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   Chapter 4 No.4

The Adventures of Louis de Rougemont By Louis de Rougemont Characters: 31370

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

I try to revive my visitors-Demonstrations of amazement-A variety entertainment-Evil spirits in the mirror-"The star above my home"-"Preliminary canter" with the boat-A joyful procession-"Good-bye to my island home"-Nearing the main-Among the cannibals-Smoke telegraphy-A weird audience-A nation meets me-My first palace.

My state of mind was perfectly indescribable. Here, I thought, are some poor shipwrecked creatures like myself; and I prayed to God that I might be the means of saving them. The prospect of having at length some one to converse with filled me with unutterable joy, and I could hardly restrain myself from rushing into the water and swimming out to the catamaran, which was still several hundred yards away from me. Would it never draw near? I thought, wild with impatience. And then, to my horror, I saw that it was closely followed by a number of sharks, which swam round and round it expectantly. Seeing this, I could contain myself no longer. Sternly commanding my dog not to follow me, I waded into the waves and then swam boldly out to the catamaran, taking good care, however, to make a great noise as I swam, by shouting and splashing in order to frighten away the sharks. When eventually I did come up to the floating platform of logs, I found that there were four blacks upon it-a man, a woman, and two boys. All were lying quite prostrate through exhaustion, apparently more dead than alive. The sharks still hung on persistently, but at length I drove them away by beating the water with my oar, with which I then proceeded to paddle the catamaran ashore. You see, the oar I grasped when Bruno came to give the alarm proved of inestimable value; and so all through my marvellous years of sojourn among the cannibals an undeniable Providence guided my every action. But this will be seen from my narrative in a hundred amazing instances. I climbed aboard the catamaran and paddled it into shallow water; and then, jumping overboard again I pulled it right up on to the beach, and carried the four blacks one by one into my hut. They were in a most pitiable state of collapse. Their tongues were swollen and protruding out of their mouths, and for a long time I could get nothing down their throats. First of all I tried to revive them with cold water, but found they could not swallow.

Then I remembered the rum I had saved from the wreck all this time, and procuring some I rubbed their bodies with it, tied wet bandages round their necks, and rolled them about in wet sails, in the hope that in this way their bodies might absorb the necessary liquid. You see I had an idea that they were dying from want of water. All four were terribly emaciated, and in the last stages of exhaustion. After two or three hours' treatment, the two boys recovered consciousness, and some little time later the man also showed signs of reviving, but the woman did not come to until the afternoon. None of them, of course, were able to walk; and in the meantime they did nothing but drink water. They seemed not to realise what had happened or where they were until the following day, and then their surprise-mainly at the sight of me-was beyond all description. Their first symptom was one of extreme terror, and in spite of every kind action I could think of, they held out for a long time against my advances-although I signed to them that I was their friend, patting them on the shoulders to inspire confidence, and trying to make them understand that I had saved them from a terrible death. I fancy they all thought they had died and were now in the presence of the mysterious Great Spirit! At any rate, it was not until they began to eat freely that they grew in some measure accustomed to me. Then an ungovernable curiosity manifested itself. From gazing at me unceasingly, they took to feeling me and patting my skin. They made queer, guttural sounds with their mouths, evidently expressive of amazement; they slapped their thighs, and cracked their fingers.

Next, my belongings came in for inspection, and everything excited wonderment and delight to such a degree, that I blessed Providence for sending me so much entertaining society. My hut, with its curious thatched roof, excited vast interest; and it was amusing to see the two boys, aged respectively about twelve and fourteen, following their parents about, jabbering incessantly, and giving me sly, half-terrified glances as they examined my implements and utensils. The woman was the first to get over her fear of me, and she soon grew to trust me implicitly; whereas her husband never ceased to view me with inexplicable suspicion until we regained his own country. He was a big, repulsive-looking savage, with a morose and sullen temper; and although he never showed signs of open antagonism, yet I never trusted him for a moment during the six long months he was my "guest" on the little sand-bank! It seems I unwittingly offended him, and infringed the courtesy common among his people by declining to take advantage of a certain embarrassing offer which he made me soon after his recovery.

It may not be anticipating too much to say here that the woman was destined to play a vitally important part in the whole of my life, and with her I went through adventures and saw sights more weird and wonderful than anything I had ever read of, even in the wildest extravagances of sensational fiction. But the ruling passion was very strong, and one of the first things I did was to take my black friends down to the beach and show them my precious boat floating idly in the lagoon. Oddly enough, I had in the meantime always taken the greatest care of the boat, keeping her bottom clean and generally furbishing her up-having, however, no particular object in view in doing this, except perhaps that it gave me something to do. The poor little "home-made" boat threw the blacks into a perfect frenzy of astonishment, and they concluded that I must have come from a very distant part of the world in so enormous a "catamaran." As a matter of fact, from that moment they looked upon me as most certainly a kind of Supreme Spirit from another world; they may have had doubts before. Next I showed them the wreck, which was now only a bare skeleton of rotting woodwork, but still plainly discernible among the coral rocks. I tried to explain to them that it was in the larger boat that I had come, but they failed to understand me.

On returning to the hut I put on my clothes for their benefit, whereupon their amazement was so great that I seriously contemplated discontinuing my list of wonders, lest they should become absolutely afraid to remain with me. The clothes they considered part of myself-in fact, a kind of secondary skin! They were terribly frightened and distressed, and not one of the four dared approach me.

The blacks did not build themselves any place of shelter, but merely slept in the open air at night, under the lee of my hut, with a large fire always burning at their feet. I offered them both blankets and sails by way of covering, but they refused them, preferring to lie huddled close together for warmth. In the morning the woman would prepare breakfast for them, consisting of fish (mainly mullet), birds' and turtles' eggs, and sea-fowl; to which would perhaps be added some little luxury from my own stock. They only had two meals a day-one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. Their favourite food was turtle, of which they could eat enormous quantities, especially the fat. Bruno was a long time before he took kindly to the new arrivals, probably because they manifested such extraordinary emotion whenever he lifted up his voice and barked.

I think the only thing that roused the father of the family from his sullen moods was my extraordinary acrobatic performances, which also threw the two little nigger boys into hysterics of delight. Father, mother, and children tried to imitate my somersaults, "wheels," and contortions, but came to grief so desperately (once the morose man nearly broke his neck) that they soon gave it up. The man would sit and watch our gambols for hours without moving a muscle. I was never actually afraid of him, but took good care not to let him get possession of any of my weapons; and as I had also taken the precaution to break up and throw into the sea the spears he had brought with him on his catamaran, I felt pretty sure he could not do much mischief even if he were so disposed. After seeing me bring down birds with my bow and arrow he began to hold me in absolute fear, probably because he had some idea that his own skin might be jeopardised if he did not accommodate himself to circumstances. I repeatedly told him that with my boat I might perhaps some day help him to get back to his own country, and I must say that this suggestion roused him somewhat from his lethargy, and he appeared profoundly grateful.

Gradually I acquired a slight acquaintance with the extraordinary language of the blacks, and had many a chat with the woman, who also picked up a few words of comical English from me. She was a woman of average height, lithe and supple, with an intelligent face and sparkling eyes. She was a very interesting companion, and as I grew more proficient in her queer language of signs, and slaps, and clicks, I learnt from her many wonderful things about the habits and customs of the Australian aborigines, which proved extremely useful to me in after years. Yamba-for that was her name-told me that when I rescued them they had been blown miles and miles out of their course and away from their own country by the terrible gale that had been raging about a fortnight previously. It seems that they had originally started out on an expedition to catch turtles on a little island between Cambridge Gulf and Queen's Channel, but the storm carried them out to sea. They drifted about for many days, until at length they reached my little island. The only food they had during the whole of this time was turtle, but they were entirely without water. One would think that they must inevitably have died of thirst, but the blacks are wonderful people for going without water for prolonged periods. Moreover, they find a mouthful of salt water occasionally quite sustaining.

One of my most amusing experiences with the blacks was one day when, quite accidentally, Yamba caught sight of herself for the first time in the little oval looking-glass I had hanging up in the hut near my hammock. She thoughtlessly took it down and held it close up to her face. She trembled, felt the surface of the glass, and then looked hurriedly on the back. One long, last, lingering look she gave, and then flew screaming out of the hut.

Oddly enough, she overcame her fears later, and, woman-like, would come and look in the mirror for an hour at a stretch, smacking her lips all the while in wonderment, and making most comical grimaces and contortions to try various effects. Her husband, however (Gunda, as I called him), was very differently affected, for the moment his wife showed him his own reflection in the glass he gave a terrific yell and bolted to the other end of the little island, in a state of the most abject terror. He never quite overcame his terror and distrust of the mirror, which he evidently considered possessed of life, and in reality a kind of spirit to be feared and avoided.

But, of course, the two boys found the glass a never-ending source of amazement and wonder, and were not in the least afraid of it after the first natural shock of surprise. Altogether, I thanked God for sending me my new companions; and, as you may suppose, they afforded me as much entertainment and gratification as I and my belongings did them.

Every evening, before retiring to rest, the family squatted round the fire and indulged in a mournful kind of chant-singing, as I afterwards learnt, the wonders they had seen on the white man's island; my mirror coming in for special mention. This was the only approach to a "religious service" I ever saw, and was partly intended to propitiate or frighten away the spirits of the departed, of whom the Australian blacks have a great horror.

The blacks had been with me two or three weeks, when one evening the man approached and intimated in unmistakable terms that he wanted to get away from the island and return to his own land. He said he thought he and his family could easily return to their friends on the mainland by means of the catamaran that had brought them.

And Yamba, that devoted and mysterious creature, solemnly pointed out to me a glowing star far away on the horizon. There, she said, lay the home of her people. After this I was convinced that the mainland could not be more than a couple of hundred miles or so away, and I determined to accompany them on the journey thither, in the hope that this might form one of the stepping-stones to civilisation and my own kind. We lost no time. One glorious morning we three-Yamba, her husband, and myself-repaired to the fatal lagoon that hemmed in my precious boat, and without more ado dragged it up the steep bank by means of rollers run on planks across the sand-spit, and then finally, with a tremendous splash and an excited hurrah from myself, it glided out into the water, a thing of meaning, of escape, and of freedom. The boat, notwithstanding its long period of uselessness, was perfectly water-tight and thoroughly seaworthy, although still unpleasantly low at the stern. Gunda was impatient to be off, but I pointed out to him that, as the wind persistently blew in the wrong direction day after day, we should be compelled perforce to delay our departure perhaps for some months. You see, Gunda was not a man who required to make much preparation: he thought all we should have to do was to tumble into the boat and set sail across the sunlit sea. "I can paddle my catamaran against both wind and tide; why cannot you do the same?" he would say. He did not understand the advantage or uses of sails. He had lost his own paddles in the storm, otherwise he would in all probability have left the island on his own account. He was like a fish out of water when the novelty of his situation wore off. On the other hand, I thought of water, provisions, and other equally vital necessaries. So Gunda had to rest content for a time, and he grew, if possible, more morose and sullen than ever.

During this period of impatient waiting, we made many experimental voyages out to sea, and generally got the boat into capital trim for the great and eventful journey. I saw to it that she was thoroughly well provisioned with tinned stuffs-long put on one side for the purpose; and I may say here that at the last moment before starting I placed on board three large live turtles, which supplied us with meat until we reached the Australian main. I also took a plentiful supply of water, in bags made from the intestines of birds and fishes; also a small cask containing about ten gallons of the precious fluid, which was placed near the mast. In short, as far I was able, I provided everything that was necessary for this most important journey. But consider for a moment the horrible doubts and fears that racked me. I fancied the mainland was not very far away, but you must remember I was not at all certain how long it would take us to reach it; nor could I be sure, therefore, whether I had taken a sufficient supply of food and water. Our provisions, which included tinned meats, corn in the cob and loose, turtles' flesh and intestines, flour, rice, beans, &c., would, however, on a fairly liberal allowance, last a little over three weeks. We also carried s

ome blankets, nails, tar, and other requisites. Of my books I only took my Bible with me. This I wrapped up in parchment made from pelican skin, together with four photographs of a certain young lady which I carried about with me throughout the whole of my wanderings. The propulsive power was, of course, the big lug-sail, which was always held loosely in the hand, and never made fast, for fear of a sudden capsize.

Six months had passed away since the advent of my visitors, when one morning we all marched out from the hut and down to the beach; the two boys fairly yelling with joy, and waving bunches of green corn plucked from my garden. Their mother skipped gaily hither and thither, and I myself was hardly able to control my transports of excitement and exhilaration. Even Gunda beamed upon the preparations for our release. I did not demolish my hut of pearl shells, but left it standing exactly as it had been during the past two and a half years. Nor must I omit to mention that I buried my treasure of pearls deep in the sand at one end of the island, and in all human probability it is there at this moment, for I have never returned for them, as I fondly hoped to be able to do so at some future date. It is, of course, possible that the precious box has been washed away in a storm, but more probably the contrary is the case, and still deeper layers of sand have been silted over this great treasure. I dared not carry anything oversea that was not vitally necessary, and what good were pearls to me on my fearful journey, convoying four other people out into the unknown in a crazy, home-made boat? Even masses of virgin gold were of very little use to me in the years that followed; but of this more anon. My condition, by the way, at this time was one of robust health; indeed, I was getting quite stout owing to the quantity of turtle I had been eating, whilst Yamba's husband was positively corpulent from the same reason.

That glorious morning in the last week of May 1866 will ever be graven in my memory. As I cast off from that saving but cruel shore, I thanked my Maker for having preserved me so long and brought me through such awful perils, as well as for the good health I had always enjoyed. As the boat began to ripple through the inclosed waters of the lagoon, the spirits of the four blacks rose so high that I was afraid they would capsize the little craft in their excitement.

There was a strong, warm breeze blowing in our favour, and soon my island home was receding swiftly from our view. The last thing to remain in sight was the shell hut, but this, too, disappeared before we had covered three miles. It would have been visible from a big ship at a much greater distance, but no one would ever imagine what it really was. Yamba sat near me in the stern, but her husband curled himself up at the opposite end of the boat; and from the time we reached the open sea practically until we gained the main, he did not relax his attitude of reserve and dogged silence. He ate and drank enormously, however. You would have thought we were in a land flowing with milk and honey, instead of an open boat with limited provisions and an unknown journey in front of us. He did exert himself sufficiently on one occasion, however, to dive overboard and capture a turtle. He was sitting moodily in the prow of the boat as usual one afternoon, when suddenly he jumped up, and with a yell took a header overboard, almost capsizing our heavily laden boat. At first I thought he must have gone mad, but on heaving to, I saw him some little distance away in the water struggling with a turtle. He managed to get it on its back after a time, and though I felt annoyed at his recklessness, I could not help laughing at his antics and the comical efforts made by the turtle to escape. The turtle was duly hauled aboard, and we then continued our voyage without delay. I was dreadfully afraid of being caught in a storm. Our boat must inevitably have foundered had the seas been at all rough.

Fortunately never once did the wind change, so that we were able to sail on steadily and safely night and day, without deviating in the least from our course. We travelled fully four knots an hour, the wind and current being nearly always in our favour. It was, however, a painfully monotonous and trying experience to sit thus in the boat, cramped up as we were, day after day and night after night. About the fifth day we sighted a small island-probably Barker Island, in the vicinity of Admiralty Gulf-and landed upon it at once solely for the purpose of stretching our aching limbs. This little island was uninhabited, and covered to the very water's edge with dense tropical vegetation. It was a perfectly exhilarating experience to walk about on real earth once more. We cooked some turtle meat and stayed a few hours on the island, after which we entered the boat and put off on our journey again. Just before leaving I stored a quantity of corn, cobs, seeds, &c., in a little cairn in case we might be compelled to return. I always steered, keeping east by north, but Yamba relieved me for a few hours each evening-generally between six and nine o'clock, when I enjoyed a brief but sound sleep. Gunda never offered to take a spell, and I did not think it worth while to trouble him.

Thus night and day we sailed steadily on, occasionally sighting sharks and even whales. We passed a great number of islands, some of them wooded and covered with beautiful jungle growths, whilst others were nothing but rock and sand. None of them seemed to be inhabited. The sea was smooth all the time, but occasionally the currents carried us out of our course among the islands, and then we had to land and wait till the tide turned. No matter how the wind was, if the tide was not also in our favour we had to land. We cruised in and out among the islands for ten days or more, when we rounded Cape Londonderry and then steered S. by E. The current, however, carried us straight for Cambridge Gulf. One little island I sighted between Cambridge Gulf and Queen's Channel had a curious house-like structure built in one of the trees on the coast. The trunk of this tree was very large and tapering, and the platform arrangement was built amongst the branches at the top, after the manner adopted by the natives of New Guinea.

You may imagine my feelings when, early one morning, Yamba suddenly gripped my arm and murmured, "We are nearing my home at last." I leaped to my feet, and a few minutes afterwards the mainland came hazily into view. Instead of heading straight for it, however, we made for a beautiful island that stood in the mouth of a large bay, and here we landed to recuperate for a day or so. Immediately on our arrival, Yamba and her husband lit some fires, and made what were apparently smoke-signals to their friends on the main. They first cut down a quantity of green wood with my tomahawk and arranged it in the form of a pyramid. Next they obtained fire by rubbing together two pieces of a certain kind of wood; and as the smoke ascended we saw answering smoke-signals from the opposite shore. The smoke was allowed to ascend in puffs which were regulated by the manipulation of boughs. Not long after this curious exchange of signals (and the practice is virtually universal throughout the whole of aboriginal Australia), we saw three catamarans, or floats, each carrying a man, shooting across towards our island. These catamarans merely consisted of a broad plank with a stick placed transversely at the prow, on which the black placed his feet. He squatted down on the plank and then paddled forward. I viewed their approach with mixed sensations of alarm and hope. I was in the power of these people, I thought. They could tear me limb from limb, torture me, kill and eat me, if they so pleased; I was absolutely helpless. These fears, however, were but momentary, and back upon my mind rushed the calm assurances I had obtained from my clear-eyed mentor, Yamba, to say nothing about the mysterious message of hope and consolation that had startled the solemn stillness of that tropical night. I knew these people to be cannibals, for, during the long talks we used to have on the island, Yamba had described to me their horrid feasts after a successful war. Nevertheless, I awaited the arrival of the little flotilla with all the complacency I could muster, but at the same time I was careful to let Yamba's husband be the first to receive them.

And he advanced to meet them. The newcomers, having landed, squatted down some little distance away from the man they had come to meet, and then Gunda and they gradually edged forwards towards one another, until at length each placed his nose upon the other's shoulder. This was apparently the native method of embracing. Later Gunda brought his friends to be introduced to me, and to the best of my ability I went through the same ridiculous ceremony. I must say my new friends evinced an almost uncontrollable terror at the sight of me. Gunda, however, made it clear that I was not a returned spirit, but a man like themselves-a great man certainly, and a mysterious man, but a man all the same. Although by this time my skin had become tanned and dark, there was seemingly no end to the amazement it caused the blacks. They timidly touched and felt my body, legs, and arms, and were vastly anxious to know what the covering was I had round my body. In due time, however, the excitement subsided somewhat, and then the newcomers prepared more smoke-signals to their friends on the mainland-this time building five separate fires in the form of a circle.

It was interesting to watch this remarkable method of communication. Each fire was set smoking fiercely a few seconds after its neighbour had started. Finally, the columns of smoke united, and ascended together in the form of a huge pyramid, going up a tremendous height into the still, hot air. The meaning of these signals was explained to me. They indicated to the people on the mainland that the advance guard had found Gunda and his family; that they had a great man with them; and that, furthermore, they might expect us to return all together almost immediately. By this time, thanks to Yamba's able and intelligent lessons, I was able to speak the queer language of the blacks with some show of fluency, and I could understand them well enough when they did not jabber too quickly.

The next phase of our arrival was that "smokes" were ascending in all directions on the mainland, evidently calling the tribes from far and near. How these smoke-signals gave an idea of the white man and his wonders I am utterly at a loss to imagine. In the meantime Yamba had prepared a great feast for the visitors, the principal dish being our remaining big turtle, of which the blacks ate a prodigious quantity. I afterwards told them that I was in need of a prolonged rest, my long journey having wearied me, and after this explanation I retired, and slung my hammock in a shady nook, where I slept undisturbed from shortly before noon until late in the day, when my ever-faithful Yamba, who had been keeping a careful watch, woke me and said that the festivities prior to our departure were about to take place.

Much refreshed, I rejoined the blacks, and, to their unbounded delight and amazement, entertained them for a few minutes with some of my acrobatic tricks and contortions. Some of the more emulous among them tried to imitate my feats of agility, but always came dismally to grief-a performance that created even more frantic merriment than my own. After a little while the blacks disappeared, only to come forth a few minutes later with their bodies gorgeously decorated with stripes of yellow ochre and red and white pigments. These startling preparations preceded a great corroboree in honour of my arrival, and in this embarrassing function I was, of course, expected to join. The ceremony was kept up with extraordinary vigour the whole night long, but all I was required to do was to sit beating sticks together, and join in the general uproar. This was all very well for a little while, but the monotony of the affair was terrible, and I withdrew to my hammock before midnight.

In the morning I saw a great fleet of catamarans putting off from the mainland, and in a very short time between fifty and sixty natives joined our party on the island. Then followed the usual greetings and comical expressions of amazement-of course, at the sight of me, my boat, and everything in it. A few hours later the whole crowd left the island, led by me in the big boat-which, by the way, attracted as much interest as I did myself. The natives forced their catamarans through the water at great speed, using only one paddle, which was dipped first on one side and then on the other in rapid succession, without, however, causing the apparently frail craft to swerve in the slightest degree.

As we approached the new country, I beheld a vast surging crowd of excited blacks-men, women, and children, all perfectly naked-standing on the beach. The moment we landed there was a most extraordinary rush for my boat, and everything on board her was there and then subjected to the closest scrutiny.

The people seemed to be divided into clans, and when one clan was busy inspecting my implements and utensils, another was patiently waiting its turn to examine the white man's wonders. I sat in the boat for some time, fairly bewildered and deafened by the uproarious jabberings and shrill, excited cries of amazement and wonder that filled the air all round me. At last, however, the blacks who had come out to meet us on the island came to my rescue, and escorted me through the crowd, with visible pride, to an eminence overlooking the native camping-ground. I then learnt that the news of my coming had been smoke-signalled in every direction for many miles; hence the enormous gathering of clans on the beach.

The camping-ground I now found myself upon consisted of about thirty primitive shelters, built of boughs in the most flimsy manner, and only intended to break the force of the wind. These shelters, or "break-winds," were crescent-shaped, had ho roof, and were not in any way closed in in front. There were, however, two or three grass huts of beehive shape, about seven feet high and ten feet in diameter, with a queer little hole at the base through which the occupier had to crawl. The inside was perfectly dark.

I was told I could have either a break-wind of boughs or a beehive hut, and on consideration I chose the latter. It would, I reflected, ensure something approaching privacy. My indefatigable Yamba and a few of her women friends set to work then and there, and positively in less than an hour the grass hut was ready for occupation! I did not, however, stay to witness the completion of the building operations, but went off with some self-appointed cicerones to see the different camps; everywhere I was received with the greatest enthusiasm and manifestations of respect and friendship. My simple loin-cloth of crimson Japanese silk occasioned much astonishment among the blacks, but curiously enough the men were far more astonished at my footprints than any other attribute I possessed. It seems that when they themselves walk they turn their feet sideways, so that they only make a half impression, so to speak, instead of a full footprint. On the other hand, I of course planted my feet squarely down, and this imprint in the sand was followed by a crowd of blacks, who gravely peered at every footprint, slapping themselves and clicking in amazement at the wonderful thing!

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