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The Adventures of Louis de Rougemont By Louis de Rougemont Characters: 29902

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


In the throes of fever-A ghastly discovery-Pitiful relics-A critical moment-Yamba in danger-A blood bath-A luxury indeed-Signs of civilisation-The great storm-Drifting, drifting-Yamba's mysterious glee-A dreadful shock-"Welcome home!"-My official protectors-Myself as a cannibal war chief-Preparations for battle-A weird apparition-Generosity to the vanquished-The old desire.

I had not been established in this camp many days, however, before I was struck down, for the first time, with a terrible attack of malarial fever, probably produced by the many hours I had spent wading in the swamps at Port Essington. There were the usual symptoms-quick flushings and fever heats, followed by violent fits of shivering, which no amount of natural warmth could mitigate. My faithful Yamba was terribly distressed at my condition, and waited upon me with most tender devotion; but in spite of all that could be done for me, I grew gradually weaker, until in the course of a few days I became wildly delirious. The blacks, too, were very good to me, and doctored me, in their quaint native way, with certain leaves and powders. All to no purpose, however; and for several days I was even unable to recognise my Yamba. Then the fever subsided somewhat, and I was left as weak and helpless as a little child.

It was some time before I quite recovered from the fever; and I was frequently seized with distressing fits of shivering. I also experienced an overwhelming desire for a drink of milk; why, I am unable to say. Therefore, when some of the blacks told me that wild buffalo were to be found in the neighbourhood-beasts which had formerly belonged to settlers, but were now run wild-I resolved, when sufficiently strong, to try and capture one of the cows for the sake of its milk. Captain Davis ridiculed the idea, and assured me that it was only possible to slay one with a rifle; but I determined to see what I could do.

Yamba, of course, accompanied me on my expedition, and her bushmanship was altogether quite indispensable. We came upon buffalo tracks near a large water-hole, and here we each climbed a gum-tree and awaited the arrival of our prey. We waited a long time, but were at length rewarded by seeing a big cow buffalo and her calf wandering leisurely in our direction. My only weapons were a lasso made out of green kangaroo hide, fixed to the end of a long pole; and my bow and arrows. I slid down the tree a little way, and when the calf was near enough, I gently slipped the noose over its neck, and promptly made it a prisoner under the very nose of its astonished mother, who bellowed mournfully. My success so elated Yamba that she, too, slid down from her hiding-place, and was making her way over to me and the calf, when suddenly an enormous bull, which we had not previously seen, rushed at her at full speed. Yamba instantly realised her danger, and swarmed up a tree again like lightning, just as the great brute was upon her. I called out to her to attract the attention of the old bull whilst I attended to the mother and calf. I dropped my pole to which the lasso was attached, and allowed the little one to walk quickly away with it; but, as I anticipated, the trailing shaft soon caught between the stumps of some trees, and made the calf a more secure prisoner than ever. It was a curious repetition of the story of the two whales. The mother walked round and round, and appeared to be in the greatest distress. She never left her little one's side, but continued to bellow loudly, and lick the calf to coax it away. Quietly sliding down my tree, I made my way to where Yamba was still holding the attention of the bull-a fiery brute who was pawing the ground with rage at the foot of her tree. I had fitted an arrow to my bow, and was preparing to shoot, when, unfortunately, the bull detected the noise of my approach, and rushed straight at me. I confess it was rather a trying moment, but I never lost my head, feeling confident of my skill with the bow-which I had practised off and on ever since I had left school at Montreux. I actually waited until the charging monster was within a few paces, and then I let fly. So close was he that not much credit is due to me for accurate aim. The arrow fairly transfixed his right eye, causing him to pull up on his haunches, and roar with pain.

Yamba, full of anxiety, hurried down her tree; but she had scarcely reached the ground when the baffled bull wheeled and charged her, with more fury than ever. She simply glided behind a tree, and then I showed myself and induced the bull to charge me once more. Again I waited until he was almost upon me, and then I sent another arrow into his other eye, blinding him completely. On this, the poor brute brought up sharp, and commenced to back in an uncertain way, bellowing with pain. I forgot all my fever in the excitement, and rushing upon the beast with my tomahawk, I dealt him a blow on the side of the head that made him stagger. I brought him to the earth with two or three more blows, and a few minutes later had administered the coup-de-grace. No sooner was the big bull dead than I determined to test the efficacy of a very popular native remedy for fever-for shivering fits still continued to come upon me at most awkward times, usually late in the day. No matter how much grass poor Yamba brought me as covering, I never could get warm, and so now I thought I would try some animal heat.

Scarce had life left the body of the prostrate bull before I ripped open the carcass between the fore and hind legs; and after remarking to Yamba, "I am going to have heat this time," I crawled into the interior. My head, however, was protruding from the buffalo's chest. Yamba understood perfectly well what I was doing; and when I told her I was going to indulge in a long sleep in my curious resting-place, she said she would keep watch and see that I was not disturbed. I remained buried in the bull's interior for the rest of the day and all through the night. Next morning, to my amazement, I found I was a prisoner, the carcass having got cold and rigid, so that I had literally to be dug out. As I emerged I presented a most ghastly and horrifying spectacle. My body was covered with congealed blood, and even my long hair was all matted and stiffened with it. But never can I forget the feeling of exhilaration and strength that took possession of me as I stood there looking at my faithful companion. I was absolutely cured-a new man, a giant of strength! I make a present of the cure to the medical profession.

Without delay I made my way down to the lagoon and washed myself thoroughly, scrubbing myself with a kind of soapy clay, and afterwards taking a run in order to get dry. This extraordinary system of applying the carcass of a freshly killed animal is invariably resorted to by the natives in case of serious illness, and they look upon it as an all but infallible cure. Certainly it was surprisingly efficacious in my own case.

Next day we directed our attention to the capture of the cow, which was still wandering around her imprisoned little one, and only leaving it for a few minutes at a time in order to get food. I constructed a small fence or inclosure of sticks, and into this we managed to drive the cow. We then kept her for two days without food and water, in order to tame her, and did not even let her little calf come near her. We then approached her, and found her perfectly subdued, and willing to take food and water from us precisely as though she were the gentlest Alderney.

I found I was even able to milk her; and I can assure you that I never tasted anything more delicious in my life than the copious droughts of fresh milk I indulged in on that eventful morning. In fact, I practically lived on nothing else for the next few days, and it pulled me round in a most surprising way. The flesh of the dead buffalo I did not touch myself, but handed it over to the blacks, who were vastly impressed by my prowess as a mighty hunter. They themselves had often tried to kill buffalo with their spears, but had never succeeded. I removed the bull's hide, and made a big rug out of it, which I found very serviceable indeed in subsequent wet seasons. It was as hard as a board, and nearly half an inch thick.

When I returned to "Captain Davis" and the rest of my friends at Raffles Bay, I was quite well and strong once more, and I stayed with them three or four months, hunting almost every day (there were even wild ponies and English cattle-of course, relics of the old settlement), and picking up all the information I could. I had many conversations with Davis himself, and he told me that I should probably find white men at Port Darwin, which he said was between three and four hundred miles away. The tribe at Port Essington, I may mention, only numbered about fifty souls. This was about the year 1868. Captain Davis-who was passionately fond of tobacco, and would travel almost any distance to obtain an ounce or two from the Malay bêche-de-mer fishers-pointed out to me a blazed tree near his camp on which the following inscription was cut:-

Ludwig Leichhardt,

Overland from Sydney,

1847.

It was therefore evident that this district had already been visited by a white man; and the fact that he had come overland filled me with hopes that some day I, too, might return to civilisation in the same way. The English-speaking black chief assured me that his father had acted as guide to Leichhardt, but whether the latter got back safely to Sydney again he never knew. The white traveller, he said, left Port Essington in a ship.

Having considered all things, I decided to attempt to reach Port Darwin by boat, in the hope of finding Europeans living there. At first, I thought of going overland, but in discussing my plans with "Captain Davis," he told me that I would have to cross swamps, fords, creeks, and rivers, some of which were alive with alligators. He advised me to go by water, and also told me to be careful not to be drawn into a certain large bay I should come across, because of the alligators that swarmed on its shores. The bay that he warned me against was, I think, Van Dieman's Gulf. He told me to keep straight across the bay, and then pass between Melville Island and the main. He fitted me out with a good stock of provisions, including a quantity of bêche-de-mer, cabbage-palm, fruit, &c. I arranged my buffalo skin over my provisions as a protection, turtle-back fashion. Our preparations completed, Yamba and I and the dog pushed out into the unknown sea in our frail canoe, which was only about fifteen feet long and fourteen inches wide. Of course, we kept close in-shore all the time, and made pretty good progress until we passed Apsley Strait, avoiding the huge Van Dieman's Gulf, with its alligator-infested rivers and creeks. We must have been close to Port Darwin when, with little or no warning, a terrific storm arose, and quickly carried us out to sea in a south-westerly direction. In a moment our frail little craft was partially swamped, and Yamba and I were compelled to jump overboard and hang on to the gunwale on either side to prevent it from being overwhelmed altogether. This was about a fortnight after I left Captain Davis. We knew that if we were swamped, all our belongings, including my poor Bruno, my live geese, water, and other provisions, would be lost in the raging sea. The night that followed was perhaps one of the most appalling experiences that ever befell me; but I had by this time become so inured to terrible trials that I merely took it as a matter of course.

Imagine for yourself the scene. The giant waves are rolling mountains high; the darkness of night is gathering round us fast, and I and my heroic wife are immersed in the tremendous sea, hanging on for dear life to a little dug-out canoe only fourteen inches wide. Although we were soon thoroughly exhausted with our immersion in the water, we dared not climb aboard. Will it be believed that all night long we were compelled to remain in the sea, clinging to the canoe, half drowned, and tossed about like the insignificant atoms we were in the midst of the stupendous waves, which were literally ablaze with phosphorescent light? Often as those terrible hours crawled by, I would have let go my hold and given up altogether were it not for Yamba's cheery and encouraging voice, which I heard above the terrific roar of the storm, pointing out to me how much we had been through already, and how many fearful dangers we had safely encountered together. It seemed to me like the end of everything. I thought of a certain poem relating to a man in a desperate situation, written, I believe, by an American, whose name I could not remember. It described the heart-breaking efforts made by a slave to obtain his freedom. How bloodhounds were put upon his track; how he is at last cornered in a swamp, and as he looks helplessly up at the stars he asks himself, "Is it life, or is it death?" As I hung on to the little dug-out, chilled to the very marrow, and more than half drowned by the enormous seas, I recalled the whole poem and applied the slave's remarks to myself. "Can it be possible," I said, "after all the struggles I have made against varying fortune, that I am to meet death now?" I was in absolute despair. Towards the early hours of the morning Yamba advised me to get into the canoe for a spell, but she herself remained hanging on to the gunwale, trying to keep the head of the little canoe before the immense waves that were still running. I was very cold and stiff, and found it difficult to climb aboard. As the morning advanced, the sea began to abate somewhat, and presently Yamba joined me in the canoe. We were, however, unable to shape our course for any set quarter, since by this time we were out of sight of land altogether, and had not even the slightest idea as to our position.

All that day we drifted aimlessly about, and then, towards evening, a perfect calm settled on the sea. When we were somewhat rested we paddled on in a direction where we concluded land must lie (we steered south-east for the main); and in the course of a few hours we had the satisfaction of seeing a little rocky island, which we promptly made for and landed upon. Here we obtained food in plenty in the form of birds; but drinking-water was not to be found anywhere, so we had to fall back on the small stock we always carried in skins. Judging from the appearance of the rocks, and the smell that pervaded the place, I imagined that this must be a guano island. I now knew that we were near Port Darwin, but as a fact we had passed it in the great storm, while we were fighting for our lives. We slept on the island that night, and felt very much better next morning when we started out on our voyage once more, visiting every bay and inlet. Hope, too, began to reassert itself, and I thoug

ht that after all we might be able to reach Port Darwin in spite of the distance we must have been driven out of our course. Several islands studded the sea through which we were now steadily threading our way, and that evening we landed on one of these and camped for the night. Next day we were off again, and as the weather continued beautifully fine we made splendid progress.

One evening a few days after the storm, as we were placidly paddling away, I saw Yamba's face suddenly brighten with a look I had never seen on it before, and I felt sure this presaged some extraordinary announcement. She would gaze up into the heavens with a quick, sudden motion, and then her intelligent eyes would sparkle like the stars above. I questioned her, but she maintained an unusual reserve, and, as I concluded that she knew instinctively we were approaching Port Darwin, I, too, felt full of joy and pleasure that the object of our great journey was at length about to be achieved. Alas! what awaited me was only the greatest of all the astounding series of disappointments-one indeed so stunning as to plunge me into the very blackest depths of despair.

Yamba still continued to gaze up at the stars, and when at length she had apparently satisfied herself upon a certain point, she turned to me with a shout of excited laughter and delight, pointing frantically at a certain glowing star. Seeing that I was still puzzled by her merriment, she cried, "That star is one you remember well." I reflected for a moment, and then the whole thing came to me like a flash of lightning. Yamba was approaching her own home once more-the very point from which we had both started eighteen months previously! In the storm, as I have already said, we had passed Port Darwin altogether, having been driven out to sea.

I tell you, my heart nearly burst when I recalled the awful privations and hardships we had both experienced so recently; and when I realised that all these things had been absolutely in vain, and that once more my trembling hopes were to be dashed to the ground in the most appalling manner, I fell back into the canoe, utterly crushed with horror and impotent disappointment. Was there ever so terrible an experience? Take a map of Australia, and see for yourself my frightful blunder-mistaking the west coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria for the eastern waters of the Cape York Peninsula, and then blindly groping northward and westward in search of the settlement of Somerset, which in reality lay hundreds of miles north-east of me. I was unaware of the very existence of the great Gulf of Carpentaria. But were it not for having had to steer north to get out of the waterless plains, I might possibly have reached the north-eastern coast of the continent in due time, avoiding the Roper River altogether.

Yamba knelt by my side and tried to comfort me in her own sweet, quaint way, and she pictured to me-scant consolation-how glad her people would be to have us both back amongst them once more. She also urged what a great man I might be among her people if only I would stay and make my home with them. Even her voice, however, fell dully on my ears, for I was fairly mad with rage and despair-with myself, for not having gone overland to Port Darwin from Port Essington, as, indeed, I should most certainly have done were it not that Davis had assured me the greater part of the journey lay through deadly swamps and creeks, and great waters swarming with alligators. I had even had in my mind the idea of attempting to reach Sydney overland! but thought I would first of all see what facilities in the way of reaching civilisation Port Darwin had to offer. Now, however, I was back again in Cambridge Gulf,-in the very spot I had left a year and a half ago, and where I had landed with my four blacks from the island sand-spit. But you, my readers, shall judge of my feelings.

We landed on an island at the mouth of the gulf, and Yamba made smoke-signals to her friends on the mainland, telling them of our return. We resolved it would never do to confess we had been driven back. No, we had roamed about and had come back to our dear friends of our own free-will, feeling there was no place like home! just think what a r?le this was for me to play,-with my whole being thrilling with an agony of helpless rage and bitter disappointment.

This time, however, we did not wait for the blacks to come out and meet us, but paddled straight for the beach, where the chiefs and all the tribe were assembled in readiness to receive us. The first poignant anguish being passed, and the warmth of welcome being so cordial and excessive (they cried with joy), I began to feel a little easier in my mind and more resigned to inexorable fate. The usual ceremony of nose-rubbing on shoulders was gone through, and almost every native present expressed his or her individual delight at seeing us again. Then they besieged us with questions, for we were now great travellers. A spacious "humpy" or hut was built without delay, and the blacks vied with one another in bringing me things which I sorely needed, such as fish, turtles, roots, and eggs.

That evening a corroboree on a gigantic scale was held in my honour; and on every side the blacks manifested great rejoicing at my return, which, of course, they never dreamed was involuntary. Human nature is, as I found, the same the world over, and one reason for my warm welcome was, that my blacks had just been severely thrashed by a neighbouring tribe, and were convinced that if I would help them to retaliate, they could not fail to inflict tremendous punishment upon their enemies. By this time, having become, as I said before, somewhat resigned to my fate, I consented to lead them in their next battle, on condition that two shield-bearers were provided to protect me from the enemy's spears. This being the first time I had ever undertaken war operations with my friends, I determined that the experiment should run no risk of failure, and that my dignity should in no way suffer. I declared, first of all, that I would choose as my shield-bearers the two most expert men in the tribe. There was much competition for these honoured posts, and many warriors demonstrated their skill before me.

At length I chose two stalwart fellows, named respectively Warriga and Bommera, and every day for a week they conducted some trial manoeuvres with their friends. There would be a kind of ambush prepared, and flights of spears would be hurled at me, only to be warded off with astonishing dexterity by my alert attendants. All I was provided with was my steel tomahawk and bow and arrows. I never really became expert with the spear and shield, and I knew only too well that if I handled these clumsily I should immediately lose prestige among the blacks.

After a week or two of practice and sham combats, I felt myself pretty safe with my two protectors, and I then began organising an army to lead against the enemy. Altogether I collected about 100 fighting men, each armed with a bundle of throwing spears, a shield made of light wood, and a short, heavy waddy or club for use at close quarters. When everything was in readiness, I marched off at the head of my "army" and invaded the enemy's country. We were followed by the usual crowd of women-folk, who saw to the commissariat department and did the transport themselves. On the first day out, we had to ford a large stream-a branch of the Victoria River, I think-and at length reached a suitable place in which to engage the enemy. It is difficult for me to fix the exact locality, but I should judge it to be between Murchison and Newcastle ranges. The country in which the operations took place was a fine open grassy plain, thinly skirted with trees and with mountains almost encircling it in the distance.

I ought here to describe my personal appearance on this important day, when, for the first time, I posed as a great chief, and led my people into battle, filled with the same enthusiasm that animated them. My hair was built up on strips of whalebone to a height of nearly two feet from my head, and was decorated with black and white cockatoo feathers. My face, which had now become very dark from exposure to the sun, was decorated in four colours-yellow, white, black, and red.

There were two black-and-white arched stripes across the forehead, and a yellow curving line across each cheek under the eye. I also wore a fairly long beard, moustache, and side-whiskers. There were four different-coloured stripes on each arm, whilst on the body were four vari-coloured stripes, two on each side; and a long, yellow, curving stripe extended across the stomach, belt-wise. Around my middle I wore a kind of double apron of emu skin, with feathers. There were other stripes of different-coloured ochres on my legs, so that altogether you may imagine I presented a terrifying appearance. Of this, however, I soon grew quite oblivious-a fact which I afterwards had occasion bitterly to regret. It were, indeed, well for me that I had on subsequent occasions realised better the bizarre nature of my appearance, for had I done so I would probably have reached civilisation years before I did.

At this period, then, you find me a fully equipped war chief of the cannibal blacks, leading them on to battle attired as one of their own chiefs in every respect, and with nearly all their tribal marks on my body. When we reached the battle-ground, my men sent up smoke-signals of defiance, announcing the fact of our invasion, and challenging the enemy to come down from the mountains and fight us. This challenge was promptly responded to by other smoke-signals, but as at least a day must elapse before our antagonists could arrive I spent the interval in devising a plan of battle-oddly enough, on the lines of a famous historic Swiss encounter at Grandson five or six centuries ago.

I arranged that fifty or sixty men, under the leadership of a chief, should occupy some high ground in our rear, to form a kind of ambush.

They were also to act as a reserve, and were instructed to come rushing to our assistance when I signalled for them, yelling out their weird war-cry of "Warra-hoo-oo,-warra-hoo-oo!" I concluded that this in itself would strike terror into the hearts of our opponents, who were accustomed to see the whole force engaged at one time, and knew nothing about troops held in reserve, or tactics of any kind whatsoever. The native method of procedure, as, I think, I have already remarked, was usually to dash pell-mell at one another after the abuse and fight, until one side or the other drew blood, without which no victory could be gained.

Just before the battle commenced I had a real inspiration which practically decided the affair without any fighting at all. It occurred to me that if I mounted myself on stilts, some eighteen inches high, and shot an arrow or two from my bow, the enemy would turn tail and bolt. And so it turned out. As the armies approached one another in full battle array they presented quite an imposing appearance, and when a suitable distance separated them they halted for the inevitable abusive parley. Into the undignified abuse, needless to remark, I did not enter, but kept well in the background. The spokesman of my tribe accused the enemy of being without pluck-said that they were cowards, and would soon have their livers eaten by the invaders. There was any amount of spear-brandishing, yelling, and gesticulating. For these blacks apparently find it impossible to come up to actual fighting pitch without first being worked up to an extraordinary degree of excitement.

When at length the abuse had got perfectly delirious, and the first spear was about to be thrown, I dashed to the front on my stilts. Several spears were launched at me, but my shield-bearers turned them on one side. I then shot half-a-dozen arrows into the enemy's ranks in almost as many seconds. The consternation produced by this flight of "invisible spears" was perfectly indescribable. With a series of appalling yells the enemy turned and fled pell-mell. My men gave chase, and wounded many of them. In the midst of the rout (the ruling thought being always uppermost), it occurred to me that it might be a useful stroke of business to make friends with this vanquished tribe, since they might possibly be of service to me in that journey to civilisation, the idea of which I never really abandoned from the day I was cast upon my little sand-spit. Furthermore, it flashed across my mind that if I made these nomadic tribes interested in me and my powers, news of my isolation might travel enormous distances inland-perhaps even to the borders of civilisation itself.

I communicated my ideas to my men, and they promptly entered into my views. They consented to help me with great readiness. While I was speaking with them, the vanquished warriors had re-formed into position some three or four hundred yards away, and were watching our movements with much curiosity. I now abandoned my stilts and my bow and arrows, and marched off with my chiefs in the direction of our late opponents.

As we approached, with branches in our hands as flags of truce, I signed to the startled men that we wished to be friendly; and when we halted, several chiefs came forward unarmed from the ranks of the enemy to confer with us. At first they were much surprised at my overtures, but I soon convinced them of my sincerity, and they at length consented to accept my offers of friendship. They acknowledged at once my superiority and that of my men, and presently all the chiefs came forward voluntarily and squatted at my feet in token of subjection. The two armies then united, and we all returned to a great encampment, where the women prepared a truly colossal feast for conquerors and conquered alike, and the greatest harmony prevailed. It was magnificent, but I am sure it was not war. The braves of both sides decorated themselves with many pigments in the evening, and the two tribes united in one gigantic corroboree, which was kept up all night, and for several days afterwards. We remained encamped in this district for about a week, holding continuous corroboree, and each day becoming more and more friendly with our late enemies. The country abounded in game, and as the rivers were also well stocked with fish the supply of food was abundant. At the end of the week, however, we retired to our respective homes, but, strangely enough, I felt I could no longer settle down to the old life among my friendly blacks.

The old desire for wandering came over me, and I resolved that some day in the near future I would make yet another attempt to reach civilisation, this time striking directly south. For a time, however, I forced myself to remain content, accompanying the men on their hunting expeditions and going out fishing with my devoted Yamba.

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