fisted relative, my friend said to me cheerfully:
"Come, Scars, don't make yourself miserable about it. My people have a saying that a smile is the only weapon one can use to combat misfortune, and I think it's true. We have yet a few months more together before you leave. In life our ways will lie a long way apart. You will become a trader in your great city, while I shall leave soon, I expect, to——" and he paused.
"To do what?" I inquired.
"To go back to my own people, perhaps," he answered mechanically. "Perhaps I shall remain here and wait, I know not."
"Wait for what?"
"Wait until I receive orders to return," he answered. "Ah, you don't know what a strange life mine has been, Scars," he added a moment later in a confidential tone. "I have never told you of myself for the simple reason that silence is best. We are friends; I hope we shall be friends always, even though my enemies seek to despise me because I am not quite white like them. But loyalty is one of the cherished traditions of my people, and now that during two years our friendship has been firmly established I trust nothing will ever occur to interrupt it."
"I take no heed of your enemies, Omar," I said. "You have proved yourself genuine, and the question of colour, race, or creed has nothing to do with it."
"Perhaps creed has," he exclaimed rather sadly. "But I make no pretence of being what I am not. Your religion interests me, although, as you know, I have never been taught the belief you have. My gods are in the air, in the trees, in the sky. I believe what I have been taught; I pray in silence and the great god Zomara hears me even though I am separated from my race by yonder great ocean. Yet I sometimes think I cannot act as you white people do, that, after all, what my enemies say is true. I am still what you term a savage, although wearing the clothes of your civilization."
"Though a man be a pagan he may still be a friend," I said.
"Yes, I am at least your friend," he said. "My only regret is that your uncle will part us in a few months. Still, in years to come we shall remember each other, and you will at least have a passing thought for Omar, the Guinea Pig," he added, laughing.
I smiled too, but I noticed that although he endeavoured to appear gay, his happiness was feigned, and there was in his dark eyes a look of unutterable sadness. Our conversation drifted to a local cricket match that was to be played on the morrow, and soon the gloomy thoughts that seemed to possess him were dispelled.
It was on the same sunny afternoon, however, that a curious incident occurred which was responsible for altering the steady prosaic course of our lives. The most trifling incidents change the current of a life, and the smallest events are sufficient to alter history altogether. Through the blazing August afternoon we had walked beyond Meads, mounted Beachy Head, passed the lighthouse at Belle Tout and descended to the beach at a point known as the Seven Sisters. The sky was cloudless, the sea like glass, and during that long walk without shelter from the sun's rays I had been compelled to halt once or twice and mop my face with my handkerchief. Yet without fatigue, without the slightest apparent effort, and still feeling cool, Omar walked on, smiling at the manner in which the unusual heat affected me, saying:
"Ah! It is not hot here. You might grumble at the heat if the sun were as powerful as it is in my country."
When we descended to the beach and threw ourselves down under the shadow of the high white cliffs to rest, I saw there was no one about and suggested a swim. It was against old Trigger's orders, nevertheless the calm, cool water as it lazily lapped the sand proved too tempting, and very shortly we had plunged in and were enjoying ourselves. Omar left the water first, and presently I saw while he was dressing the figure of a tallish, muscular man attired in black and wearing a silk hat approaching him. As I watched, wondering what business the stranger could have with my companion, I saw that when they met Omar greeted him in native fashion by snapping fingers, as he had often done playfully to me. Whoever he might be, the stranger was unexpected, and judging from the manner in which he had been received, a welcome visitor. I was not near enough to distinguish the features of the newcomer, but remembering that I had been in the water long enough, I struck out for the shore, and presently walked up the beach towards them.
Omar had dressed, and was in earnest conversation with a gigantic negro of even darker complexion than Mr. Makhana. Unconscious of my approach, for my feet fell noiselessly upon the sand, he was speaking rapidly in his own language, while the man who had approached him stood listening in meek, submissive attitude. Then, for the first time, I noticed that my friend held in his hand a grotesquely carved stick that had apparently been presented by the new-comer as his credential, together with a scrap of parchment whereon some curious signs, something like Arabic, were written. While Omar addressed him he bowed low from time to time, murmuring some strange words that I could not catch, but which were evidently intended to assure my friend that he was his humble servant.
In spare moments Omar had taught me a good deal of his language. Indeed, such a ready pupil had I been that frequently when we did not desire the other fellows to understand our conversation we spoke in his tongue. But of what he was saying to this stranger, I could only understand one or two words and they conveyed to me no meaning. The negro was a veritable giant in stature, showily dressed, with one of those gaudily-coloured neckties that delight the heart of Africans, while on his fat brown hand was a large ring of very light-coloured metal that looked suspiciously like brass. His boots were new, and of enormous size, but as he stood he shifted uneasily from one foot to the other, showing that he was far from comfortable in his civilized habiliments.
Without approaching closer I picked up my things and dressed rapidly, then walked forward to join my companion.
"Scars!" he cried, as soon as I stood before him. "I had quite forgotten you. This is my mother's confidential adviser, Kouaga."
Then, turning to the grinning ebon-faced giant he uttered some rapid words in his own language and told him my name, whereupon he snapped fingers in true native fashion, the negro showing an even set of white teeth as an expression of pleasure passed over his countenance.
"We little thought that we were being watched this afternoon," Omar said to me, smiling and throwing himself down upon the sand, an example followed by the negro and myself. "It seems that Kouaga arrived in Eastbourne this morning, but there are strong reasons why none should know that he has seen me. Therefore he followed me here to hold palaver at a spot where we should not be observed."
"You have a letter, I see."
"Yes," he said slowly, re-reading the strange lines of hieroglyphics. "The news it contains necessitates me leaving for Africa immediately."
"For Africa!" I cried dismayed. "Are you going?"
"Yes, I must. It is imperative."
"Then I shall lose you earlier than I anticipated," I observed with heart-felt sorrow at the prospect of parting with my only chum. "It is true, as you predicted, our lives lie very far apart."
The negro lifted his hat from his brow as if its weight oppressed him, then turning to me, said slowly and with distinctness in his own tongue:
"I bring the words of the mighty Naya unto her son. None dare disobey her commands on pain of death. She is a ruler above all rulers; before her armed men monarchs bow the knee, at her frown nations tremble. In order to bring the palaver she would make with her son I have journeyed for three moons by land and sea to reach him and deliver the royal staff in secret. I have done my duty. It is for Omar to obey. Kouaga has spoken."
"Let me briefly explain, Scarsmere," my friend interrupted. "Until the present I have been compelled to keep my identity a secret, for truth to tell, there is a plot against our dynasty, and I fear assassination."
"Your dynasty!" I cried amazed. "Are your people kings and queens?"
"They are," he answered. "I am the last descendant of the great Sanoms of Mo, the powerful rulers who for a thousand years have held our country against all its enemies, Mahommedan, Pagan or Christian. I am the Prince of Mo."
"But where is Mo?" I asked. "I have never heard of it."
"I am not surprised," he said. "No stranger has entered it, or ever will, for it is unapproachable and well-guarded. One intrepid white man ventured a year ago to ascend to the grass plateau that forms its southern boundary, but he was expelled immediately on pain of death. My country, known to the neighbouring tribes as the Land Beyond the Clouds, lies many weeks' journey from the sea in the vast region within the bend of the great Niger river, north of Upper Guinea, and is coterminous with the states of Gurunsi and Kipirsi on the west, with Yatenga on the north-west, with Jilgodi, Aribinda, and Libtako on the north, with Gurma on the east, and with the Nampursi district of Gurunsi on the south."
"The names have no meaning for me," I said. "But the fact that you are an actual Prince is astounding."
With his hands clasped behind his head, he flung himself back upon the sand, laughing heartily.
"Well," he said, "I didn't want to parade my royal ancestry, neither do I want to now. I only tell you in confidence, and in order that you shall understand why I am compelled to return. During the past ten years there have been many dissensions among the people, fostered by the enemies of our country, with a view to depose the reigning dynasty. Three years ago a dastardly plot was discovered to murder my mother and myself, seize the palace, and massacre its inmates. Fortunately it was frustrated, but my mother deemed it best to send me secretly out of the country, for I am sole heir to the throne, and if the conspirators killed me, our dynasty must end. Therefore Makhana, my mother's secret agent, who purchases our arms and ammunition in England and conducts all trade we have with civilized countries, brought me hither, and I have since been in hiding."
"But Makhana has been bribed by our enemies," exclaimed the big negro, who had been eagerly listening to our conversation, but understanding no word of it save the mention of Makhana's name. Turning to Omar he added: "Makhana will, if he obtains a chance, kill you. Be warned in time against him. It has been ascertained that he supplied the men of Moloto with forty cases of rifles, and that he has given his pledge that you shall never return to Africa. Therefore obey the injunction of my royal mistress, the great Naya, and leave with me secretly."
"Without seeing Makhana?" asked Omar.
"Yes," the black-faced man replied. "He must not know, or the plans of the Naya may be thwarted. Our enemies have arranged to strike their blow three moons from now, but ere that we shall be back in Mo, and they will find that they go only to their graves. Kouaga has made fetish for the son of his royal mistress, and has come to him bearing the stick."
"What does the letter say?" I asked Omar, noticing him reading it again.
"It is brief enough, and reads as follows," he said:
"'Know, O my son Omar, that I send my stick unto thee by our trusty Kouaga. Return unto Mo on the wings of haste, for our throne is threatened and thy presence can avert our overthrow. Tarry not in the country of the white men, but let thy face illuminate the darkness of my life ere I go to the tomb of my ancestors.
I glanced at the scrap of parchment, and saw appended a truly regal seal.
"And shall you go?" I asked with sorrow.
"Yes—if you will accompany me."
"Accompany you!" I cried. "How can I? I have no money to go to Africa, besides——"
"Besides what?" he answered smiling. "Kouaga has money sufficient to pay both our passages. Remember, I am Prince of Mo, and this man is my slave. If I command him to take you with me he will obey. Will you go?"
The prospect of adventure in an unknown land was indeed enticing. In a few brief words he recalled my dismal forebodings of the life in an underground office in London, and contrasted it with a free existence in a fertile and abundant land, where I should be the guest and perhaps an official of its ruler. He urged me most strongly to go as his companion, and in conclusion said:
"Your presence in Mo will be unique, for you will be the first stranger who has ever set foot within its capital."
"But your mother may object to me, as she did to the entrance of the white man of whom you just now spoke."
"Ah! he came to make trade palaver. You are my friend and confidant," he said.
"Then you suggest that we should both leave Eastbourne at once, travel with Kouaga to Liverpool and embark for Africa without returning to Trigger's, or saying a word to anyone?"
"We must. If we announce our intention of going we are certain to be delayed, and as the steamers leave only once a month, delay may be fatal to my mother's plans."
As he briefly explained to Kouaga that he had invited me to accompany him I saw that companion to an African prince would be a much more genial occupation than calculating sums in a gas-lit cellar; therefore, fired by the pleasant picture he placed before me, I resolved to accept his invitation.
"Very well, Omar," I said, trying to suppress the excitement that rose within me. "We are friends, and where you go I will go also."
Delighted at my decision my friend sprang to his feet with a cry of joy, and we all three snapped fingers, after which we each took a handful of dry sand and by Omar's instructions placed it in one heap upon a rock. Then, having first mumbled something over his amulets, he quickly stirred the heap of sand with his finger, saying:
"As these grains of sand cannot be divided, so cannot the bonds of friendship uniting Omar, Prince of Mo, with Scarsmere and Kouaga, be rent asunder. Omar has spoken."
How, trembling lest we should be discovered, we left Eastbourne by train two hours later—Kouaga joining the train at Polegate so as to avoid notice—how the Grand Vizier of Mo purchased our travelling necessities in London; how we travelled to Liverpool by the night mail, and how we embarked upon the steamer Gambia, it is unnecessary to relate in detail. Suffice it to say that within twenty-four hours of meeting the big negro we were safely on board the splendid mail-steamer where everything was spick and span. Kouaga had engaged a cabin for our exclusive use, and the captain himself had evidently ascertained that Omar was a person of importance, for in passing us on deck he paused to chat affably, and express a hope that we should find the voyage a pleasant one.
"Your coloured servant has told me your destination," he said, addressing Omar. "We can't land you there on account of the surf, but I understand a boat from shore will be on the look-out. If it isn't, well, you'll have to go on to Cape Coast Castle."
"The boat will be in readiness," Omar said smiling. "If it isn't, those in charge will pay dearly for it. You know what I mean."
The Captain laughed, drew his finger across his throat, and nodded.
"Yes," he said. "I've heard that in your country life is held cheap. I fancy I'd rather be on my bridge than a resident in the Naya's capital. But I see I'm wanted. Good-bye," and he hurried away to shout some order to the men who were busy stowing the last portion of the cargo.
As we leaned over the rail watching the bustle on board the steam tender that lay bobbing up and down at our side, we contemplated the consternation of old Trigger when he found us missing. No doubt a hue and cry would be at once raised, but as several persons we knew had seen us walking towards the Belle Tout, it would, without a doubt, be surmised that we had been drowned while bathing. The only thing we regretted was that we had not left some portion of our clothing on the beach to give verisimilitude to the suggestion. However, we troubled ourselves not one whit about the past. I was glad to escape from the doom of the gas-lit cellar, and was looking forward with keen anticipation to a new life in that mystic country, Africa.
At last there was shouting from the bridge, the tender cast off, the bell in the engine-room gave four strokes, the signal for full-speed ahead, and ere long we were steaming past that clanging beacon the Bell Buoy, and heading for the open sea. The breeze began to whistle around us, the keen-eyed old pilot tightened his scarf around his throat, and carefully we sped along past the Skerries until we slowed off Holyhead, where he shook hands with the captain, and with a hearty "good-bye" swung himself over the bulwarks into the heavy old boat that had come alongside. Thus was severed the last link that bound us to England.
Standing up in his boat he waved us a farewell, while our captain, his hands behind him, took charge of the ship and shouted an order.
Ting-ting-ting-ting sounded the bell below, and a moment later we were moving away into the fast falling night. For a long time we remained on deck with Kouaga, watching the distant shore of Wales fade into the banks of mist, while now and then a brilliant light would flash its warning to us and then die out again as suddenly as it had appeared. We had plenty of passengers on board, mostly merchants and their families going out to the "Coast," one or two Government officials, engineers and prospectors, and during the first night all seemed bustle and confusion. Stewards were ordered here and there, loud complaints were heard on every side, threats were made to report trivialities to the captain, and altogether there was plenty to amuse us.
Next day, however, when we began to bow gracefully to the heavy swell of the Atlantic the majority of the grumblers were glad enough to seek the comfort and privacy of their berths and to remain there, for during the two days that followed the waves ran mountains high, the wind howled, the bulkheads creaked and the vessel made plunges so unexpectedly that to stand was almost impossible. The great waves seemed to rush upon us as we ploughed our way through them, sometimes burying our bows in foam and at others striking us and lifting us high up, the shock almost causing us to stop. The roar of the tempest seemed deafening, the ship's bell tolled with regularity, but no one appeared in the saloon, and it seemed as if the cook in his galley had little, if anything, to do.
"Never mind," I heard one officer say to another, as they lounged outside their cabins off duty. "It'll give 'em their sea legs, and the weather will be all right the other side of the Bay."
Both laughed. Sailors seem to enjoy the discomforts of passengers.
During those two days I think we were the only passengers who spent the whole day on deck. Kouaga was a poor sailor and was in his bunk horribly bad. When we visited him the whites of his eyes seemed perfectly green.
This was my first taste of a storm, and I must confess that I did not enjoy it. I was not ill, but experienced a feeling the reverse of comfortable. Through all, however, I congratulated myself that I had actually left England, and was about to commence life in a new land. The officer whose words I had overheard proved a prophet, for after three days of bad weather we ran into blue water, calm as a mill-pond, the sun shone out warm and bright, as quickly as the spirits of the passengers had fallen they rose again, and a round of gaiety commenced that continued unbroken until we left the vessel.
We touched at Funchal, a pretty town of white villas half hidden by the surrounding greenery, and with others went ashore, but we were not there more than a couple of hours, for soon the Blue-Peter was run to our masthead as signal that the ship was about to sail, and we were compelled to re-embark. Then a gun was fired on board, the crowd of small craft around us that had put out for the purpose of selling the passengers bananas, live birds, etc., sheered off, and very soon we had restarted on our southward voyage.
Ere long, having passed the snow-capped peak of Teneriffe of which we had heard so much at Trigger's, we entered the region of the trade-winds, and the steamer, aided by its sails that were now spread, held rapidly on its course rounding Cape Verd. For a day we anchored off Bathurst, then steamed away past the many rocky islands off the coast of Guinea until we touched Free Town, the capital of that unhealthy British colony Sierra Leone. Anchoring there, we discharged some cargo, resuming our voyage in a calm sea and perfect weather, and carefully avoiding the dangerous shoals of St. Ann, we passed within sight of Sherboro Island, a British possession, and also sighted Cape Mount, which Omar told me was in the independent republic of Liberia. For several days after this we remained out of sight of land until one afternoon, just about tea-time, the captain came up to us, saying—
"We shall make the mouth of the Lahou River in about two hours, so you'd better be prepared to leave. I'll keep a good look-out for your boat. Have you had a pleasant voyage?"
"Very," we both replied in one voice.
"Glad of that," he said, and turning to Omar added, "you'll look after me if ever I get up country as far as Mo, won't you?"
"Of course," my friend answered laughing. "If you come you shall have a right royal welcome. Come at any time. You'll have nothing to fear when once inside the borders of my mother's country."
"Ah, well. Perhaps I'll come some day, when I retire on my pension and set up as an African chief—eh?"
We all laughed, and he ascended the steps again to the bridge.
Kouaga, in the meantime, was busy collecting our things, giving gratuities to the stewards, and otherwise making preparations to leave. For over two hours we eagerly watched in the direction of the shore, being assisted by a crowd of passengers who had by this time learnt that we were to be taken off.
The shore which slowly came into view as our eager eyes scanned the horizon was the Ivory Coast, but the sun sank in a glorious blaze of crimson, and dusk crept on, yet the captain, whose glasses continually swept the sea, could distinguish no boat approaching us.
"I'm afraid," he shouted to us from the bridge, "their look-out is not well kept. We'll have to take you along to Cape Coast, after all."
"Why not fire a gun, Captain?" suggested Kouaga, his words being interpreted by Omar.
"Very well," he answered, and turning to the officer, he gave orders that the signal gun should be fired three times at intervals.
Presently there was a puff of white smoke and the first loud report rang out, making the vessel quiver beneath us. We waited, listening, but there was no response. The light quickly faded, night cast her veil of darkness over the sea, but we still stood in for the coast.
Again, about half-past nine, the gun belched forth a tongue of flame, and the report sounded far over the silent waters. All was excitement on deck, for it was a matter of speculation whether an answering shout or gunshot could be heard above the roar and throbbing of the engines. Ten, eleven o'clock passed, and presently the third gun was exploded so suddenly that the ladies were startled. Again we listened, but could hear nothing. Kouaga fumed and cursed the evil-spirit for our misfortune, while Omar, finding that we were to be taken to Cape Coast Castle, imparted to me his fear that the fortnight's delay it must necessarily entail, would be fatal to his mother's plans.
We were hanging over the taffrail together gazing moodily into the darkness, having given up all hope of getting ashore at the Lahou River, when suddenly about half a mile from us we saw a flash, and the report of a rifle reached us quite distinctly, followed by distant shouting.
"There they are!" cried Omar excitedly. "They've hailed us at last!"
But ere the words had fallen from his lips we heard the bell in the engine-room ringing, and next second the steam was shut off and we gradually hove to.
Kouaga was at our side almost immediately, and we found ourselves surrounded by passengers taking leave of us. Our boxes were brought up by a couple of sailors, and after about a quarter of an hour's wait, during which time the vessel rose and fell with the swell, the craft that had hailed us loomed up slowly in the darkness, amid the excited jabber of her demoniac-looking crew.
She was a large native vessel, brig-rigged, and as dirty and forbidding-looking a craft as you could well see anywhere. Kouaga hailed one of the black, half-clad men on board, receiving a cheery answer, and presently, having taken leave of the captain and those around us, we climbed over the bulwarks and sprang upon the deck of the mysterious ship.
As Omar alighted the whole crew made obeisance to him, afterwards crowding around me, examining me by the lurid light of the torches they had ignited.
Very quickly, however, several boxes belonging to Kouaga were lowered, the moorings were cast off, and slowly the great mail steamer with its long line of brilliantly-lit ports looking picturesque in the night, moved onward.
"Good-bye," shouted a voice from the steamer.
"Good-bye," I responded, and as the steamer's bell again rang out, "full speed ahead," I knew that the last tie that bound us to European civilization was severed.
By the light of the flambeaux the sleek, black, oily-looking natives managed their clumsy craft, which, dipping suddenly now and then, shipped great seas, compelling us to hang on for life. The sails creaked and groaned as they bent to the wind, speeding on in the darkness towards the mainland of Africa. To be transferred to such a ship, which I more than suspected was a slaver, was a complete change after the clean, well-ordered Liverpool liner, and I must confess that, had we not been in charge of Kouaga, I should have feared to trust myself among that shouting cut-throat crew of grinning blacks. Clinging to a rope I stood watching the strange scene, rendered more weird by the flickering uncertain light of the torches falling upon the swarm of natives who manned the craft.
"Are these your mother's people?" I inquired of Omar.
"Some are. I recognize several as our slaves, the remainder are Sanwi, or natives of the coast. Our slaves, I suppose, have been sent down to be our carriers."
"Judging from the manner in which they crawl about this is, I should think, their first experience of the sea," I said.
"No doubt. Over a thousand English miles of desert and almost impenetrable bush separates the sea from our kingdom, therefore few, very few of our people have seen it."
"They'll go back with some wonderful tales, I suppose."
"Yes. They will, on their return, be considered heroes of travel, and their friends will hold feasts in their honour."
As he finished speaking, however, our cumbrous craft seemed suddenly to be lifted high out of the water, and amid the unearthly yells of the whole crew we were swept through a belt of foaming surf, until in a few moments our keel slid upon the sand.
I prepared to leap down upon the beach, but in a second half-a-dozen willing pairs of arms were ready to assist me, and I alighted in the midst of a swarm of half-clad, jabbering natives.
One of them, elbowing his way towards me, asked in broken English:
"Massa have good voyage—eh?" whereupon the others laughed heartily at hearing one of their number speak the language of the white men. But Kouaga approached uttering angry words, and from that moment the same respect was paid to me as to Omar.
We found there was a small village where we landed, otherwise the coast was wild and desolate. In an uncleanly little hut to which we were taken when our boxes were landed and the excitement had subsided, we were regaled with various African delicacies, which at first I did not find palatable, but which Omar devoured with a relish, declaring that he had not enjoyed a meal so much since he had left "the Coast" for England. But I did not care for yams, and the stewed monkey looked suspiciously like a cooked human specimen. My geographical knowledge was not so extensive as it might have been, and I was not certain whether these natives were not cannibals. Therefore I only made a pretence of eating, and sat silently contemplating the strange scene as we all sat upon the floor and took up our food with our fingers. When we had concluded the feast a native woman served Omar with some palm wine, which, however, he did not drink, but poured it upon the ground as an offering to the fetish for his safe return, and then we threw ourselves upon the skins stretched out for us and slept till dawn.
At sunrise I got up and went out. The place was, I discovered, even more desolate than I had imagined. Nothing met the eye in every direction but vast plains of interminable sand, with hillocks here and there, also of sand; no trees were to be seen, not even a shrub; all was arid, dry and parched up with heat. The village was merely an assemblage of a dozen miserable mud huts, and so great was the monotony of the scene, that the eye rested with positive pleasure on the dirty, yellow-coloured craft in which we had landed during the night. It had apparently once been whitewashed, but had gradually assumed that tawny hue that always characterises the African wilderness.
Again Omar and I were surrounded by the crowd of fierce-looking barbarians, but the twenty stalwart carriers sent down from Mo, apparently considering themselves a superior race to these coast-dwellers, ordered them away from our vicinity, at the same time preparing to start for the interior. Under the direction of Kouaga, who had already abandoned his European attire and now wore an Arab haick and white burnouse, the gang of chattering men soon got their loads of food and merchandise together—for the Grand Vizier had apparently been purchasing a quantity of guns and ammunition in England—hammocks were provided for all three of us if we required them, and after a good meal we at length set out, turning our backs upon the sea.
After descending the crest of a sand-hill we found ourselves fairly in the desert. As far as we could see away to the limitless horizon was sand—arid, parched red-brown sand without a vestige of herbage. The wind that was blowing carried grains of it, which filled one's mouth and tasted hot and gritty; again, impalpable atoms of sand were blown into the corners of one's eyes, and, besides, this injury inflicted on the organ of vision was calculated by no means to improve one's temper. However, Omar told me that a beautiful and fruitful land lay beyond, therefore we made light of these discomforts, and, after a march of three days, during which time we were baked by day by the merciless sun and chilled at night by the heavy dews, we at last came to the edge of the waterless wilderness, and remained for some hours to rest.
My first glimpse of the "Dark Continent" was not a rosy one. As a well-known writer has already pointed out, life with a band of native carriers might for a few days be a diverting experience if the climate were good and if there was no immediate necessity for hurry. But as things were it proved a powerful exercise, especially when we commenced to traverse the almost impenetrable bush by the native path, so narrow that two men could not walk abreast.
Across a great dismal swamp where high trees and rank vegetation grew in wondrous profusion we wended our way, day by day, amid the thick white mist that seemed to continually envelop us. But it required a little more than persuasion to make our carriers travel as quickly as Kouaga liked. At early dawn while the hush of night yet hung above the forest, our guide would rise, stretch his giant limbs and kick up a sleeping trumpeter. Then the tall, dark forest would echo with the boom of an elephant-tusk horn, whose sound was all the more weird since it came from between human jaws with which the instrument was decorated. The crowd of blacks got up readily enough, but it was merely in order to light their fires and to settle down to eat plantains. At length the horn would sound again, but produce no result. The whole company still squatted, eating and jabbering away, indifferent to every other sound. The head man would be called for by Kouaga. "Why are your men not ready? Know you not that the son of the great Naya is with us?" With a deprecatory smile the head-man would make some excuse. He had hurt his foot, or had rheumatism, and therefore he, and consequently his men, would be compelled to rest that day. He would then be warned that if not ready to march in five minutes, he would be carried captive into Mo for the Great White Queen herself to deal with. In five minutes he would return to Kouaga, saying that if the Grand Vizier would only give the men a little more salt with their "chop" (food) that evening, they would march.
Kouaga would then become furious, soundly rating everybody, and declare that the Naya herself should deal with the whole lot as mutineers; whereupon, seeing all excuses for further halt unavailing, loads would be taken up, and within a few moments the whole string of half-clad natives would go laughing and singing on the forward path.
The first belt of forest passed we entered a vast level land covered with scrub, which Omar informed me was the border of the Debendu territory. Proceeding down a wide valley we came at length to the first inhabited region. Every three or four miles we passed through a native village—usually a single street of thirty or forty houses. Each house consisted, as a rule, of three or four small sheds, facing inwards, and forming a tiny courtyard. The huts were on built-up platforms, with hard walls of mud, and roofs thatched with palm-leaves, while the front steps were faced with a kind of red cement. In the middle of each centre of habitation we found a tree with seats around it formed of untrimmed logs, on which the elders and head-men of the village would sit, smoke, and gravely discuss events. As we left each village to plunge boldly onward through the bush we would pass the village fetish ground, well defined by the decaying bodies of lizards and birds, a grinning human skull or two, broken pots and pieces of rag fluttering in the wind, all offered as propitiation to the presiding demon of the place, while away in the bush, behind the houses, we saw the giant leaves of the plantain groves that yielded the staple food of this primitive people.
Deeper and deeper we proceeded until we came into regular forest scenery, where day after day we pushed our way through solemn shady aisles of forest giants, whose upper parts gleamed far above the dense undergrowth in white pillars against the grey-blue sky. Sometimes we strode down a picturesque sunny glade, and at others struggled through deep dark crypts of massive bamboo clumps. Here the noisome smell of decaying vegetation nauseated us, for the air in those forest depths is deadly. Beautiful scarlet wax-flowers would gleam high among the dark-green foliage of the giant cotton-tree, whose stem would be covered with orchids and ferns and dense wreaths of creeper, while many other beautiful blossoms flourished and faded unseen. In that dark dismal place there was an absence of animal life. Sometimes, however, by day we would hear the tuneful wail of the finger-glass bird or an occasional robin would chirrup, while at night great frogs croaked gloomily and the sloth would shriek at our approach.
It was truly a toilsome, dispiriting march, as in single file we pushed our way forward into the interior, and I confess I soon began to tire of the monotony of the terrible gloom. But to all my questions Omar would reply:
"Patience. In Africa we have violent contrasts always. To-day we are toiling onward through a region of eternal night, but when we have traversed the barrier that shuts out our country from the influence of yours—then you shall see. What you shall witness will amaze you."
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