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The Adventures of Louis de Rougemont By Louis de Rougemont Characters: 31483

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Miss Rogers begins her story-An interview on the high seas-Drifting to destruction-The ship disappears-Tortured by thirst-A fearful sight-Cannibals on the watch-The blacks quarrel over the girls-Courting starvation-Yamba goes for help-A startling announcement-Preparations for the fight-Anxious moments-A weird situation-"Victory, victory"-A melodramatic attitude-The girls get sore feet.

At our next interview, thanks to Yamba's good offices, both girls were looking very much better than when I first saw them; and then, consumed with natural curiosity and a great desire to learn something of the outside world, I begged them to tell me their story.

The first thing I learnt was that they were two sisters, named Blanche and Gladys Rogers, their respective ages being nineteen and seventeen years. Both girls were extremely pretty, the particular attraction about Gladys being her lovely violet eyes. It was Blanche who, with much hysterical emotion, told me the story of their painful experience, Gladys occasionally prompting her sister with a few interpolated words.

Here, then, is Blanche Rogers's story, told as nearly as possible in her own words. Of course it is absurd to suppose that I can reproduce verbatim the fearful story told by the unfortunate girl.

"My sister and I are the daughters of Captain Rogers, who commanded a 700-ton barque owned by our uncle." [I am not absolutely certain whether the girls were the daughters of the captain or the owner.-L. de R.] "We were always very anxious, even as children, to accompany our dear father on one of his long trips, and at length we induced him to take us with him when he set sail from Sunderland [not certain, this] in the year 1868 [or 1869], with a miscellaneous cargo bound for Batavia [or Singapore]. The voyage out was a very pleasant one, but practically without incident-although, of course, full of interest to us. The ship delivered her freight in due course, but our father failed to obtain a return cargo to take back with him to England. Now, as a cargo of some kind was necessary to clear the expenses of the voyage, father decided to make for Port Louis, in Mauritius, to see what he could do among the sugar-exporters there.

"On the way to Port Louis, we suddenly sighted a ship flying signals of distress. We at once hove to and asked what assistance we could render. A boat presently put off from the distressed vessel, and the captain, who came aboard, explained that he had run short of provisions and wanted a fresh supply-no matter how small-to tide him over his difficulty. He further stated that his vessel was laden with guano, and was also en route for Port Louis. The two captains had a long conversation together, in the course of which an arrangement was arrived at between them.

"We said we were in ballast, searching for freight, whereupon our visitor said: 'Why don't you make for the Lacepede Islands, off the north-west Australian coast, and load guano, which you can get there for nothing?' We said we did not possess the necessary requisites in the shape of shovels, sacks, punts, wheel-barrows, and the like. These were promptly supplied by the other captain in part payment for the provisions we let him have. Thus things were eventually arranged to the entire satisfaction of both parties, and then the Alexandria (I think that was the name of the ship) proceeded on her way to Port Louis, whilst we directed our course to the Lacepede Islands.

"In due time we reached a guano islet, and the crew quickly got to work, with the result that in a very short time we had a substantial cargo on board. A day or two before we were due to leave, we went to father and told him we wanted very much to spend an evening on the island to visit the turtle-breeding ground. Poor father, indulgent always, allowed us to go ashore in a boat, under the care of eight men, who were to do a little clearing-up whilst they were waiting for us. We found, as you may suppose, a great deal to interest us on the island, and the time passed all too quickly. The big turtles came up with the full tide, and at once made nests for themselves on the beach by scraping out with their hind-flippers a hole about ten inches deep and five inches in diameter. The creatures then simply lay over these holes and dropped their eggs into them. We learned that the number of eggs laid at one sitting varies from twelve up to forty. We had great fun in collecting the eggs and generally playing with the turtles. I am afraid we got out of sight of the men, and did not notice that the weather showed decided signs of a sudden change. When at length the crew found us it was past midnight-though not very dark; and though we ought to have been making preparations for returning to the ship, it was blowing hard. On account of this, the crew said they did not consider it advisable to launch the boat; and as we had our big cloaks with us, it was decided to remain on the island all night to see if the weather improved by the morning. Our ship was anchored fully three miles away, outside the reefs, and it would have been impossible, in the sea that was running, to pull out to her. There was only one white man among our protectors, and he was a Scotchman. The men made a fire in a more or less sheltered spot, and round this we squatted, the men outside us, so as to afford us greater protection from the storm.

In this way the whole night passed, principally in telling stories of adventure by sea and land. We all hoped that by morning at any rate the wind would have abated; but at daybreak, as we looked anxiously out over the tempestuous sea, it was blowing as hard as ever; and by ten o'clock the storm had increased to a terrific gale. Our men unanimously declared they dared not attempt to reach the ship in their small boat, although we could see the vessel plainly riding at her old anchorage. What followed Gladys and I gathered afterwards, just before the dreadful thing happened. We were all safe enough on land, but, it became evident to the sailors with us that the ship could not weather the storm unless she weighed anchor and stood out to sea. The crew watched with eager eyes to see what my father would do. Manifestly he was in too much distress of mind about us to go right away, and I suppose he preferred to trust to the strength of his cables:

"Shortly after ten o'clock in the morning, however, the ship began to drag her anchors, and in spite of all that could be done by my father and his officers, the shapely little vessel gradually drifted on to the coral reefs. All this time Gladys and I, quite ignorant of seamanship and everything pertaining to it, were watching the doomed ship, and from time to time asked anxiously what was the meaning of all the excitement. The men returned us evasive answers, like the kind-hearted fellows they were, and cheered us up in every possible way. Presently we heard signals of distress (only we didn't know they were signals of distress then), and our companions saw that the captain realised only too well his terribly dangerous position. It was, however, utterly impossible for them to have rendered him any assistance. The rain was now descending in sheets, lashing the giant waves with a curious hissing sound. The sky was gloomy and overcast, and altogether the outlook was about as terrible as it could well be. Presently we became dreadfully anxious about our father; but when the sailors saw that the ship was apparently going to pieces, they induced us to return to the camp fire and sit there till the end was past. By this time the barque was being helplessly buffeted about amongst the reefs, a little less than a mile and a half from shore.

"Suddenly, as we afterwards learnt, she gave a lurch and completely disappeared beneath the turbulent waters, without even her mastheads being left standing to show where she had gone down. She had evidently torn a huge hole in her side in one of her collisions with the jagged reefs, for she sank with such rapidity that not one of the boats could be launched, and not a single member of the crew escaped-so far as we knew-save only those who were with us on the island. The loss of the ship was, of course, a terrible blow to our valiant protectors, who were now left absolutely dependent on their own resources to provide food and means of escape. Thus passed a dreadful day and night, the men always keeping us ignorant of what had happened. They resolved to make for Port Darwin, on the mainland of Australia, which was believed to be quite near; for we had no water, there being none on the guano island. The interval was spent in collecting turtles' eggs and sea-fowl, which were intended as provisions for the journey. Next morning the storm had quite abated, and gradually the stupefying news was communicated to us that our father and his ship had gone down with all hands in the night. Indeed, these kind and gentle men told us the whole story of their hopes and doubts and fears, together with every detail of the terrible tragedy of the sea that had left us in such a fearful situation. No one needs to be told our feelings.

"Shortly before noon next day the sail was hoisted; we took our places in the boat, and soon were rippling pleasantly through the now placid waters, leaving the guano island far behind. The wind being in our favour, very satisfactory progress was made for many hours; but at length, tortured by thirst, it was decided to land on the mainland or the first island we sighted, and lay in a stock of water-if it was obtainable. Gladys and I welcomed the idea of landing, because by this time we were in quite a disreputable condition, not having washed for several days. It was our intention, while the crews were getting water and food, to retire to the other side of the island, behind the rocks, and there have a nice bath. The boat was safely beached, and there being no signs of natives anywhere in the vicinity, the men soon laid in a stock of water without troubling to go very far inland for it. My sister and I at once retired several hundred yards away, and there undressed and went into the water.

"We had scarcely waded out past our waists when, to our unspeakable horror, a crowd of naked blacks, hideously painted and armed with spears, came rushing down the cliffs towards us, yelling and whooping in a way I am never likely to forget. They seemed to rise out of the very rocks themselves; and I really think we imagined we were going mad, and that the whole appalling vision was a fearful dream, induced by the dreadful state of our nerves. My own heart seemed to stand still with terror, and the only description I can give of my sensations was that I felt absolutely paralysed. At length, when the yelling monsters were quite close to us, we realised the actual horror of it all, and screaming frantically, tried to dash out of the water towards the spot where we had left our clothes. But some of the blacks intercepted us, and we saw one man deliberately making off with the whole of our wearing apparel.

"Of course, when the boat's crew heard the uproar they rushed to our assistance, but when they were about twenty yards from our assailants, the blacks sent a volley of spears among them with such amazing effect that every one of the sailors fell prostrate to the earth. The aim of the blacks was wonderfully accurate.

"Some of our men, however, managed to struggle to their feet again, in a heroic but vain endeavour to reach our side; but these poor fellows were at once butchered in the most shocking manner by the natives, who wielded their big waddies or clubs with the most sickening effect. Indeed, so heart-rending and horrible was the tragedy enacted before our eyes, that for a long time afterwards we scarcely knew what was happening to us, so dazed with horror were we. For myself, I have a faint recollection of being dragged across the island by the natives, headed by the hideous and gigantic chief who afterwards claimed us as his 'wives.' We were next put on board a large catamaran, our hands and feet having been previously tied with hair cords; and we were then rowed over to the mainland, which was only a few miles away. We kept on asking by signs that our clothing might be returned to us, but the blacks tore the various garments into long strips before our eyes, and wrapped the rags about their heads by way of ornament. We reached the encampment of the black-fellows late that same evening, and were at once handed over to the charge of the women, who kept us close prisoners and-so far as we could judge-abused us in the most violent manner. Of course, I don't know exactly what their language meant, but I do know that they treated us shamefully, and struck us from time to time. I gathered that they were jealous of the attention shown to us by the big chief.

"We afterwards learnt that the island on which the terrible tragedy took place was not really inhabited, but the blacks on the coast had, it appeared, seen our boat far out at sea, and watched it until we landed for water. They waited a little while in order to lull the crew into a sense of fancied security, and then, without another moment's delay, crossed over to the island and descended upon us.

"We passed a most wretched night. Never-never can I hope to describe our awful feelings. We suffered intensely from the cold, being perfectly naked. We were not, however, molested by any of our captors. But horror was to be piled on horror's head, for the next day a party of the blacks returned to the island and brought back the dead bodies of all the murdered sailors. At first we wondered why they went to this trouble; and when, at length, it dawned upon us that a great cannibal feast was in preparation, I think we fainted away.

"We did not actually see the cooking operations, but the odour of burning flesh was positively intolerable; and we saw women pass our little grass shelters carrying some human arms and legs, which were doubtless their own families' portions. I thought we should both have gone mad, but notwithstanding this, we did keep our reason. Our position, however, was so revolting and so ghastly, that we tried to put an end to our lives by strangling ourselves with a rope made of plaited grass. But we were prevented from carrying out our purpose by the women-folk, who thereafter kept a strict watch over us. It seemed to me, so embarrassing were the attentions of the women, that these pitiable but cruel creatures were warned by the chief that, if anything befell us, they themselves would get into dire trouble. All this time, I could not seem to think or concentrate my mind on the events that had happened. I acted mechanically, and I am absolutely certain that neither Gladys nor myself realised our appalling position.

"In the meantime, it seems, a most sanguinary fight had taken place among four of the principal blacks who had assisted in the attack upon our sailors, the object of the fight being to decide who should take possession of us.

"One night we managed to slip out of the camp without attracting the notice of the women, and at once rushed down to the beach, intending to throw ourselves into the water, and so end a life which was far worse than death. We were, unfortunately, missed, and just as we were getting beyond our depth a party of furious blacks rushed down to the shore, waded out into the water and brought as out.

"After this incident our liberty was curtailed altogether, and we were moved away. The women were plainly told-so we gathered-that if anything happened to us, death, and nothing less, would be their portion. Now that we could no longer leave the little break

-wind that sheltered us, we spent the whole of our time in prayer-mainly for death to release us from our agonies. I was surprised to see that the women themselves, though nude, were not much affected by the intense cold that prevailed at times, but we afterwards learnt that they anointed their naked bodies with a kind of greasy clay, which formed a complete coating all over their bodies. During the ensuing three months the tribe constantly moved their camp, and we were always taken about by our owner and treated with the most shocking brutality. The native food, which consisted of roots, kangaroo flesh, snakes, caterpillars, and the like, was utterly loathsome to us, and for several days we absolutely refused to touch it, in the hope that we might die of starvation.

"Finally, however, the blacks compelled us to swallow some mysterious-looking meat, under threats of torture from those dreadful fire-sticks. You will not be surprised to learn that, though life became an intolerable burden to us, yet, for the most part, we obeyed our captors submissively. At the same time, I ought to tell you that now and again we disobeyed deliberately, and did our best to lash the savages into a fury, hoping that they would spear us or kill us with their clubs. Our sole shelter was a break-wind of boughs with a fire in front. The days passed agonisingly by; and when I tell you that every hour-nay, every moment-was a crushing torture, you will understand what that phrase means. We grew weaker and weaker, and, I believe, more emaciated. We became delirious and hysterical, and more and more insensible to the cold and hunger. No doubt death would soon have come to our relief had you not arrived in time to save us."

* * * * *

This, then, was the fearful story which the unfortunate Misses Rogers had to tell. The more I thought it over, the more I realised that no Englishwomen had ever lived to tell so dreadful an experience. I compared their story with mine, and felt how different it was. I was a man, and a power in the land from the very first-treated with the greatest consideration and respect by all the tribes. And, poor things, they were terribly despondent when I explained to them that it was impossible for me to take them right away at once. Had I attempted to do so surreptitiously, I should have outraged the sacred laws of hospitality, and brought the whole tribe about my ears and theirs. Besides, I had fixed upon a plan of my own; and, as the very fact of my presence in the camp was sufficient protection for the girls, I implored them to wait patiently and trust in me.

That very night I called Yamba to me and despatched her to a friendly tribe we had encountered in the King Leopold Ranges-perhaps three days' journey away. I instructed her to tell these blacks that I was in great danger, and, therefore, stood in need of a body of warriors, who ought to be sent off immediately to my assistance. They knew me much better than I did them. They had feasted on the whale. As I concluded my message, I looked into Yamba's eyes and told her the case was desperate. Her dear eyes glowed in the firelight, and I saw that she was determined to do or die. I trusted implicitly in her fertility of resource and her extraordinary intelligence.

In a few days she returned, and told me that everything had been arranged, and a body of armed warriors would presently arrive in the vicinity of the camp, ready to place themselves absolutely at my service.

And sure enough, a few days later twenty stalwart warriors made their appearance at the spot indicated by Yamba; but as I did not consider the force quite large enough for my purpose, I sent some of them back with another message asking for reinforcements, and saying that the great white chief was in danger. Finally, when I felt pretty confident of my position, I marched boldly forward into the camp with my warriors, to the unbounded amazement of the whole tribe with whose chief I was sojourning. He taxed me with having deceived him when I said I was alone, and he also accused me of outraging the laws of hospitality by bringing a party of warriors, obviously hostile, into his presence.

I wilfully ignored all these points, and calmly told him I had been thinking over the way in which he had acquired the two white girls, and had come to the conclusion that he had no right to them at all. Therefore, I continued airily, it was my intention to take them away forthwith. I pointed out to the repulsive giant that he had not obtained the girls by fair means, and if he objected to my taking them away, it was open to him, according to custom, to sustain his claim to ownership by fighting me for the "property."

Now, these blacks are neither demonstrative nor intelligent, but I think I never saw any human being so astonished in the whole of my life. It dawned upon him presently, however, that I was not joking, and then his amazement gave place to the most furious anger. He promptly accepted my challenge, greatly to the delight of all the warriors in his own tribe, with whom he was by no means popular. But, of course, the anticipation of coming sport had something to do with their glee at the acceptance of the challenge. The big man was as powerful in build as he was ugly, and the moment he opened his mouth I realised that for once Yamba had gone too far in proclaiming my prodigious valour. He said he had heard about my wonderful "flying-spears," and declined to fight me if I used such preternatural weapons. It was therefore arranged that we should wrestle-the one who overthrew the other twice out of three times to be declared the victor. I may say that this was entirely my suggestion, as I had always loved trick wrestling when at school, and even had a special tutor for that purpose-M. Viginet, an agile little Parisian, living in Geneva. He was a Crimean veteran. The rank-and-file of the warriors, however, did not look upon this suggestion with much favour, as they thought it was not paying proper respect to my wonderful powers. I assured them I was perfectly satisfied, and begged them to let the contest proceed.

Then followed one of the most extraordinary combats on record. Picture to yourself, if you can, the agony of mind of poor little Blanche and Gladys Rogers during the progress of the fight; and also imagine the painful anxiety with which I went in to win.

A piece of ground about twenty feet square was lightly marked out by the blacks with their waddies, and the idea was that, to accomplish a throw, the wrestler had to hurl his opponent clean outside the boundary. We prepared for the combat by covering our bodies with grease; and I had my long hair securely tied up into a kind of "chignon" at the back of my head. My opponent was a far bigger man than myself, but I felt pretty confident in my ability as a trick wrestler, and did not fear meeting him. What I did fear, however, was that he would dispute the findings of the umpires if they were in my favour, in which case there might be trouble. I had a shrewd suspicion that the chief was something of a coward at heart. He seemed nervous and anxious, and I saw him talking eagerly with his principal supporter. As for myself, I constantly dwelt upon the ghastly plight of the two poor girls. I resolved that, with God's help, I would vanquish my huge enemy and rescue them from their dreadful position. I was in splendid condition, with muscles like steel from incessant walking. At length the warriors squatted down upon the ground in the form of a crescent, the chiefs in the foreground, and every detail of the struggle that followed was observed with the keenest interest.

I was anxious not to lose a single moment. I felt that if I thought the matter over I might lose heart, so I suddenly bounded into the arena. My opponent was there already-looking, I must say, a little undecided.

In a moment his huge arms were about my waist and shoulders. It did not take me very long to find out that the big chief was going to depend more upon his weight than upon any technical skill in wrestling. He possessed none. He first made a great attempt to force me upon my knees and then backwards; but I wriggled out of his grasp, and a few minutes later an opening presented itself for trying the "cross-buttock" throw. There was not a moment to be lost. Seizing the big man round the thigh I drew him forward, pulled him over on my back, and in the twinkling of an eye-certainly before I myself had time to realise what had happened-he was hurled right over my head outside the enclosure. The spectators-sportsmen all-frantically slapped their thighs, and I knew then that I had gained their sympathies. My opponent, who had alighted on his head and nearly broken his neck, rose to his feet, looking dazed and furious that he should have been so easily thrown. When he faced me for the second time in the square he was much more cautious, and we struggled silently, but forcefully, for some minutes without either gaining any decided advantage. Oddly enough, at the time I was not struck by the dramatic element of the situation; but now that I have returned to civilisation I do see the extraordinary nature of the combat as I look back upon those dreadful days.

Just picture the scene for yourself. The weird, unexplored land stretches away on every side, though one could not see much of it on account of the grassy hillocks. I, a white man, was alone among the blacks in the terrible land of "Never Never,"-as the Australians call their terra incognita; and I was wrestling with a gigantic cannibal chief for the possession of two delicately-reared English girls, who were in his power. Scores of other savages squatted before us, their repulsive faces aglow with interest and excitement. Very fortunately Bruno was not on the spot. I knew what he was of old, and how he made my quarrels his with a strenuous energy and eagerness that frequently got himself as well as his master into serious trouble. Knowing this, I had instructed Yamba to keep him carefully away, and on no account let him run loose.

Fully aware that delays were dangerous, I gripped my opponent once more and tried to throw him over my back, but this time he was too wary, and broke away from me. When we closed again he commenced his old tactics of trying to crush me to the ground by sheer weight, but in this he was not successful. Frankly, I knew his strength was much greater than mine, and that the longer we wrestled the less chance I would have. Therefore, forcing him suddenly sideways, so that he stood on one leg, I tripped him, hurling him violently from me sideways; and his huge form went rolling outside the square, to the accompaniment of delighted yells from his own people.

I cannot describe my own sensations, for I believe I was half mad with triumph and excitement. I must not forget to mention that I, too, fell to the ground, but fortunately well within the square. I was greatly astonished to behold the glee of the spectators-but, then, the keynote of their character is an intense love of deeds of prowess, especially such deeds as provide exciting entertainment.

The vanquished chief sprang to his feet before I did, and ere I could realise what was happening, he dashed at me as I was rising and dealt me a terrible blow in the mouth with his clenched fist. As he was a magnificently muscular savage, the blow broke several of my teeth and filled my mouth with blood. My lips, too, were very badly cut, and altogether I felt half stunned. The effect upon the audience was astounding. The warriors leaped to their feet, highly incensed at the cowardly act, and some of them would actually have speared their chief then and there had I not forestalled them. I was furiously angry, and dexterously drawing my stiletto from its sheath so as not to attract attention, I struck at my opponent with all my force, burying the short, keen blade in his heart. He fell dead at my feet with a low, gurgling groan. As I withdrew the knife, I held it so that the blade extended up my forearm and was quite hidden. This, combined with the fact that the fatal wound bled mainly internally, caused the natives to believe I had struck my enemy dead by some supernatural means. The act was inevitable.

You will observe that by this time I would seize every opportunity of impressing the blacks by an almost intuitive instinct; and as the huge savage lay dead on the ground, I placed my foot over the wound, folded my arms, and looked round triumphantly upon the enthusiastic crowd, like a gladiator of old.

According to law and etiquette, however, the nearest relatives of the dead man had a perfect right to challenge me, but they did not do so, probably because they were disgusted at the unfair act of my opponent. I put the usual question, but no champion came forward; on the contrary, I was overwhelmed with congratulations, and even offers of the chieftainship. I am certain, so great was the love of fair-play among these natives, that had I not killed the chief with my stiletto, his own people would promptly have speared him. The whole of this strange tragedy passed with surprising swiftness; and I may mention here that, as I saw the chief rushing at me, I thought he simply wanted to commence another round. His death was actually an occasion for rejoicing in the tribe. The festivities were quickly ended, however, when I told the warriors that I intended leaving the camp with the two girls in the course of another day or so, to return to my friends in the King Leopold Ranges. In reality it was my intention to make for my own home in the Cambridge Gulf district. The body of the chief was not eaten (most likely on account of the cowardice he displayed), but it was disposed of according to native rites. The corpse was first of all half-roasted in front of a huge fire, and then, when properly shrivelled, it was wrapped in bark and laid on a kind of platform built in the fork of a tree.

The girls were kept in ignorance of the fatal termination of the wrestling match, as I was afraid it might give them an unnecessary shock. After twelve or fourteen days in the camp, we quietly took our departure. Our party consisted of the two girls, who were nearly frantic with excitement over their escape; Yamba, and myself-together with the friendly warriors who had so opportunely come to my assistance.

We had not gone far, however, before the girls complained of sore feet. This was not surprising, considering the burning hot sand and the rough country we were traversing, which was quite the worst I had yet seen-at any rate, for the first few days' march after we got out of the level country in the King's Sound region. I, therefore, had to rig up a kind of hammock made of woven grass, and this, slung between two poles, served to carry the girls by turns, the natives acting as bearers. But being totally unused to carrying anything but their own weapons, they proved deplorably inefficient as porters, and after a time, so intolerable to them did the labour become, the work of carrying the girls devolved upon Yamba and myself. Gladys, the younger girl, suffered most, but both were weak and footsore and generally incapable of much exertion. Perhaps a reaction had set in after the terrible excitement of the previous days. Soon our escort left us, to return to their own homes; and then Yamba and I had to work extremely hard to get the girls over the terribly rough country. Fortunately there was no need for hurry, and so we proceeded in the most leisurely manner possible, camping frequently and erecting grass shelters for our delicate charges. Food was abundant, and the natives friendly.

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