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   Chapter 6 No.6

The Adventures of Louis de Rougemont By Louis de Rougemont Characters: 29537

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


A weird duel-The tragedy of the baby whale-My boat is destroyed-A ten miles' swim-Gigantic prizes-Swimming in the whale's head-I make use of the visitors-A fight with an alligator-The old craving-Bitter disappointment-My mysterious "flying spears"-Dog-like fidelity-I present my "card"-The desert of red sand.

The women of the tribe lived amicably enough together as a rule, but of course they had their differences. They would quarrel about the merits and demerits of their own families and countries; but the greatest source of heartburning and trouble was the importation of a new wife-especially if she chanced to be better looking than the others. In such cases, woe to the comparatively pretty wife. The women certainly had a novel way of settling their differences. The two combatants would retire to some little distance, armed with one stick between them. They would then stand face to face, and one would bend forward meekly, whilst the other dealt her a truly terrific blow between the shoulders or on the head-not with a cane or a light stick, be it remembered, but a really formidable club. The blow (which would be enough to kill an ordinary white woman) would be borne with wonderful fortitude, and then the aggressor would hand the club to the woman she had just struck.

The latter would then take a turn; and so it would go on, turn and turn about, until one of the unfortunate, stoical creatures fell bleeding and half-senseless to the earth. The thing was magnificently simple. The woman who kept her senses longest, and remained on her legs to the end, was the victor. There was no kind of ill-feeling after these extraordinary combats, and the women would even dress one another's wounds.

I now come to an event of very great importance in my life. Elsewhere I have spoken of my penchant for dugong hunting. Well, one day this sport effectually put an end to all my prospects of reaching civilisation across the sea. I went forth one morning, accompanied by my ever-faithful Yamba and the usual admiring crowd of blacks. In a few minutes we two were speeding over the sunlit waters, my only weapon being the steel harpoon I had brought with me from the island, and about forty or fifty feet of manilla rope. When we were some miles from land I noticed a dark-looking object on the surface of the water a little way ahead. Feeling certain it was a dugong feeding on the well-known "grass," I rose and hurled my harpoon at it with all the force I could muster. Next moment, to my amazement, the head of a calf whale was thrust agonisingly into the air, and not until then did I realise what manner of creature it was I had struck. This baby whale was about fifteen feet long, and it "sounded" immediately on receiving my harpoon. As I had enough rope, or what I considered enough, I did not cut him adrift. He came up again presently, lashing the water with his tail, and creating a tremendous uproar, considering his size. He then darted off madly, dashing through the water like an arrow, and dragging our boat at such a tremendous pace as almost to swamp us in the foaming wash, the bow wave forming a kind of wall on each side.

Up to this time I had no thought of danger, but just as the baby whale halted I looked round, and saw to my horror that its colossal mother had joined her offspring, and was swimming round and round it like lightning, apparently greatly disturbed by its sufferings. Before I could even cut the line or attempt to get out of the way, the enormous creature caught sight of our little craft, and bore down upon us like a fair-sized island rushing through the sea with the speed of an express train. I shouted to Yamba, and we both threw ourselves over the side into the now raging waters, and commenced to swim away with long strokes, in order to get as far as possible from the boat before the catastrophe came which we knew was at hand. We had not got many yards before I heard a terrific crash, and, looking back, I saw the enormous tail of the great whale towering high out of the water, and my precious boat descending in fragments upon it from a height of from fifteen feet to twenty feet above the agitated waters. Oddly enough, the fore-part of the boat remained fixed to the rope of the harpoon in the calf. My first thought, even at so terrible a moment, and in so serious a situation, was one of bitter regret for the loss of what I considered the only means of reaching civilisation. Like a flash it came back to me how many weary months of toil and hope and expectancy I had spent over that darling craft; and I remembered, too, the delirious joy of launching it, and the appalling dismay that struck me when I realised that it was worse than useless to me in the inclosed lagoon. These thoughts passed through my mind in a few seconds.

At this time we had a swim of some ten miles before us, but fortunately our predicament was observed from the land, and a crowd of blacks put out in their catamarans to help us. Some of the blacks, as I hinted before, always accompanied me down to the shore on these trips. They never tired, I think, of seeing me handle my giant "catamaran" and the (to them) mysterious harpoon.

After the mother whale had wreaked its vengeance upon my unfortunate boat it rejoined its little one, and still continued to swim round and round it at prodigious speed, evidently in a perfect agony of concern. Fortunately the tide was in our favour, and we were rapidly swept inshore, even when we floated listlessly on the surface of the water. The sea was quite calm, and we had no fear of sharks, being well aware that we would keep them away by splashing in the water.

Before long, the catamarans came up with us, but although deeply grateful for Yamba's and my own safety, I was still greatly distressed at the loss of my boat. Never once did this thought leave my mind. I remembered, too, with a pang, that I had now no tools with which to build another; and to venture out into the open sea on a catamaran, probably for weeks, simply meant courting certain destruction. I was a greater prisoner than ever.

My harpoon had evidently inflicted a mortal wound on the calf whale, because as we looked we saw it lying exhausted on the surface of the water, and being gradually swept nearer and nearer the shore by the swift-flowing tide. The mother refused to leave her little one however, and still continued to wheel round it continuously, even when it had reached dangerously shallow water.

The result was that when the tide turned, both the mother and her calf were left stranded high and dry on the beach, to the unbounded delight and amazement of the natives, who swarmed round the leviathans, and set up such a terrific uproar, that I verily believe they frightened the mother to death. In her dying struggle she lashed the water into a perfect fury with her tail, and even made attempts to lift herself bodily up. Furious smoke-signals were at once sent up to summon all the tribes in the surrounding country-enemies as well as friends. Next day the carcasses were washed farther still inshore-a thing for which the blacks gave me additional credit.

I ought to mention here that the loss of my boat was in some measure compensated for by the enormous amount of prestige which accrued to me through this whale episode. To cut a long story short, the natives fully believed that I had killed single-handed and brought ashore both whales! And in the corroborees that ensued, the poets almost went delirious in trying to find suitable eulogiums to bestow upon the mighty white hunter. The mother whale surpassed in size any I had ever seen or read about. I measured her length by pacing, and I judged it to be nearly 150 feet. My measurements may not have been absolutely accurate, but still the whale was, I imagine, of record size. As she lay there on the beach her head towered above me to a height of nearly fifteen feet. Never can I forget the scene that followed, when the blacks from the surrounding country responded to the smoke-signals announcing the capture of the "great fish." From hundreds of miles south came the natives, literally in their thousands-every man provided with his stone tomahawk and a whole armoury of shell knives. They simply swarmed over the carcasses like vermin, and I saw many of them staggering away under solid lumps of flesh weighing between thirty and forty pounds. The children also took part in the general feasting, and they too swarmed about the whales like a plague of ants.

A particularly enterprising party of blacks cut an enormous hole in the head of the big whale, and in the bath of oil that was inside they simply wallowed for hours at a time, only to emerge in a condition that filled me with disgust. There was no question of priority or disputing as to whom the tit-bits of the whale should go. Even the visitors were quite at liberty to take whatever portion they could secure. For about a fortnight this cutting-up and gorging went on, but long before this the stench from the decomposing carcasses was so horrible as to be painfully noticeable at my camp, over a mile away. Some of the flesh was cooked, but most of it was eaten absolutely raw. The spectacle witnessed on the beach would have been intensely comical were it not so revolting. Many of the savages, both men and women, had gorged themselves to such an extent as to be absolutely unable to walk; and they rolled about on the sand, tearing at the ground in agony, their stomachs distended in the most extraordinary and disgusting manner. It may amuse you to know that smoke-signals were at once sent up for all the "doctors" in the country, and these ministering angels could presently be seen with their massage shells, rubbing the distended stomachs of the sufferers as they lay on the beach. I saw some men fairly howling with agony, but yet still devouring enormous quantities of oil and blubber! Besides the massage treatment (with the thumbs as well as shells), the "doctors" administered a kind of pill, or pellet, of some green leaf, which they first chewed in their own mouth and then placed in that of the patient. So magical was this potent herb in its action, that I feel sure it would make the fortune of an enterprising syndicate. Other patients, who had obtained temporary relief through the kind offices of the medicine-men, returned to the whales again, and had another enormous gorge. In fact, the blacks behaved more like wild beasts of the lowest order than men, and in a very short time-considering the enormous bulk of the whales-nothing remained except the immense bones.

On the other hand, the orgie had its uses from my point of view, because I took advantage of the arrival of so many strange tribes to make myself acquainted with their chiefs, their languages, and their manners and customs, in the hope that these people might be useful to me some day when I commenced my journey overland to civilisation. For, of course, all hope of escape by sea had now to be abandoned, since my boat was destroyed. Several days elapsed, however, before I was able to remain in their presence without a feeling of utter disgust. To be precise, I could not talk to them before they ate, because they were so anxious to get at the food; and after the feast they were too gorged with fat to be able to talk rationally. In all my wanderings amongst the blacks I never came across anything that interested them so much as a whale.

Soon after the loss of the boat, Yamba made me a small bark canoe about fifteen feet long, but not more than fourteen inches wide, and in this we undertook various little excursions together to the various islands that studded the bay. The construction of this little canoe was very interesting. Yamba, first of all, heated the bark, and then turned the rough part underneath in order that the interior might be perfectly smooth. She then sewed up the ends, finally giving the little craft a coat of resin, obtained by making incisions in the gum-trees. Of course, I missed my own substantial boat, and it was some little time before I grew accustomed to the frail canoe, which necessitated the greatest possible care in handling, and also on the part of the passengers generally.

One day I decided to go and explore one of the islands that studded Cambridge Gulf, in search of a kind of shell mud-fish which I was very partial to. I also wanted to make the acquaintance of the bats or flying foxes I had seen rising in clouds every evening at sunset. I required the skins of these curious creatures for sandals. This would perhaps be a year after my advent amongst the blacks. As usual, Yamba was my only companion, and we soon reached a likely island. As I could find no suitable place for landing, I turned the canoe up a small creek. From this course, however, my companion strongly dissuaded me. Into the creek, nevertheless, we went, and when I saw it was a hopeless impasse, I scrambled ashore and waded through five inches or six inches of mud. The little island was densely covered with luxuriant tropical vegetation, the mangroves coming right down to the water's edge; so that I had actually to force my way through them to gain the top of the bank. I then entered a very narrow track through the forest, the bush on both sides being so dense as to resemble an impenetrable wall or dense hedge. It is necessary to bear this in mind to realise what followed. I had not gone many yards along this track, when I was horrified to see, right in front of me, an enormous alligator! This great reptile was shuffling along down the path towards me, evidently making for the water, and it not only blocked my advance, but also necessitated my immediate retreat. The moment the brute caught sight of me he stopped, and began snapping his jaws viciously. I confess I was quite nonplussed for the moment as to how best to commence the attack upon this unexpected visitor. It was impossible for me to get round him in any way, on account of the dense bush on either side of the narrow forest track. I decided, however, to make a bold dash for victory, having always in mind the prestige that was so necessary to my existence among the blacks. I therefore walked straight up to the evil-looking monster; then, taking a short run, I leaped high into the air, shot over his head, and landed on his scaly back, at the same time giving a tremendous yell in order to attract Yamba, whom I had left in charge of the boat.

The moment I landed on his back I struck the alligator with all my force with my tomahawk, on what I considered the most vulnerable part of his head. So powerful was my stroke, that I found to my dismay that I could not get the weapon out of his head again. While I

was in this extraordinary situation-standing on the back of an enormous alligator, and tugging at my tomahawk, embedded in its head-Yamba came rushing up the path, carrying one of the paddles, which, without a moment's hesitation, she thrust down the alligator's throat as he turned to snap at her. She immediately let go her hold and retreated. The alligator tried to follow her, but the shaft of the paddle caught among some tree trunks and stuck. In this way the monster was prevented from moving his head, either backwards or forwards, and then, drawing my stiletto, I blinded him in both eyes, afterwards finishing him leisurely with my tomahawk, when at length I managed to release it. Yamba was immensely proud of me after this achievement, and when we returned to the mainland she gave her tribesmen a graphic account of my gallantry and bravery. But she always did this. She was my advance agent and bill-poster, so to say. I found in going into a new country that my fame had preceded me; and I must say this was most convenient and useful in obtaining hospitality, concessions, and assistance generally. The part I had played in connection with the death of the two whales had already earned for me the admiration of the blacks-not only in my own tribe, but all over the adjacent country. And after this encounter with the alligator they looked upon me as a very great and powerful personage indeed. We did not bring the dead monster back with us, but next day a number of the blacks went over with their catamarans, and towed the reptile back to the mainland, where it was viewed with open-mouthed amazement by crowds of admiring natives. So great was the estimation in which my prowess was held, that little scraps of the dead alligator were distributed (as relics, presumably) among the tribes throughout the whole of the surrounding country. Singularly enough this last achievement of mine was considered much more commendable than the killing of the whale, for the simple reason that it sometimes happened they caught a whale themselves stranded on the beach; whereas the killing of an alligator with their primitive weapons was a feat never attempted. They chanted praises in my honour at night, and wherever I moved, my performances with the whales and alligator were always the first things to be sung. Nor did I attempt to depreciate my achievements; on the contrary, I exaggerated the facts as much as I possibly could. I described to them how I had fought and killed the whale with my stiletto in spite of the fact that the monster had smashed my boat. I told them that I was not afraid of facing anything single-handed, and I even went so far as to allege that I was good enough to go out against a nation! My whole object was to impress these people with my imaginary greatness, and I constantly made them marvel at my prowess with the bow and arrow. The fact of my being able to bring down a bird on the wing was nothing more nor less than a miracle to them. I was given the name of "Winnimah" by these people, because my arrows sped like lightning. Six of the alligator's teeth I took for myself, and made them into a circlet which I wore round my head.

Some little time after this incident I decided to remove my dwelling-place to the top of a headland on the other side of the bay, some twenty miles away, where I thought I could more readily discern any sail passing by out at sea. The blacks themselves, who were well aware of my hopes of getting back to my own people, had themselves suggested that I might find this a more likely place for the purpose than the low-lying coast on which their tribe was then encamped. They also pointed out to me, however, that I should find it cold living in so exposed a position. But the hope of seeing passing sails decided me, and one morning I took my departure, the whole nation of blacks coming out in full force to bid us adieu. I think the last thing they impressed upon me, in their peculiar native way, was that they would always be delighted and honoured to welcome me back among them. Yamba, of course, accompanied me, as also did my dog, and we were escorted across the bay by a host of my native friends in their catamarans. I pitched upon a fine bold spot for our dwelling-place, but the blacks assured me that we would find it uncomfortably cold and windy, to say nothing about the loneliness, which I could not but feel after so much intercourse with the friendly natives. I persisted, however, and we at length pitched our encampment, on the bleak headland, which I now know to be Cape Londonderry, the highest northern point of Western Australia. Occasionally some of our black friends would pay us a visit, but we could never induce them to locate their village near us.

Day after day, day after day, I gazed wistfully over the sea for hours at a time, without ever seeing a sail, and at last I began to grow somewhat despondent, and sighed for the companionship of my black friends once more. Yamba was unremitting in her endeavours to make life pleasant for me and keep me well supplied with the best of food; but I could see that she, too, did not like living on this exposed and desolate spot. So, after a few weeks' experience of life there, I decided to return to my bay home, and later on make preparations for a journey overland to a point on the Australian coast, where I learned ships quite frequently passed. The point in question was Somerset Point, at the extreme north of the Cape York peninsula; and I had learnt of its existence from Jensen when we were pearl-fishing. The blacks were delighted to see me on my return, and I remained with them several months before attempting my next journey. They were keenly anxious that I should join them in their fighting expeditions, but I always declined, on the ground that I was not a fighting man. The fact of the matter was, that I could never hope to throw a spear with anything like the dexterity they themselves possessed; and as spears were the principal weapons used in warfare, I was afraid I would not show up well at a critical moment. Moreover, the warriors defended themselves so dexterously with shields as to be all but invulnerable, whereas I had not the slightest idea of how to handle a shield. And for the sake of my ever-indispensable prestige, I could not afford to make myself ridiculous in their eyes. I always took good care to let the blacks see me performing only those feats which I felt morally certain I could accomplish, and accomplish to their amazement.

So far I had won laurels enough with my mysterious arrows or "flying spears," as the natives considered them, and my prowess with the harpoon and tomahawk was sung in many tribes. And not the least awkward thing about my position was that I dared not even attempt a little quiet practice in spear-throwing, for fear the blacks should come upon me suddenly, when I would most certainly lose caste. I had several narrow escapes from this serious calamity, but most of them cannot be published here. I must tell you, though, that the blacks, when drinking at a river or water-hole, invariably scoop up the water with their hands, and never put their mouths right down close to the surface of the water. Well, one day I was guilty of this solecism. I had been out on a hunting expedition, and reached the water-hole with an intense burning thirst. My mentor was not with me. I fell on my knees and fairly buried my face in the life-giving fluid. Suddenly I heard murmurs behind me. I turned presently and saw a party of my blacks regarding me with horror. They said I drank like a kangaroo. But Yamba soon came to the rescue, and explained away the dreadful breach of etiquette, by telling them that I was not drinking, but simply cooling my face; when we were alone she solemnly cautioned me never to do it again.

The months passed slowly away, and I was still living the same monotonous life among my blacks-accompanying them upon their hunting expeditions, joining in their sports, and making periodical trips inland with Yamba, in preparation for the great journey I proposed to make overland to Cape York. When I spoke to my devoted companion about my plans, she told me she was ready to accompany me wherever I went-to leave her people and to be for ever by my side. Right well I knew that she would unhesitatingly do these things. Her dog-like fidelity to me never wavered, and I know she would have laid down her life for me at any time.

Often I told her of my own home beyond the seas, and when I asked her whether she would come with me, she would reply, "Your people are my people, and your God (spirit) my God. I will go with you wherever you take me."

At length everything was ready, and I paid a final farewell, as I thought, to my black friends in Cambridge Gulf, after a little over eighteen months' residence among them. They knew I was venturing on a long journey overland to another part of the country many moons distant, in the hope of being able to get into touch with my own people; and though they realised they should never see me again, they thought my departure a very natural thing. The night before we left, a great corroboree was held in my honour. We had a very affectionate leave-taking, and a body of the natives escorted us for the first 100 miles or so of our trip. At last, however, Yamba, myself, and the faithful dog were left to continue our wanderings alone. The reliance I placed upon this woman by the way was absolute and unquestioning. I knew that alone I could not live a day in the awful wilderness through which we were to pass; nor could any solitary white man. By this time, however, I had had innumerable demonstrations of Yamba's almost miraculous powers in the way of providing food and water when, to the ordinary eye, neither was forthcoming. I should have mentioned that before leaving my black people I had provided myself with what I may term a native passport-a kind of Masonic mystic stick, inscribed with certain cabalistic characters. Every chief carried one of these sticks. I carried mine in my long, luxuriant hair, which I wore "bun" fashion, held in a net of opossum hair. This passport stick proved invaluable as a means of putting us on good terms with the different tribes we encountered. The chiefs of the blacks never ventured out of their own country without one of these mysterious sticks, neither did the native message-bearers. I am sure I should not have been able to travel far without mine.

Whenever I encountered a strange tribe I always asked to be taken before the chief, and when in his presence I presented my little stick, he would at once manifest the greatest friendliness, and offer us food and drink. Then, before I took my departure, he also would inscribe his sign upon the message stick, handing it back to me and probably sending me on to another tribe with an escort. It often happened, however, that I was personally introduced to another tribe whose "frontier" joined that of my late hosts, and in such cases my passport was unnecessary.

At first the country through which our wanderings led us was hilly and well wooded, the trees being particularly fine, many of them towering up to a height of 150 feet or 200 feet. Our principal food consisted of roots, rats, snakes, opossum, and kangaroo. The physical conditions of the country were constantly changing as we moved farther eastward, and Yamba's ingenuity was often sorely taxed to detect the whereabouts of the various roots necessary for food. It was obviously unfair to expect her to be familiar with the flora and fauna of every part of the great Australian Continent. Sometimes she was absolutely nonplused, and had to stay a few days with a tribe until the women initiated her into the best methods of cooking the roots of the country. And often we could not understand the language. In such cases, though, when spoken words were unlike those uttered in Yamba's country, we resorted to a wonderful sign-language which appears to be general among the Australian blacks. All that Yamba carried was a basket made of bark, slung over her shoulder, and containing a variety of useful things, including some needles made out of the bones of birds and fish; a couple of light grinding-stones for crushing out of its shell a very sustaining kind of nut found on the palm trees, &c. Day after day we walked steadily on in an easterly direction, guiding ourselves in the daytime by the sun, and in the evening by opossum scratches on trees and the positions of the ant-hills, which are always built facing the east. We crossed many creeks and rivers, sometimes wading and at others time swimming.

Gradually we left the hilly country behind, and after about five or six weeks' tramping got into an extraordinary desert of red sand, which gave off a dust from our very tracks that nearly suffocated us. Each water-hole we came across now began to contain less and less of the precious liquid, and our daily menu grew more and more scanty, until at length we were compelled to live on practically nothing but a few roots and stray rats. Still we plodded on, finally striking a terrible spinifex country, which was inconceivably worse than anything we had hitherto encountered. In order to make our way through this spinifex (the terrible "porcupine grass" of the Australian interior), we were bound to follow the tracks made by kangaroos or natives, otherwise we should have made no progress whatever. These tracks at times wandered about zigzag fashion, and led us considerable distances out of our course, but, all the same, we dare not leave them. Not only was water all but unobtainable here, but our skin was torn with thorns at almost every step. Yamba was terribly troubled when she found she could no longer provide for my wants. Fortunately the dew fell heavily at night, and a sufficient quantity would collect on the foliage to refresh me somewhat in the morning. How eagerly would I lick the precious drops from the leaves! Curiously enough, Yamba herself up to this time did not seem distressed from lack of water; but nothing about this marvellous woman surprised me. It took us about ten days to pass through the awful spinifex desert, and for at least eight days of that period we were virtually without water, tramping through never-ending tracts of scrub, prickly grass, and undulating sand-hills of a reddish colour. Often and often I blamed myself bitterly for ever going into that frightful country at all. Had I known beforehand that it was totally uninhabited I certainly should not have ventured into it. We were still going due east, but in consequence of the lack of water-holes, my heroic guide thought it advisable to strike a little more north.

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